This is a helluva year to be raising monsterkids. We have Frankenweenie coming out, which riffs on the Universal monsters (and Godzilla, for good measure). Then there's Hotel Transylvania, which also riffs on the classic guys. But as much as I love those iconic monsters, they aren't the only beasts in the mix this year - Paranorman (from Universal owned Focus Features, but not featuring the Universal monsters) brings the living dead to kids across the country.
I'm not a big animation guy; I tend to like stop motion because I like the aesthetic so much, but it's the rare animated movie that knocks me out. Usually Pixar is responsible for those, although I thought Laika's Coraline was very special. They're the same people behind Paranorman, and for my money they've gone a bit above and beyond that film. While Coraline, which is based on a Neil Gaiman book, is tighter, Paranorman is all but drowning in heart and a huge love of horror.
Part of what turned me on about Paranorman was how modern it felt. While Frankenweenie and Hotel Transylvania play with references that are almost a hundred years old, Paranorman's nods are more recent. The Halloween theme shows up, there's a place called Bar Gento and a Gunnar's Gas. Return of the Living Dead is played with, and a general love of the creepy and spooky fills every frame. But Paranorman isn't just a reference delivery system - most of these nods will slip past the casual viewer, hitting only the horror hounds in the audience.
No, Paranorman is a fun adventure story with great characters and a theme that is beautiful and, I think, almost perfectly handled. It's an even-handed examination of people who are different and why those people get such a hard time; it's also a level-headed look at the need for forgiveness. There will always be bullying, the movie says, it's how you deal with that which defines you. Especially if you deal with it by trying to understand and forgive your bully.
I'm not sure why it took me this long to see the movie - Meredith recommended it highly, and a lot of my friends quite liked it - but I'm glad I saw it in theaters. You should do the same (I saw it 2D, for the record). Especially if you have kids who are a little on the mature side - the movie is legitimately scary in parts, and I could see it giving sensitive kids pretty good nightmares. Not that nightmares ever hurt anybody - they were a daily occurence for me when I was 7 and obsessed with monsters. Being scared is half the fun.
The film is also amazingly, casually progressive. I won't spoil it for you, but there's a character type in this film who I feel is completely new to this sort of movie (in America, anyway). I'm surprised we haven't heard outrage from the religious right over this - but then I guess a movie with witches and Puritan undead and spirit communication wouldn't be up the religious right's alley in the first place.
I was also fascinated by the way the film's final confrontation (such as it is - this is a movie about talking things through, not hitting things) feels exactly like a boss fight in a Final Fantasy game. I'm always looking to see how the language of video games permeates cinema, and to me the rock jumping, wall of energy, angry god business at the end of Paranorman is one hundred percent JRPG.
All of that aside, Paranorman is funny and looks great and is simply a good time at the movies. It's exactly the kind of movie that will spark a lifetime of monster love in your kids - or will rekindle your own joy in the horror genre.