Last year when I was frantically working on my Master’s Thesis (yes the caps are necessary) for grad school, I turned on Netflix and put on the movie ParaNorman. I just wanted something on in the background that would be enjoyable, but wouldn’t distract me too much. I had wanted to see this movie for a while and felt that now was the time. Well, I didn’t work on much of my thesis that night, but I did watch one of the greatest children’s movies that I have ever seen in my life.
ParaNorman is a story about a young boy named Norman Babcock who can see and talk to ghosts. He doesn’t keep this ability to himself and so is bullied and shunned by the town for it. He is even misunderstood by his parents. Norman lives in the fictional town of Blithe Hollow, which has a history of killing witches. Norman and his class mates perform a play about a woman who was condemned and hanged for being a witch. The witch, who we later find out is named Agatha, curses those who condemned her to live forever and rise as the undead. When Norman starts having strange visions about the witch’s curse, his uncle—who used to keep the witch from rising each year, but has recently died—comes to Norman as a ghost. He asks Norman to read from a book to keep the witch’s spirit from waking up. Norman goes to the graveyard to read from the book but discovers it is just a book of fairy tales. It’s then that the men who condemned the witch rise from their graves as zombies. Norman, his friend Neil, Neil’s brother Mitch, Norman’s sister Courtney, and the town bully, Alvin, team up to try and stop the witch and the zombies.
However, along the way, Norman’s vision revealed to him what actually happened to the witch. She was just a little girl who was taken from her mother and
condemned for seeming evil because she could talk to the dead and seemed to have some magical powers. The movie never explicitly states that she was practicing witchcraft. She was a girl who could speak to the dead and maybe had some magical powers. The town feared her for it and eventually killed her. Norman confronts the zombies, angry with them for what they had done. The zombies, who Norman can also understand thanks to his gifts, reveal that they are stuck as zombies because they had murdered Agatha. They know now that they did something horrible and seem to feel sorry for it. They admit to Norman that they were afraid of Agatha and, in their fear, killed her. Norman finds Agatha’s grave and she appears to him as an angry and powerful spirit, Norman tries to appeal to her humanity. He tries to remind her that not all people are bad and Agatha remembers her mother and turns back to a normal little ghost girl. Agatha is able to forgive what happened to her and move on to the next life to be with her mother. The zombies, too, are finally able to die and move on after Agatha forgives them.
After everything that happened, the town and Norman’s family finally accept him and Norman is able to live a normal happy life and talk to his dead grandmother. It’s really sweet.
I love this movie for several reasons: It is one of the few movies that does not portray witches as evil, Satan worshipping hags, but actually addresses the atrocities that happened in history like the Salem Witch trials. Agatha is shown to be completely innocent, but because she was a little different, she was murdered because people were afraid of her. On top of this it’s pretty vindicating and powerful to see the men that condemned her feel sorry and guilty for what they did to a little girl, and want redemption for it. The scene where Agatha is condemned to death is also really powerful and shows that fear of something different can lead people to do horrible things. The movie continues this theme through Norman and the bullying he deals with because he is different. ParaNorman sent the message that even if we don’t kill people today, we still condemn, hurt, and shun people who are different.
Another reason the movie is awesome is because of the inclusion of Neil’s brother Mitch. Mitch is one of the funniest characters in the movie and is portrayed as the stereotypical dumb jock to some degree, but is still pretty well developed. He actually seems to be pretty responsible and looks out for his little brother, even if he thinks he’s a dork. But the best thing about Mitch is that he is the first openly gay character in a mainstream movie for kids. Courtney, Norman’s sister, tries to flirt with Mitch throughout the movie, and at the end asks him if they could see a movie. Mitch agrees and tells Courtney that she’ll love his boyfriend because he’s into all the chick flick movies. Mitch portrayed in a non-stereotypical way: his sexuality doesn’t define his character, but his sexuality is not ignored either. This character paired with the message of the movie about prejudice and fear challenges viewers to face their own prejudices and even talk to their kids about homosexuality instead of just ignoring it.
ParaNorman also does a good job with its female characters. There is really only one main female character, though, and that is Courtney, Norman’s sister. She is well developed, interesting, and relatable. When the town starts freaking out about the zombies in their town, they start to believe that everything is Norman’s fault and even threaten to murder him. Courtney bravely puts herself in front of the crowd to save her brother and is the first person, other than maybe Neil, to really stand up for Norman at the risk of her own life. The witch, Agatha, is the focus of the movie, but we don’t really see much of her until the end of the movie. Despite that, she is still a complex and sympathetic character. Norman’s mother and grandmother also appear in the movie and are realistic and funny. All the women in the movie are complex and diverse in their portrayal, but I do have one complaint.
While people of color do appear in the movie, there are still noticeably less than there could have been, and none are main characters. Sadly, this could have been easily fixed if the character Salma had been included in the movie more. Salma is described as a smart girl, seems to be an honor roll student, and is a person of color. I was really confused as to why she didn’t show up in the movie more. During the kids’ play rehearsal, she’s playing the witch and complains about the stereotypical and historically inaccurate portrayal of witches. Norman later calls her and she helps them figure out how to locate the witch’s grave. She’s a really cool character and even seems to kind of be friends with Norman and Neil, so it seemed odd that she wasn’t included.
Overall, ParaNorman is a deep, funny, and moving movie. It’s on Netflix and I highly recommend you watch it this Halloween.