This summer, the bane of my existence where animated features are concerned - the "be true to yourself" plot - has been pounded into an unrecognizable pulp. It started with Disney/Pixar's Brave, which complicated the tale of a young misfit with the notion that responsibility is just as important as marching to the beat of your own drummer. Now comes ParaNorman, which highlights how being targeted for your weirdness comes with additional burdens.
The protagonist is Norman Babcock (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a middle-schooler fascinated with zombies, horror movies and other stuff that makes counselors watch him very closely. There's a reason for Norman's singular obsessions: He sees dead people, including his grandmother (Elaine Stritch), who chats with him from the living room sofa. Naturally, Norman's strange behavior makes him the target of bullies like classmate Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). It also makes him the one person who might be able to save his town when a long-promised curse rears its ugly head.
Directors Chris Butler and Sam Fell - along with excellent stop-motion production designer Nelson Lowry (Fantastic Mr. Fox) - create a uniquely cockeyed world filled with kitschy witch-themed stores and creepy woods, as well as a delightful prologue that pokes fun at low-budget horror movies. This film is loaded with wonderful details (the carpal tunnel wrist brace worn by one of Norman's teachers) and sly throwaway gags (a sign that reads "Spelling bee Wensday"). Add a handful of appealing supporting voice performances - including Anna Kendrick as Norman's teenage sister and Tucker Albrizzi as his one reliable friend - and you've got a lively piece of entertainment.
But the heart of the story is a startlingly complex exploration of bullying. The mockery Norman endures for being "weird" isn't unusual in the kid-flick universe, but there's an unusual edge to the way the film examines how people interact with those they don't understand. As the narrative evolves, the legend of the witch's curse becomes an unsettling example of how an outcast's frustration can easily turn into rage. This curse could be a metaphor for the kinds of horrors we've seen in the news lately, where those who feel tormented lash out indiscriminately to make sure someone else feels pain, too.
That's what makes ParaNorman more interesting than a simple critique of mass hysteria or a typical adventure-survival scenario. The story's scariest villain isn't a witch or a zombie; it's the way fear, frustration and anger can turn into unalterable actions. What a wonderfully wise message in a film aimed at kids: Being true to yourself is the easy part. The hard part is dealing with emotions when others can't handle that truth - and letting these folks be just as true to themselves.