In the movie “The Sixth Sense,” the little boy exclaims, “I see dead people!” It wasn’t long before that line became a piece of pop cultural iconography.
Norman (the voice of Kodi Smit-McPhee), the little boy in “ParaNorman,” also sees dead people. He has all his life. He also understands that other people don’t see what he sees. So, he’s sitting in his living room, casually watching a cheesy horror movie, chatting with his grandmother, who’s knitting on the couch, except his Grandmother isn’t really there. That is, she’s been dead for a while now. But her ghost, or her spirit, converses with Norman, anyway, and he isn’t frightened or put off or even annoyed. It’s as natural to him as breathing.
But the other kids at school make fun of him unmercifully. Even his own family chastises him for “seeing things.” So when he makes that lonely walk to school every day, he converses with all the friendly ghosts that populate the street, people who used to live around there, and for whatever reason, are still hanging about. Maybe they have some unfinished business. Maybe they are trying to communicate something to the living. Maybe they just aren’t ready to be “released” and disappear yet. Yes, they call this kind of vision “paranormal,” but friendless Norman sometimes wishes he wasn’t so uniquely gifted.
It turns out that it was all for a purpose. It seems there is this resident witch spectre that routinely haunts the little town, and there’s good reason. Many years ago, she was accused by the Town Council of witchcraft, and hanged. As it happens, it was for the very crime of possessing the same talents that Norman has. Those Town Council members, feeling guilty ever since and sorry for their rush to judgment, are doomed to roam the streets as zombies, looking for some kind of redemption. That is, if anyone can ever get to the increasingly powerful witch to cause her to reconsider.
You guessed it. Norman turns out to be the hero, and saves the whole town, and allows the poor distraught zombies to depart in peace.
Yes, there are politically correct object lessons here, about needing to affirm uniquely talented folks. About not bullying those who appear to be weak. About reconsidering the quick condemnation of those who are different, but misunderstood. And, believe it or not, about repentance, and turning around a life that had become obsessed with anger and revenge, and wallowing in hatred and self-pity.
Though “ParaNorman” is animated, this is not a “cute” movie. The characters aren’t really funny or winsome, they’re more tortured and needy. It’s not your average kid fare. But many adults will shy away, as well, either because of the stylistic animation or the strangeness of the subject material. So though this movie will suffer for a target audience, it’s a unique offering for the more adventurous moviegoer who doesn’t mind a dark and creepy Tim Burton style of ghoulish affability.
Ronald P. Salfen is minister of St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.