An Underrated Horror Toon For Kids Is Now Netflix’s Most-Watched Scary Movie
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An Underrated Horror Toon For Kids Is Now Netflix’s Most-Watched Scary Movie

Scott Mendelson

Released in September of 2012, Laika’s ParaNorman was one of a handful of kid-friendly Halloween movies released in late 2012. Genndy Tartakovsky and Adam Sandler’s Hotel Transylvania was a surprisingly good comedy about overcoming personal prejudices. Tim Burton’s feature-length expansion of Frankenweenie worked as a visually-scrumptious ode to science even in the midst of horror. Laika’s supernatural coming-of-age story is, however, the one that has stood the test of time. It has somewhat faded from the conversation, partially because Laika never quite broke out as an upper-tier (commercially speaking) animation studio. As much as I again roll my eyes at folks finally “discovering it” on Netflix NFLX , I’m glad it’s finding an audience. That it’s currently Netflix’s “most-watched” horror movie is heartening, since it may be the absolute best “scary movie” ever made for kids.

Penned by Chris Butler and co-directed by Butler and Sam Fell, this strikingly potent animated dramedy earns its power not through traditional frights but through a genuine sense of sorrow and mournfulness. The film starts out as a character study about a young pre-teen (Norman, voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) who can talk to ghosts. His family loves him but doesn’t remotely understand him (“He’s not scared of you,” Norman’s mom says of his father, he’s scared for you.”), and his unusual abilities have made him an outcast and a target for school bullies. While this material is laced with comedy and slapstick, Norman’s gift is treated as a life-ruining curse, with an undertow of sadness and despair not unlike the first act of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense.

Most of the zombie action comes in the second act, which carefully shoots and edits its horror elements in a way that will excite rather than traumatize younger viewers. There are plenty of close calls and gross-out gags (of the PG variety), but Butler and Fell aren’t interested in scaring kids via the zombie material, as they have a very different game in mind. If the first act plays like The Sixth Sense and the second act plays as Shaun of the Dead, the biggest jolt comes in the finale, when we realize what kind of story we've been watching this whole time. No spoilers here, but writer/director Chris Butler and co-director Sam Fell unblinkingly present a horrible crime committed against a complete innocent under the guise of moral superiority. 

The film spends its final 30 minutes going full Silent Hill, complete with some genuinely frightening imagery and an unapologetic display of unthinkable human cruelty. The message of the film is clear: There is nothing scarier and more damaging than ignorant human beings caught up in the righteous indignation of their own fear. The film opened in 2012 and, like Maggie Gyllenhaal’s “origin of the vibrator” period piece Hysteria, took on a newfound relevance. If you recall, 43 Roman Catholic dioceses, schools, social service agencies and other institutions filed lawsuits in 12 federal courts that year, challenging the Obama administration’s rule that their employees receive coverage for contraception in their health insurance policies. Yes, in 2012, in America, we were again thrust into a “both sides” debates about women’s reproductive rights.

That was just one reason I remain somewhat cranky about Pixar’s Brave, which at its core was a “both sides have a point” screed about arranged/forced marriages (and presumably, giving the times, forced sex) during a time when women’s’ reproductive rights (and not just in relation to abortion) were under renewed assault. Conversely, ParaNorman showed the inevitable result of fear-based mob rule and patriarchal structures, especially when women were among those being targeted. The movie acknowledges forgiveness, but not absolution and ends on a painfully bittersweet note of modern-day reconciliation even as the scars remain and the frenzied townsfolks attempt to shift blame to everyone else. Oh, in trivia I somehow missed, Jodelle Ferland plays a character almost identical to the one she portrayed in the 2006 Silent Hill movie.

Eight-years later, ParaNorman remains a relic of a time when original animation had a shot in hell of even modest theatrical success. Sure, ParaNorman earned just $109 million on a $60 million budget and even Disney’s Frankenweenie earned $81.5 million on a $39 million budget, but Sony’s Genndy Tartakovsky-directed Hotel Transylvania earned a whopping $358.3 million on an $80 million budget, and the (thus far) trilogy would make it all three of Adam Sandler’s biggest-grossing movies. As recently as four years ago, I was discussing big-budget animation as the last vestige for original cinema, as audiences flocked to Zootopia ($1.023 billion), The Secret Life of Pets ($875 million), Moana ($643 million) and Sing ($634 million). We haven’t had an original animated smash since Pixar’s Coco ($800 million) in late 2017.

Laika have almost always been the critical darling underdogs of the animation business. All five of their movies have been nominated for Best Animated feature, but none of them have been breakout hits. Henry Sellick’s Coraline, which still features the very best 3-D imagery I’ve ever seen in a major animated feature, earned $124 million worldwide on a $60 million budget in early 2009, while Anthony Stacchi's The Boxtrolls (which worked as a metaphor for Hitler’s post-World War I-rise to power while predicting Donald Trump’s fear-based electoral triumphs) earned $108 million on a $60 million budget in late 2014. Travis Knight’s Kubo and the Two Strings, released in August of 2016, was perhaps their finest visual achievement, but the Japanese folk tale/adventure earned just $76 million on a $60 million budget.

With distribution switching from Focus Features to Annapurna, The Missing Link (a charming and droll comedy about an abominable snowman) never had a chance. It earned just $26.5 million worldwide on a $100 million budget in early 2019. I don’t know if we’ve seen the last of Laika, especially in terms of theatrical feature films, but this is another case where the audience deserves some responsibility for how and when they spend their theatrical moviegoing dollar. ParaNorman is yet another example of the kind of movie we all claim we want underwhelming in theaters only to temporarily become a Netflix hit. Yes, that says more about moviegoers than it does about Netflix, as again folks will consume high-quality, original filmed content as long as they don’t have to pay for it.

ParaNorman was able to tell a PG-rated story about fear-based murder and mob-driven hysteria without pulling punches while still remaining a delight for younger audiences is something of a miracle. It is subtle when it needs to be (acknowledging R-rated profanity and unapologetic lust/thirst without reveling in it), upfront when it decides to be (it features the first openly gay character in an American animated feature) and brutal when it has to be (a frank conversation about what the town’s ancestors did and the consequences for their brutality). Not only is it a terrific and gorgeously animated fright flick pitched toward kids, but it a movie about the real horrors of the world while subtly becoming about the very idea of scary movies as social/political screeds. It’s that good.

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I've studied the film industry, both academically and informally, and with an emphasis in box office analysis, for nearly 30 years. I have extensively written about all

I've studied the film industry, both academically and informally, and with an emphasis in box office analysis, for nearly 30 years. I have extensively written about all of said subjects for the last 11 years. My outlets for film criticism, box office commentary, and film-skewing scholarship have included The Huffington Post, Salon, and Film Threat. Follow me at @ScottMendelson and "like" The Ticket Booth on Facebook.