I've talked before about the growing phenomenon of the "Hard 12A", where a film sits right on the edge of the 12A/15 certificate rating, usually be consciously removing the content that would automatically make is the higher grade whilst retaining the tone and feel of an older movie. This year both The Hunger Games and The Woman in Black have done this to critical and commerical success, so I expect it to continue. With Paranorman the same trend seems to heading down the system - this is a pretty "hard" PG. OK, there is no blood, or swearing, and no-one gets killed (at least, apart from the zombies and the ghosts) but it has some pretty intense moments and more than one kid in the showing I was at got pretty upset.
So, Paranorman tells the story of Norman, a young boy who can "see dead people", and being different is socially ostracized by his peers and disapproved of by his dad. However, the town he lives in is famous for a witch-trial and subsequent witch-hanging, now approaching it's 300 anniversary, and Norman finds himself tasked with the job of keeping the vengeful spirit of the witch raising the corpses of her accusers to wreak havoc on the town. Of course, it all goes a bit wrong, and chaos (and zombies) ensue.
I must admit that at first I struggled with the character design on this film - it just doesn't do anything for me, makes the characters look too plasticey but without the charm of being actually plastic, and just a little bit too self-consciously grotesque. I got used to it, and the rest of the film and design is pretty good, but for a while it kept breaking me out of the flow as new characters got introduced and once again I thought "uck". However, the characters themselves are interesting if a little stock, but the voice work is solid and the script witty and moves around fluently.
However, what makes Paranorman stand out is the plot, which is pretty grown up and open about the sorts of things kids films buy down in the subtext. Specifically, death, and the terrible things that fear that can make you do. The secret of the town and the witch, when revealed, isn't subtext, it's not hidden, or alluded to, it's stated, starkly and openly, and it's resolution is rooted in acceptance of that. In its own way I think its a big statement for the film to make, and it gives it an edge and a weight that you don't often get in kids films.
But even without that, this is a pretty fun film that enjoys playing around with the imagery of the horror genre and kids (and adults) enjoyment of being safely scared. The zombies are pretty cool - especially the moment they get freaked out by the modern town they're invading - and whilst Norman's "misfit becomes hero" storyline is something we've seen about a thousand times, it's effectively done. Ewan's only reservation was the zombies didn't actually get to eat anyones brains, but I think he'd level that criticism against most films!