Recently we had a family movie double-header, watching ParaNorman one day and The Odd Life of Timothy Green the next. While the two films are quite different from one another, they share some…odd…similarities.
ParaNorman is a comic horror movie (or maybe a “horrific comedy”) about a boy who – to borrow the old Sixth Sense catchphrase – “can see dead people.” Everyone in his small New England town knows this about Norman and it makes him a pariah at school. Things aren’t much better at home where he is an embarrassment to his dad and his older teenage sister (his mom is more understanding but doesn’t know how to help him). Only his grandmother is a comfort to him, but she is dead.
The film’s plot concerns Norman’s inherited responsibility to save his town from a 300-year-old curse from a vengeful witch. Norman winds up getting help from his one friend, the overweight Nick who is another school outcast plus his sister, Nick’s brother, and, in a strange plot twist, Norman’s principal bully, the dimwitted Alvin.
The filmmakers (directors Sam Fell and Chris Butler, writers Butler, Arianne Sutner and Stephen Stone and Laika animation studio) give some clever twists to the traditional horror movie elements (as in the confrontation between the townspeople and the zombies, but I won’t spoil things with too many details). The plot does have its muddy moments (the curse, for example, isn’t particularly explained clearly) but it isn’t the movie’s main attraction.
Where the movie does shine is in its dialogue. The film is packed with clever lines. Not just amusing pop culture references (as often is the case in animated comedies), but very much character based humor. At one crisis point, Norman says to Nick’s lunkhead brother Mitch “You’re the oldest one.” To which he replies, “Not mentally.” However, Norman isn’t made out to be a smart geek, just (refreshingly) an average geek. He is also an outcast who has to figure his place in the world. This storyline also nicely dovetails with the witch’s tale, and gives the movie an unexpected emotional resonance (again without giving away too much of the film).
This outsider story is something ParaNorman shares with Timothy Green, although the two films have very different tones. Where ParaNorman is a dark comedy, Timothy Green is a picturesque fantasy. Jim and Cindy so desperately want a child that they bury in their yard a wishlist of qualities that they’d want in a kid. After a mysterious storm one night, they discover a mysterious boy who seems to possess these qualities. He seems to have come from their garden – a “fact” underscored by Timothy having leaves attached to his legs.
Timothy is one of those characters, like Chauncey Gardner in Being There, who affects others by his naïve, guileless behavior. Besides providing Jim and Cindy the joys (and difficulties of parenthood), Timothy brings joy to the old, ailing Uncle Bub, humanizes Jim’s tough dad and is a needed kindred spirit to the teenaged Joni. While the filmmakers (director Peter Hedges who wrote the script from Ahmet Zappa’s story) do a good job revealing these relationships, they aren’t as sure-handed with the storytelling. They present this fantasy in a rather realistic world, which raises many unasked questions. While the townspeople think he is… odd, they basically accept him as Jim and Cindy’s son. For instance, how do the Greens enroll him in school with transcripts? While Timothy Green works well playing with the heartstrings, it is less successful in matters of the head.
In an…odd way, the animated Norman comes off as a more real character than the live action Timothy Green. But both boys show how being different isn’t something to be afraid of; that an outsider can do important things. This is a significant message nowadays where bullying has become such a major issue.
On a film level, I would rank ParaNorman above the Odd Life Of Timothy Green. Green certainly is a fine family drama, although a bit too precious plotted and emotionally sweet for my tastes. ParaNorman offers a terrific combination of humor, horror and stop-action animation. The film, however, is not for the faint of heart, for young or old. A lot of the film concerns ghosts, cemeteries and zombies (even if they are zombies who are scared by living humans). The scares are too extreme but it is a dark film but it has a good heart, as well as a smart head. Recommended for 10-year-olds and older – or young Tim Burton fans. Meanwhile, the PG-rated Timothy Green, which addresses serious issues like death, infertility and economics, might be not a good fit for young children.