“ParaNorman”  (A Nickell-odeon Review)

August 28, 2012

The new animated movie, ParaNorman, is rated PG, meaning “Parental Guidance suggested.” However, I would recommend a different rating: RIP.

Now, RIP commonly means Rest in Peace, a bit of tombstone shorthand that could be adapted to certain death-themed movies. In this case the nerdy 11-year-old star, Norman Babcock (the voice of Kodi Smit-McPhee), sees dead people. (In addition to The Sixth Sense, other movies that would have been appropriately rated RIP are The Amityville Horror, The Haunting in Connecticut, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, and many, many more.)

However, I really suggest using RIP as a rating to especially mean “for Really Immature Persons only”—and I am not referring to children. (They, certainly, need no more pro-supernatural propaganda foisted on their receptive little minds.) No, I refer instead to those ghost-hunting pseudoscientific adults who believe that spirits of the dead may be detected by Geiger counters and other gadgets, as well as by “psychics”—who invariably prove to have fantasy-prone personalities. (See my new book, The Science of Ghosts, pp. 259–312.)

Such Really Immature Persons should feel right at home watching Norman at home with a ghost—namely that of his dead grandmother with whom he watches spooky movies on TV. Norman also sees other dead, shimmery folk who populate his neighborhood, and, soon, ghoulish entities that are transformed by a witch’s curse into a zombie apocalypse.

You’re right: It does all sound like a spoof, a bit of it even appealingly skeptical, as when one character huffs, “Not believing in the Afterlife is like not believing in astrology!” But in this movie it is not a skeptical, rational message that prevails. Instead, one’s sympathies are drawn to the opposite, to an outsider kid who’s misunderstood and lampooned as “abNorman.” The movie’s Ultimate Message is that Norman was really right: the dead are, well, alive after all.

So even though ParaNorman has much of a praiseworthy nature—excellent stop-action animation (utilizing puppets and physical sets), an anti-bullying message, and more—it has all been perverted to serve yet another Hollywood hustle in promotion of the paranormal. In other words, it is a RIPoff; may it attract only those appropriate for its RIP rating (again, that’s “for Really Immature Persons only”), and may it soon RIP.

Rating: one wooden nickel (out of four)

One Nickel


#1 Danny McGee (Guest) on Tuesday August 28, 2012 at 1:46pm

Come now, that’s not fair. This is a work of fiction and fantasy (and is furthermore a cartoon) and obviously has no intentions of proselytizing the existence of ghosts in the real world to its audience. You’re taking the film too literally—much the same way that conservative Christians lambast the Harry Potter series for glorifying witchcraft and wizardry.

#2 Griff on Tuesday August 28, 2012 at 6:20pm

Danny—I have to disagree.  Aggressive promotion of the paranormal is happening throughout the media, and has been for decades, and this kid-oriented flick sounds like it presses all the standard supernatural-promoting buttons.  Which means that, fiction and fantasy or no, it’s just one more example of the entertainment industry engendering belief in life after death, and simply because such indoctrination means bigger profits.  I love supernatural TV and movies—Thriller, Night of the Demon, The Haunting—but none of these require the surrendering of sense; just the suspending of disbelief.  As far as I know, “ParaNorman” doesn’t claim to be true, but it doesn’t need to, so long as young (or not so young) viewers believe it refers to real phenomena.

#3 Cheddar (Guest) on Tuesday August 28, 2012 at 6:55pm

This can not be called a review.  How was the story?  How were the characters?  Did it emote strongly?  Were you moved?  Did you care about Norman?

Painting a movie with the same brush you reserve for reality television is a wee bit too evangelical for me, and that’s putting it lightly.

This post was ridiculous.

#4 rocco (Guest) on Tuesday August 28, 2012 at 7:26pm

I took the girls 12, and 15 to see it because we love Halloween in our neighborhood, and have fun celebrating treat or treating,etc of this fall event. Paranorman, we went to see because the right wingers in my area of the thurway went nuts talking about withces, zombies and demons this movie was promoting, so I had to go see it. Think of,” Diary of a whimpy kids” meets ghostbusters, yes it was funny, and enjoyable to watch, oh forgive me Amazing Randi.

#5 Griff on Tuesday August 28, 2012 at 9:38pm

Wow.  Joe dares to criticize a piece of popular entertainment and 1) his review is declared a non-review, and 2) he’s chastised for judging a movie as if it had any meaning or impact beyond story and animation technique.  Well, the entertainment industry salutes you—it has worked long and hard to discourage us from acting as critical consumers, since the naive kind are far more profitable to its bottom line.

#6 Joe (Guest) on Tuesday August 28, 2012 at 10:12pm

I’m sorry this review IS evangelical!  You should really save your skeptical energy on relevant things, people may get the wrong idea of what skeptical means. I mean seriously, this is a movie and most movies are based on fantasy.  And rightfully so, this kind of stuff belongs in a movie. I never thought to myself ” there’s is no way a man can turn into the hulk”, when watching avengers and that was a good movie. Of course Hollywood is into the paranormal, it’s entertaining!!! Those silly ghost hunter shows are reserved for the utmost gullible viewer. As far as I’m concerned this is no place for a skeptical rant about an animated movie.

#7 Mark (Guest) on Wednesday August 29, 2012 at 1:18pm

I think people are forgetting that this is a review on the CSI’s website.  For the few who might be reading this that don’t already know, that’s a skeptical organization.  So obviously Joe Nickell is going to review it (as he does all films he reviews) with a mind for scientific skepticism.  This isn’t Rotten Tomatoes, or imdb, or Ebert & Roeper.  Don’t look to a paranormal investigator and skeptic to review a film based on mise-en-scene, character development, plot, etc. You’re in the wrong place if you want that.

#8 William M. London (Guest) on Wednesday August 29, 2012 at 2:06pm

I would be interested in reading an essay by Joe Nickell in which he clearly identifies characteristics of works of fantasy that he finds objectionable from works of fantasy that he finds acceptable (or even good).

If there is any more reason for skeptics to object to Paranorman (and other works rated RIP by Nickell) than something like Star Trek (with all its pseudoscientific premises) or Harry Potter, I’d like to know why.

My problem with Paranorman was that by about 2/3 into the movie the piling up of paranormal banalities started to bore me and make it difficult for me to sustain the suspension of disbelief that is so important to enjoying any work of unrealistic fiction (and so damaging when we encounter implausible claims in the real world).

#9 Griff on Wednesday August 29, 2012 at 2:25pm

“If there is any more reason for skeptics to object to Paranorman (and other works rated RIP by Nickell) than something like Star Trek (with all its pseudoscientific premises) or Harry Potter, I’d like to know why.”

As I’ve already suggested, ParaNorman aligns itself thematically with today’s media-wide promotion of belief in the paranormal.  The entertainment industry has obviously discovered, post-“Chariots of the Gods” and -“Amityville Horror,” that profits increase when viewers either believe in the fantastic or deem it “possible.”  It’s all about money.

When “Star Trek” aired, there wasn’t a culture-wide belief in E.T.‘s, alien abductions, etc.  That stuff was fringe.  After decades of media indoctrination, such stuff is mainstream.  Thus, 1957’s “Night of the Demon” wasn’t part of some marketing scheme to persuade people to believe in demons from Hell.  Remade today, its plot would most likely be modified to conform to every cheap big- and small-screen myth about the afterlife, demons, curses, and so on.  It would thus become part of the pattern.  Not that it wouldn’t be refreshing to see a fantasy-themed TV show or movie which broke marketing ranks, but how would such a thing get made?

#10 Cheddar (Guest) on Wednesday August 29, 2012 at 6:25pm

uh, Game of Thrones?

#11 William M. London (Guest) on Tuesday September 04, 2012 at 11:24am


“Star Trek” aligns itself with media promotion of beliefs about aliens from outer space much the way “Paranorman” aligns itself with media promotion of beliefs about a supposed spirit world. UFO stories were promoted and well known before the first “Star Trek” episode.

Which of the following do you think is more likely to seem plausible (and not just possible) to a large number of viewers?

1. Zombies, ghosts, and ability to converse with ghosts are real phenomenon based on their depiction in “Paranorman.”

2. Faster than light travel, molecular disintegration followed by reintegration through space (i.e. use of transporter technology) even at faster than light speeds), and time travel to change the course of history based on their depiction in the most recent “Star Trek” movie.

Should we object to movies featuring visits to earth by extraterrestrial creature based on the idea that they might mislead people to conclude or reinforce conclusions that interstellar or interdimensional travel by extraterrestrial aliens is plausible? I don’t think so and I think many skeptics will continue to enjoy science fiction as well as fantasy.

You brought up “The Amityville Horror.” Keep in mind that “The Amityville Horror” was promoted as based upon a true story. That’s a problem. We should object to depictions of nonsense as if they represent true stories. There are problems with the story-telling in “Paranorman,” but it doesn’t mislead audiences the way “The Amityville Horror” did.

#12 Griff on Tuesday September 04, 2012 at 2:23pm

Again, UFO claims were fringe stuff, even during the era of Keyhoe and Adamski, and still rated as crank pop culture during the silly pop culture of the Sixties (which I grew up on and loved).  It wasn’t until the rise of cable TV that History/TLC/Travel/Animal Planet/National Geographic/etc. “documentaries” on ancient astronauts, hauntings, UFOs, and so forth became as common as toothpaste ads.  Yes, UFO claims and such were being repeated uncritically in the media, but they were very much a sideline, a cheap way of filling space and a break from having to report actual news.  Similarly, before MTV-style “reality” shows became the low-cost programming of choice for cable stations, there was a certain amount of fake(d) reality on the tube, from “Candid Camera” to rigged game shows to staged “man on the street” interviews for “Tonight,” but these weren’t a dominant force in popular programming.

There’s an important distinction to be made between the woo woo-tinged fare of, say, the late Forties to the late Seventies, vs. the woo woo-drenched pop culture of our time.  I’ve always wanted to type “woo woo-drenched,” by the way.

When I watched “Dark Shadows” (still love it) as a pre-teen, there weren’t back to back cable shows feature “true” hauntings.  Yes, we had Mike Douglas and Merv Griffin shamelessly promoting psychic B.S. on their talk shows, and we had Rod Serling shamelessly narrating von Daniken-style crap, but all of this was aimed at hooking younger viewers, who weren’t yet the primary target of programmers and advertisers.  I vividly remember a mass media which centered on adults.

Yes, “Amityville” was presented as a true story.  That speaks of a time when such things weren’t simply *presumed* to be plausible or within the realm of popular possibility.  Big difference.  Re the common argument/defense that “ParaNorman” is only a cartoon, and thus something everyone knows to be a work of fantasy, again the distinction carries little weight if the themes presented in the cartoon are themes that resonate as true or plausible with the audience.  No one has to believe that animated puppets are genuine, living things to relate to either the characters or their situations.  If that were so, drama as we know it wouldn’t work.

No one is asking skeptics to stop enjoying fiction.  I’m not, anyway.  I’ll keep on loving the original “Outer Limits,” for instance, despite its ridiculous departures from logic—aliens who speak American, for instance, creatures that fall from space onto the Earth to possess people, language-translating computers in 1963, planets outside our solar system reachable by Flash Gordon-style rockets, etc.

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