My heart is in anguish within me,
the terrors of death have fallen upon me.
Fear and trembling come upon me,
and horror overwhelms me.
A friend loves at all times, and kinsfolk are born to share adversity.
Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit… 1 Corinthians 12.4:
We know that directors Chris Butler and Sam Fellhave’s new stop motion animated film (in 3-D no less) will be unusual because the first worked on Coraline and the other The Tale of Despereaux, two animated films of the highest quality. Their supernatural tale of a boy whose gift makes him an outsider, even within his own family, is a memorable morality tale—but be forewarned, it is not for children below middle school age due to so many scary scenes. But what a delightful tale for adults wise enough to see the film alongside their older children, with numerous scenes referencing other films.
Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is picked on at school because of his reputation for being weird—he claims to see ghosts everywhere. At home he watches horror movies as he sits beside the ghost of his dead Grandma (Elaine Stritch). His parents love him but wish he would stop claiming that he talks with his Grandma and “move on.” His 15 year-old sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick), “totally” in her own world, dislikes him because he is such an embarrassment to her.
At school the tough Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) enjoys making life miserable for Norman, either shoving him around or writing insults on his locker door. His only would-be friend is Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), also an outsider because of his heavy weight. At first Norman, like Shrek with Donkey, tries to repel the boy. However because of his persistence and his belief that Norman is telling the truth about seeing ghosts, Norman gives in, even agreeing to describing Neil’s dog that was killed when a car ran over it. (As a marketing ploy the filmmakers at the film’s official site offer a free game based on the dog, which is reportedly a lot of fun.)
The setting of the film is very important in that Blithe Hollow is a New England village where 300 years earlier witch trials were held and several villagers were executed. The town today has tried to commercialize on its lurid past, with restaurants and gift shops all centered around witchcraft. There is even a large statue of a witch dominating a village square. One of the victims of the trial was a young girl who, just as she was to be executed, became so angry at the gross injustice that she cursed the villagers, telling them that she would return to wreak vengeance upon their ancestors. The adventure begins when Norman’s eccentric Uncle Prenderghast (John Goodman) tries to tell Norman that this is the 300th anniversary of the execution so that tonight the vengeance will be extracted.
It seems that the Uncle also had Norman’s gift. I say “had” because the old man apparently has heart trouble, so before he can convince his nephew of what is about to transpire, he dies in his home while clutching a storybook. However, his ghost persists in contacting Norma—kids will love this scene in which the ghost comes out of the toilet the boy is sitting on in the school restroom.
Norman now believes the Uncle, that the tale must be read from the special storybook at the girl’s grave in order to prevent the curse from being inflicted on the town. How he does this, accompanied not only by his loyal friend but even by his sister (after she sees for herself that her brother is in fact telling the truth about seeing ghosts) makes for exciting viewing.
The film becomes a mixed genre film with the ghosts of the Judge, who had presided over the witches’ trial, and a host of fellow citizens rising from their graves in the form of zombies to harass the town. Norman and friends not only have to elude them in their search for the girl’s grave, but also their own towns people who, filled with fear at what is taking place that night, become a mob intending to attack Norman because they think he is responsible for the mayhem. At this point the mob scene from To Kill a Mocking Bird came to mind, including the humane way in which the mob was transformed—as well as the Western morality tale of mob injustice, The Ox Bow Incident.
The other genre, partially alluded to above, is that of the gifted person for whom the gift is a burden rather than a blessing. Most of the super hero films, especially Spider-Man and the X-Men films are in this category, with one of the best being Cate Blanchette’s clairvoyant woman in the aptly named film The Gift. Most societies are suspicious of anyone deviating from the norm, as we see in the case of the Massachusetts witch-hunts of 300 years earlier. Norman’s persecution by his classmates shows that this continues into the modern era.
In a sub-genre of the horror film the picked on reaches the point that he or she strikes back with terrible fury, as Sissy Spacek’s character does in Carrie. Once Norman gets to talk with the ghost of the executed girl we see that her rage over the injustice afflicted on her is the same that fueled Carrie’s thirst for vengeance. The animation showing the whirl wind-like form of the girl hovering over the village like a malevolent tornado about to descend is superb! Later, when the girl asks Norman about his own persecution we see that he is indeed a special person—perhaps even a new Christ figure?
The theme of fear is also well handled in the film. When the boy admits to his grandmother that he is afraid, she says, “There’s nothing wrong with being scared, Norman, as long as you don’t let it change who you are.” This lesson is well worked out in the case of The Judge (Bernard Hill) who had ordered the girl’s execution, as well as in the attempt of the mob to lynch Norman. All in all, this is a terrific film for a church group to see and discuss. It’s sheer artistic detail, both in the animation and the sets, with even the posters and refrigerator stickers all full of details, plus the 3-D, will appeal to all ages.
1. Many ghost films are based on the premise that ghosts stay around because of a strong desire to complete some unfinished business. In what ways does this film follow this?
2. What do you think of the way in which the film accepts the reality of the supernatural?
3. How is Norman the typical “gifted,” read “odd,” hero who suffers because of his gift? And yet how is his gift the key to saving the town? It might seem far-fetched, and yet at this point how is this tale similar to “Rudolph, the Red-nosed Reindeer” ?
4. Norman, like Shrek, at first is a loner. How does the film show the importance of friends, of fellowship? How does this strengthen us?
5. What visual references do you see to other films? For being an animated comedy (though a dark one), were you surprised that the film has so many insights? What other animated films can you think of so infused with wisdom? (Maybe the Shrek series; Wall-E; Up; The Iron Giant…?)
6. In what scenes is fear an important issue? What do you think of Grandma’s advice to Norman? How has this happened to: The Judge; the executed girl; Norman’s fellow villagers? How does fear change who we are, if we are not careful? How does it enter into our politics and relationships today?
7. What seems to have kept Norman from sinking into rage and desire for getting even?
8. What do you think of the ending of the film? How is Norman like the child in Isaiah?
9. How can the film help our children relate better to someone who is “different” ?