A good bet at the multiplex this weekend is "ParaNorman," a zombie movie for kids that provides lots of laughs, a few shivers, and a chance to talk about bullying.
"ParaNorman" centers around Norman, a middle-schooler who has the ability to talk to the dead. He goes looking for the spirit of his friend Neil's dead dog. When they find it in the backyard, Neil tries to wrap his arms around the invisible dog and begins planting kisses on what he thinks is the invisible pup's head.
"Unh, that's not his chin," warns Norman.
Few people in Norman's hometown are as accepting as Neil of Norman's paranormal talents. He is relentlessly picked on by bigger kids. Even some adults see Norman as weird.
But when the town comes under threat from a ghostly witch and 300-year-old zombies, it's only Norman who can save the town.
"We have taken the angle of what makes you weird, also makes you amazing," said Chris Butler, writer and co-director of "ParaNorman." For years, he'd been thinking the story over — ever since he decided he wanted to make a zombie film aimed at youngsters.
"I always think the best zombie movies are ones that have some kind of social commentary," he said during a recent visit to the Twin Cities. "I thought, 'how perfect would it be to do a story of like middle-school bullying with zombies in it?'"
Now, this isn't a live-action film: Chris Butler and his co-director Sam Fell are animators, and stop-action animators at that. They had to tell their story one frame at a time using models. It's time consuming but worth it, Fell says.
"I think it's because it's handmade," he said. "It's very tactile and there's a kind of humanity to it."
Fell said because Butler had developed the plot over such a long time and because they planned so carefully, they were able to weave real nuance into the script of what would otherwise seem to be a straightforward spine-tingler,
"A lot of the characters we meet in the film are initially presented as stereotypes," Fell said. "And as we go through the film each of the stereotypes opens up and we realize there is a person in there."
ParaNorman mixes goofy sight gags with a little potty humor and a lot of zombies.
Fell and Butler want the film to be fun and spur some conversations about the deeper issues in the story.
And that's the right way to do it, said Julie Hertzog, director of the National Bullying Prevention Program at the Pacer Center in Bloomington. It's often difficult for a child if a parent asks directly about bullying, she says, but a story of a movie can provide an opportunity to talk. Hertzog says it's an issue of concern not just to youngsters who are actually being bullied.
"I hear from so many students who say, 'Wow, I hate to see somebody else being bullied, but I don't know what to do about it.' So even for parents who have a child that may be witnessing it, it's a great time to talk about what their response can be in those situations," Hertzog said.
Hertzog heard about the film a few months ago in her bullying prevention work. However she'll be going to "ParaNorman" because her 10-year-old daughter wants to see it.
"She's excited. She said she felt it might be a little scary, but she also said it looked like it was going to be really interesting and she liked the character of Norman and yeah, we will be going," Hertzog said.
Animated films always draw family crowds, however Chris Butler and Sam Fell hope the family discussions that result from the movie will be a little deeper than usual.