Tuesday, November 20, 2012

ParaNorman: Breaking the Norm

Article first published as ParaNorman: Breaking the Norm on Blogcritics.

ParaNorman: Breaking the Norm

In ParaNorman, the beautiful stop-motion animated film created by LAIKA and Focus Features, a young boy named Norman Babcock possesses an unusual gift. He is able to see and speak with the dead just as easily as he does with the living and, although Norman appreciates his abilities, these powers cause him to be misunderstood by his family and labeled as an outcast in his small New England town. It turns out, however, that the same spiritual gift that the town has persecuted Norman for all these years is also the only thing that can save them from the wrath that they have brought down upon themselves.

This film is an entrancing visual journey, with each detail slightly askew, and every eye-catching character dancing gracefully with its fluid surroundings. However, it is not the stunning visuals that mark the true beauty of this film, but the extent to which the filmmakers have pushed traditional boundaries of children’s movies in order to convey an important message to its audience. This film covers issues of tolerance from all angles showing us not only the ways in which children bully each other, but also the ways that many narrow-minded adults force their agenda on anyone that does not conform to their ideas of normality— including their own children. It also shows the harsh realization of the hateful crimes that people commit against each other and how easily—and justifiably—a victim of these crimes can give up and turn into a bully themselves.

From the start, we witness the heartbreaking way in which Norman survives each day. We see a young boy whose school life is made a hell by his confused classmates who choose to either avoid or assault him, and whose home life is not much better, with a father and sister embarrassed of him and a mother who feels helpless in fixing the situation. The only exception to this is a fellow outcast who befriends Norman and celebrates his gifts, and Norman’s grandmother who loves him unconditionally, (however, being that she is dead, her opinions and advice are not really of much help). Norman leads a melancholy existence but is hopeful that he will one day understand why he has been given such abilities.

Although the element in the story that makes Norman different from others does not mirror the differences that usually cause prejudice in our world, we get a clear picture of what life is like for people who do not fit in with what society’s majority deems normal. In an attempt to either punish them for being different or in order to break them down and change them for “the better”, we witness those in power working hard to deny these people their basic rights, (such as voting, marrying, or simply being able to walk down the street without being accosted). However, this film not only carries a message to those that spew intolerance, but also to the people—and especially the children— who must endure it.

This precious film sends an important message to children that each person has their own unique abilities, talents, and ways of being. It teaches kids to cherish their individuality, not to be ashamed of it or conform to what ignorant people define as normal. Other people might not always understand the paths that we are on, and we may not even understand them ourselves, but we all possess gifts that make each of us more important than we could possibly know. This is what the film tries to get across.

I was pleased to see a children’s movie that encourages kids to follow who they are and which outright addresses many of the issues of the intolerance that prevents them from doing so. However, I was disappointed (though not surprised) to later read just how many of those ideas flew right over the heads of the exact audience members at whom they were being directed.

In a brief spot at the end of the story, it is made known that one of the characters is gay. This was enough to make many adults in the theater laugh and cheer, as it noticeably marked a progressive jump in mainstream children’s animated features, as well as a small triumph in the gay rights movement. Unfortunately, it was also enough to spark a controversy among those who do not want this to happen.

Many right-wing parent groups were appalled by the fact that the filmmakers would not only dare put a homosexual character in a children’s movie, but also have the nerve to actually present such a thing as totally normal to the other characters. These parents advised other families not to let their children see the film, as being made aware of homosexuality at such an early age could either desensitize their kids to the "abnormality of homosexuality", or “worse,” make their children gay.

Some parents said that they did not have a problem with the fact that one of the characters was a homosexual, but simply did not want to have “that talk” with their kids on the way home from the show. I wondered just how oblivious these parents were to the fact that they accurately (and predictably) mirrored the film’s prejudiced mob which ultimately put themselves, their society, and even their own children at risk.

Apparently, to these parents, intolerance should only cover subjects that they feel should be tolerated. And that is exactly the problem. By pretending that there is no other sexual orientation than heterosexuality or worse, to acknowledge that homosexuality exists and then to condemn it, these parents are virtually guaranteeing their children a future of confusion and non-acceptance with the world around them. Whether they meet other people who are gay in the future (which they will) or turn out to be gay, themselves (which, just like heterosexuality, no movie can cause and no type of upbringing can prevent), it will be a source of shock and bewilderment to them. Why would any parent do that to their child?

I brought my five-year-old nephew to see ParaNorman and he thoroughly enjoyed the film. Although he was a bit scared at times (as it was refreshingly spookier than what we usually find in children’s movies nowadays), he joined the gang on the adventure and shared their surprise at each new twist in the story. He was disgusted by the rage of the ignorant mob of adults and sympathized with the innocent victims who bore the mental and physical violence of their wrath.

And yes, he caught the small part about the fact that one of the characters was a homosexual. He thought it was a cute joke—as it was meant to be. He was not confused by the fact that there was a gay character, nor was he shocked by the fact that the other characters did not bat an eyelash at the revelation—and he certainly did not question his own sexuality on the ride home (which many right-wing parent groups have raised concerns about).

To be clear, not all children will be as understanding about this fact— but to be fair, my nephew was not raised to be a bigot. He is fully aware that the world is made up of an amazing variety of people. From the beginning, he was taught that just as there are people who dress differently and listen to different types of music than he does, there are also people of other races, religions, and sexual orientation than his own. We do not have to teach him to be okay with this, because he was never taught not to be okay with it in the first place.

As adults, we look back on our childhood and wonder how we could have been so cruel to others. As societies age, they look back at the generations that came before them and wonder how they could have been so blind—how people could have allowed such injustices to happen to their fellow man, or worse, could have been a part of it, themselves. Though these hate groups never seem to realize it at the time and wholeheartedly believe that what they are doing is for the greater good, you do not have to be psychically gifted to realize that all they are doing is perpetuating fear and hatred in the world and ensuring that it will always remain that way.

As the movie shows, seldom does society learn from their past mistakes and instead commits the same horrific acts over and over under different guises, always leading humanity one step closer to its own destruction. And, although the movie sends a message that it is never too late to change and to accept others, it also issues a warning that there is some damage that can never be undone, no matter how badly you regret it later on. This film asks you to put yourself in the place of those who have been brutally persecuted for innocently leading their lives— and it sincerely hopes for a different and better future for your children.

Although the people who could have benefited most from this message of love and tolerance clearly missed it, with any luck the idea will resonate with those for whom the film was most intended— the children who may still have a chance to love and accept others despite their differences, and most importantly, to love and accept themselves.

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