Family movies usually blanket summer and Christmas breaks. This year, we have a couple of late bloomers that have unique perspective: “Paranorman,” the animated Chris Butler sermon, and Jennifer Garner’s saccharine vehicle, “The Odd Life of Timothy Green,” directed by Peter Hedges.
“Paranorman” tells the tale of Norman, a little boy living in Blithe Hollow (a fictional town presumably somewhere in New England) that has attempted to cash in on the tourism elements of the town’s historic witch trial. But Norman has a “gift” that makes the kids at school (and even his own family) think he is freakish: he sees and speaks to the dead. On the 300th anniversary of the trial, it falls to Norman to save the town from the resurrected witch and her curse.
The animation is a sort of mélange of Tim Burton and “Wallace and Gromit” with dark, brooding, but quite unrealistically cartoonish and surreal backgrounds (with very amateurish use of 3-D effects) that add a flair of whimsy to what is essentially “The Sixth Sense” made for kids. The characters themselves are kid-friendly stereotypes: sensitive Norman Kodi Smit-McPhee, “Let Me In”), his flirtatious sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick, “Twilight”), his only friend, the chubby Neil (Tucker Albrizzi, “I am Number Four”), Neil’s thick-witted jock brother Mitch (Casey Affleck, “Tower Heist”), and school bully Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse, “Fright Night”).
After a brilliant opening, with fun thrills and chills and exciting escapes from comically klutzy zombies that all but members of the family under the age of three would find frivolously enjoyable rather than terrifying, the movie suddenly turns serious. The witch becomes very real and frightening and then the film suddenly becomes a lengthy monologue that anyone under the age of 15 would find boring and anyone over that age would find assuring but redundant. It’s all about bullying after all, and we must stamp out such brutality before it curses us as adults, our children, and all posterity, concludes this rather preachy family film.
“The Odd Life of Timothy Green” is also a family film with a twist that won’t really connect with little ones, but may resonate with older audiences. Cindy (Jennifer Garner, “Valentine’s Day”) and Jim Green (Joel Edgerton, “The Thing”) are a young couple living in the small town of Stanleyville, whose principal employer is a pencil manufacturer. After their doctor tells them they cannot have a baby, they go home and wistfully imagine what their child would have been like; they write each idea/image/talent/character trait on a piece of paper and bury the stack of papers in a box in the garden. Miraculously, the adorable Timothy (C.J. Adams, “Dan in Real Life”) emerges fairy tale-like from the garden, calling them Mom and Dad. Ecstatic, the Greens enroll him in school where he copes with bullies and ostracism. But this picture isn’t about Timothy as much as it is about Jim and Cindy, and what they go through as parents, which, like “Paranorman” offers a disconnect with younger children.
Both films deal with the classic family film conflict: families adapting to and accepting the loneliness of a kind-hearted child who is different than the ordinary kids surrounding him. Both films have as a principal element the politically correct view of bullying (“The Odd Life of Timothy Green” tends to go overboard with the politically correct views, talking about economic downturns and layoffs, with the corporate CEO a narcissistic buffoon, and the heroic family saving the town with an eco-friendly brilliance). Each has an inherent charm that is undeniable, in spite of the tendency to target parents more than kids (a contrast to most “family” films). And both films manage to entertain, in spite of their uneven pacing and themes.