Remembering with ParaNorman

Aggie: Aggie... My name was Aggie... I - I remember... My mommy brought me here once. We sat under the tree and she told me stories. They all had happy endings. Then those horrible men came and took me away and I never saw her again! 

Norman: Sometimes when people get scared, they say and do terrible things. I think you got so scared that you forgot who you are. But I don't think you're a witch. Not really. 

Aggie: You don't? 

Norman: I think you're just a little kid with a really special gift who only ever wanted people to understand her. So we're not all that different at all.

I’ve been telling people for months I had this inkling that ParaNorman might be one of the most important films of 2012, and possibly, as time will tell, of the decade. It’s taken me awhile to process and let its nagging significance soak into my head, but I think more and more I’m starting to see why.

It’s because of Norman. He’s a child, but he’s not a real child. He’s a puppet. On one level, a puppet can be a symbol of whatever its puppeteer wants to portray, whether it be evil, humor, or kindness. On another level, a puppet is simply a wiggling doll made of rubber, metal, wax or clay.

Whatever Norman really is, being a puppet, on screen he finds himself in a curious predicament, faced with the curse of an angry witch that is part of the history of the small town of Blithe Hollow where he lives. The town lives in fear of this witch, thus it has chosen to ridicule her by turning her into a piece of kitsch to plaster over their billboards, businesses and town culture. By turning her into merchandise, they can have control over her and use her to indulge their false sense of security. But the anger of the witch has broken through all of this. She wants revenge. 

But is this witch really a witch?  After all, as Monty Python’s knight Sir Bedevere reminds us, “There are ways of telling whether she is a witch...” to which (witch?) the medieval townspeople reply, “Do they hurt?”  The knight’s reply of course, is to use an absurd sense of logic involving theories about wood, water, ducks and “very small rocks”, all to consider whether the crowd is allowed to burn her, as they are all too eager to do. 

The town of Blithe Hollow has not advanced beyond those “bloody peasants” and kings who were “so wise in the ways of science.”  They are not that far removed from those medieval villages of long ago.  It is far easier for them to take what they fear, who they fear or don’t understand, and simply do away with them. 

The next set of witch hunters coming to the silver screen are being billed as “a new twist” on two other children who lived in fear of a witch: Hansel and Gretel. For some reason, it’s not enough that they already pushed their witch captor from childhood into an oven through their own cleverness and survival skills.  Someone has decided they need to take things to another level. But surely these children have every right to grow up and unleash fury and open fire with machine guns on witches, right? When we are haunted and terrorized by witches, it makes sense, doesn’t it? 

Aggie: What about the people who hurt you? Don't you ever want to make them suffer? 

But hey, this is just a movie, a fairy tale, and Blithe Hollow is really just a miniature set, a stop-motion landscape on a soundstage, and their bloodthirsty townspeople are merely tiny wiggling dolls, so surely those of us who are, as described in the cartoon Ren & Stimpy, “flesh and blood, not wax”, are more civilized and advanced than these medieval puppets, these modern-day Punches and Judies?  

Everyday, another shooting, another bullied child, another dead child, another headline says we’re not. 

Back to Norman. 

It would be far easier for Norman to end it all by joining in the witch hunt. It may be far easier for Norman to enact his revenge by picking up a machine gun. It would be easy for Norman to strike back at his bullies, even if he becomes a bully in the process. 

But instead, in his final showdown with this town witch, he endures a raging forest, crushing trees, death-defying heights, lightning bolts and injuries from his adversary, and screams the truth without giving up, in order that he may tame the beast and bring her to remember beauty, grace and love. His final plea to Aggie is to “re-member” who she truly is....of which the opposite is to “dis-member” tear apart.  

And just in case the final showdown wasn't enough to remind us how we should treat the bullied, marginalized, and so-called "witches" who are different from "the rest of us", a much-hyped controversial dialogue gag is thrown in at the end of the film to test how quickly we jump to that mob mentality and fear that dis-members our schools, our towns, and even our faith communities.

To re-member is to love, and to love perfectly casts out fear. (1 John 4:18)

We are all dis-membered somehow. We need the faith and humility to listen and re-member each other, and move towards peace, where Isaiah 11:6 says a little child (maybe even a puppet child?) will lead us. 

Aggie: But what about the people who hurt you? Don't you ever want to make them suffer? 

Norman: Well, yeah, but what good would that do? You think just because there's bad people that there's no good ones either? I thought the same thing for a while. But there's always someone out there for you. Somewhere. 

Aggie: I just want my mommy. 

Norman: I'm sorry, Aggie. She's gone. 

Aggie: That story you were telling. How does it end? 

Norman: I think that's up to you.

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