The mediocrity of most of the animated movies that cascade into theatres in an apparently unstoppable flood is made abundantly clear by “ParaNorman,” a witty, heartfelt fable that cleverly employs horror movie conventions to convey a message about accepting people who are different from you. Coming from Laika, the same studio that made the exquisite “Coraline,” the stop-motion movie is as beautifully crafted as any Pixar or Aardman picture and as funny and emotionally satisfying as the best of them. And though it might be a bit too spooky for very young kids, older ones and adults should find it irresistible.
The initial reel introduces Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) as a tyke who’s not only addicted to old-fashioned horror flicks (as we’re shown in an enjoyable TV take-off at the very start) but endowed with a “Sixth Sense” ability to see ghosts, including the spirit of his dearly departed grandma (Elaine Stritch), irking his father (Jeff Garlin) and older sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick), though his mother (Leslie Mann) is much more supportive. At school he’s a pariah, ridiculed and bullied by thuggish Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) and even harassed by teachers like loudmouth drama coach Mrs. Henscher (Alex Borstein).
But as bad as things ordinarily are for Norman, they get much worse when he’s accosted by his outcast uncle Prenderghast (John Goodman), a crazy old coot who shares his supernatural gift and informs him, just before expiring, that he must stop the curse of a witch the Puritan town fathers of their town of Blithe Hollow had executed centuries earlier from being realized. Joined by his new-found friend, chubby outcast Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), as well as Neil’s dim-bulb jock brother Mitch (Casey Affleck) and Courtney, who’s besotted with Mitch, Norman takes off in Mitch’s van to prevent the curse from bringing the witch’s executioners, led by The Judge (Bernard Hill), back from their graves. But they fail, leaving the town apparently under assault from the undead and the citizens forming a frenzied mob to do battle against them.
Thus far “ParaNorman” seems to follow zombie movie convention fairly straightforwardly, though liberally seeding it with a dose of “Scooby-Doo.” But the script executes a nifty twist that brings the witch (Jodelie Ferland) to center stage and turns the picture into a plea for tolerance on a variety of levels without sacrificing action, humor or sheer visual splendor, which in this case is enhanced, rather than undercut, by the 3-D effects.
Unlike so many of today’s animated features, this one—written by co-director Chris Butler—is smart, offering a stream of cleverly referential gags that appeal equally to the eye and the ear—one scene boasts both an aural nod to John Carpenter’s “Halloween” and a visual one to “Friday the 13th” without missing a beat. But while it will especially delight genre fans who will catch all the allusions, it’s genial and affectionate enough to appeal to viewers who won’t as well. The voice talent is excellent across the board, with youngsters Smit-McPhee and Albrizzi making an engaging pair and the older actors offering fine support—Affleck seems to be having a particularly good time (and gets one of the best lines toward the close).
But as good as the actors are, they’re secondary to the behind-the-scenes crew, who, under the overall leadership of production designer Nelson Lowry, have fashioned a world at once recognizable and unusual. And directors Sam Fell and Butler have populated it with figures that are deliciously cartoonish (fabricated and manipulated lovingly by the animation team), while working with cinematographer Tristan Oliver and editor Christopher Murrie to give the picture pictorial variety and a breezy pace. Jon Brion’s score complements the images without overpowering them.
“ParaNorman” joins “Coraline” in exhibiting a tone as visually distinctive as Aardman’s, and admirers of animation, especially of the stop-motion variety, will be enthralled by it. But it also combines genre in-jokes, narrative wit and simple fun in away that should delight horror-film fans, kids and adults alike. Cool, quirky and lovely to look at, it’s another Laika triumph.