Movie review: ‘ParaNorman’

Smart ‘ParaNorman’ has wickedly dark sense of humor

Kodi Smit-McPhee voices the title character in “ParaNorman.”
Kodi Smit-McPhee voices the title character in “ParaNorman.”

Another example of the special magic only stop-motion animation can create, “ParaNorman” is a proper horror film for preadolescents. It is also hilarious.

Influenced more by Sam Raimi’s “Evil Dead” films than anything Walt Disney ever made, “ParaNorman” is filled with, as Count Floyd was fond of saying, scary stuff, kids. The ideal audience for this would be fourth- through six-graders. Anyone older should appreciate it, too, with its sharp writing and wicked humor. But anyone younger might be traumatized.

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“ParaNorman” is the second feature from LAIKA studios, which also produced “Coraline.”

Now that LAIKA can boast two superb films in a row, Britain’s Aardman Studios, home to Wallace and Gromit, is no longer the sole purveyor of stop-motion excellence.

“ParaNorman” co-director Sam Fell is an Aardman veteran, having directed the studio’s computer-animation debut, “Flushed Away.”

As the script drops references to everything from “Frankenstein” to “Halloween” to “Scooby-Doo,” many elements of “ParaNorman” seem familiar. The young hero, Norman Babcock (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee, star of the far more disturbing adolescent vampire film “Let Me In”), is ostracized because he sees dead people. He also talks to them, which is key to the story.

At school, Norman is the constant victim of bullies. At home, his father (Jeff Garlin) questions his son’s sanity out loud and his older sister (Anna Kendrick) complains that his macabre reputation has killed her social life. The sister, Courtney, is a meaner, more vapid version of Candace from “Phineas & Ferb.”

Norman lives in a small and rustic New England town named Blithe Hollow. The town’s history is not unlike that of Salem, Mass., which once accused innocent women of being witches and put them to death and now uses that 300-year-old injustice to attract tourists.

But in the case of Blithe Hollow, it was just one witch, who turned out to actually be a witch and cursed her accusers to walk the earth as the living dead. Much of this backstory is presented in a funny school play that the students kick off with an off-key version of The Doors’ “Season of the Witch.”

Norman’s reclusive uncle, Mr. Prenderghast (John Goodman), appears to reveal that he shares Norman’s ability to communicate with the dead and has held the witch’s curse at bay for the last several decades. The time has come for Norman to inherit these duties, but his uncle dies before telling the boy how. Before long, a group of 18th century zombies are marching on the town, while a malevolent cloud with a witch’s face forms on the horizon.

The craft of “ParaNorman” pushes the art of stop-motion animation to astounding new limits. Those who remember the old Rankin/Bass holiday specials think of stiff-moving characters, but the “ParaNorman” puppets all move fluidly and naturally. Courtney’s body language is that of a genuine, bratty teenager. The way she crosses her legs or impatiently flicks her hair is uncanny.

The cast also has a wider range of facial expression than ever seen in a stop-motion project. Animators had literally thousands of faces to choose from for each character thanks to a computer 3D printer that the publicity notes describe as a cross between a Xerox machine and a cookie press. However it has been achieved, Courtney’s lip gloss is always perfect.

“ParaNorman” uses computers to bolster classic stop-motion animation techniques in other ways, but the CGI work is blended more seamlessly into the film’s look than in Aardman’s recent release, “The Pirates! Band of Misfits.”

Production designer Nelson Lowry creates a spooky New England landscape of Colonial buildings, fearsome forests and haunted graveyards. The level of detail in the miniature sets is amazing. Many of the movie’s funniest jokes lurk in the background to reward sharp-eyed viewers. My favorite is a sign outside the school that reads, “Spelling bee: Next Wensday.”

Co-director Chris Butler receives sole script credit, which is rare in animation. Butler’s story moves fast, and once the zombies rise from their graves, “ParaNorman” is way more intense than “The Bourne Legacy.” Yet the story’s characterization is unusually rich.

Norman is sympathetic but not flawless. He has become so used to being a loner, and preferring the company of the dead over the living, that he doesn’t realize another school outcast, the tubby and not-too-bright Neal (Tucker Albrizzi), wants to be his friend.

Fate hands Norman a zombie-fighting crew that includes Neil; Courtney; Neil’s jock older brother (Casey Affleck); and Norman’s main tormentor at school, Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse, cast against type). Although Courtney laments, “Now the geeks are in charge,” by the end, even the cheerleader and the bully have proved their value. The jock? Not so much.

The first half of “ParaNorman” is carefully built from horror movie conventions, but the story subtly begins to subvert them all. The zombies are not who they seem, and a revelation about the witch is chilling.

The anti-bullying message is hard to miss. “If you were bigger and stupid, you’d be a bully, too,” Neil tells Norman. But “ParaNorman” digs deeper to explain how people sometimes say and do terrible things because they fear the unknown. Norman eventually sees that the persecution the witch faced three centuries ago is not unlike the scorn he endures today.

The climax is exciting, but the thoughts it expresses about tolerance and forgiveness are profound and beautiful. The moral lessons of “ParaNorman” are more complex than the simple message of “Believe in yourself” espoused by most films aimed at children.

Perhaps I’m ruining “ParaNorman” by making it sound like a movie that’s good for you instead of a movie that’s fun. “ParaNorman” is fun, almost deliriously so with its dark sense of comedy. For Fell and Butler, fun doesn’t mean sacrificing intelligence, and
“ParaNorman” is packed with smart thrills for everyone from 8 to 80. For viewers younger than that, give them a few more years of “Scooby-Doo” to build up to this.

4 stars
Rated PG for scary action and images, thematic elements, some rude humor and language
Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes
Who’s in it: Voices of Kodi Smit-McPhee, John Goodman, Anna Kendrick, Jeff Garlin
What it’s about: Norman, a middle-school boy who can speak to the dead, realizes he is the only one who can save his small New England town from a witch’s 300-year-old curse. He must act fast to prevent a zombie invasion.

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