Directed by: Chris Butler and Sam Fell, Runtime: 85 minutes
Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee, The Road) sees dead people: every day, whether he's walking to and from school or watching horror movies in his living room, the creepy green spirits of those long passed loom over the young boy. But he doesn't just see the specters; Norman speaks with them, shooting the breeze with a paratrooper stuck in a tree, conversing with a hippy who seems content enough in his haze, and occasionally relaying mundane requests to his family from their dead grandmother. Somehow, though, the small town of Blithe Hollow knows about Norman's dark gift, leading to them treating the boy like mentally-unstable oddball, where bullies pick on him and even his traditional family -- his handyman father (Jeff Garlin), his caring but concerned mother (Leslie Mann), and his ditzy popular-girl sister (Anna Kendrick) -- view him with a suspicious eye. But, as one can expect from a youngster-oriented paranormal adventure such as this, Norman's gift will soon become the thing that'll save his town from those other-worldly frights that make him an outcast.
ParaNorman is the latest stop-motion vision from the wheelhouse at Laika Entertainment -- the studio responsible for Coraline and production elements of Corpse Bride -- emerging from a script written by storyboard artist / designer Chris Butler. Under the co-direction of Butler and The Tale of Despereaux's Sam Fell, that script takes shape in a way that seems to know that the premise could be viewed as dark and morbid, so they dial up the youth-oriented mannerisms for a vibrant, sympathetic twenty-minute beginning. Norman gets chummy with his plump, equally-bullied friend, Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), who tries to turn his frown upside-down by inviting him to play and, yes, talking about his ability to interact with the dead; they look past each other's idiosyncrasies, leading down a weatherworn path towards a message about misunderstood and bullied kids. The characters around Norman tend to be unoriginal, little more than a mash of the types in The Goonies and Harry Potter, but they're handled well enough to make their purpose feel authentic.
As a mystery emerges of a historical curse plaguing Blithe Hollow, furthered by revelations from Norman's uncle, the unkempt Mr. Pendergrast (John Goodman), the material picks up the pace and grows spookier alongside Norman and Neil's budding friendship. That's where Butler's script excels: at creating a supernatural adventure with broad appeal in the spell it casts, replete with not-so-scary grotesqueries, ghoulish one-liners, and fond references to genre classics with numerous gags that only the older crowd will grasp. Occasionally, the characters get in the way of sustaining that mood, such as the limp and predictable fawning from Norman's sister, Courtney, over Neil's brawny dolt of a brother, Mitch (Casey Affleck), and the foreseeable antics of the token bully, Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). The essence bottled in what Butler's written, however -- a 300-year-old witch's curse, involving zombies and Norman's struggle with his own tormenter -- still capably sweeps them along for the ride, and not without amusing type-centered gags (or, unfortunately, a few easy shifts in temperament to suit the plot).
The blend of stop-motion and computer-generated artwork are what gives ParaNorman its distinct personality, though, and there's a considerable amount to marvel in Laika's doting craftsmanship. Less-focused on free-form artistry than Coraline, but not without a few robust inventive expressions, Butler and Fell are instead more compelled to sustain the illusion of a semi-practical environment and embellished characters within Norman's story, letting elements like the walking dead, mystical tornadoes, and wisps of green hand-shaped smoke effortlessly bleed into the picture. Once reality begins to distort, you'll find quite a few breath-snatching surprises; there's a scene in a bathroom stall where tiles rattle out-of-place against the wall around Norman before a magical explosion, which masterfully captures the intended mood with impeccable visual delights and sounds. Blithe's Hollow presents a spooky town with occasional eerie houses and gnarled wooded areas, an ideal stomping ground for accursed zombies to rise from the grave and torment townsfolk.
While the bulk of ParaNorman hits peaks and valleys of satisfaction across its 80-minute span, the ending really brings the experience full-circle in one of the film's high points. A push of mystical bombast and sensory delights bundles the story's central themes -- the persistence of bullies, being ostracized for being "different", and the hate it breeds -- and sends them speeding towards an electric finale that lands on a fitting, heartening outcome to the curse, if forced in how Norman's ability factors into the puzzle. The message that underscores the ending can also, perhaps, be a bit redundant and heavy-handed; Butler and Fell zero in on a clear-cut sensation they want the audience to take away about the misunderstood, bullied people that march to the beat of their own drummers, even though Norman's treatment gets this point across on its own. In the midst of a gothic adventure that's tailor-made for Halloween viewing, where the zombies and ghosts of the past walk the streets, it's not a bad point to reinforce, really.
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