(L-R) Grandma (voice of Elaine Stritch), Sandra (voice of Leslie Mann), Perry (voice of Jeff Garlin), Norman (voice of Kodi Smit-McPhee) and Courtney (voice of Anna Kendrick) in "ParaNorman"
Norman sees dead people, but he doesn't tremble like Haley Joel Osment of "The Sixth Sense." Instead, the 11-year-old greets the deceased like old friends in directors Sam Fell and Chris Butler's stop-motion animated comedy.
Although lovingly crafted by the Oregon-based LAIKA animation studio, which also co-produced the edgy "Coraline" in 2009, this gothic tale may be a nightmare for the PG crowd. Communicating with ghosts, be they a kindly grandmother or a road-kill squirrel, is one thing. Wrestling with a corpse to pry a book from its dead hands raises the disturbing factor to another level.
But there's much to applaud in the charming first act that develops the main characters and establishes the small-township setting of Blithe Hollow with such incredible detail. Norman Babcock (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee of "Let Me In") is a sensitive soul, branded as the local freak and bullied at middle school. His bedroom is bedecked with zombie posters and all things ghoulish. A sympathetic protagonist, Norman just wants others -- including his parents (Leslie Mann and Jeff Garlin) and sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick) -- to listen and try to understand him. His classmate "Fatty" Neil (Tucker Albrizzi) is a sweet-natured scene stealer, toting a kitten-adorned lunchbox and tossing off funny lines. The school bully (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) relentlessly picks on both boys.
Aardman veteran Fell ("Flushed Away") and first-time screenwriter Butler (storyboard supervisor of "Coraline") excel at creating a delightful character piece, teeming with wit and atmosphere. Then the family outcast (John Goodman) tells Norman that only he can protect the New England community from the witch's curse of town folklore. The young boy must race against the clock to stop the impending doom. But once the plot unleashes the walking dead, the brain of the screenplay seems half-eaten by zombies. The story spins into a protracted and all-too-familiar chase scene.
Drawing parallels between the 18th-century witchhunts and the bullying of today's "freaks," the message becomes murky. The notion that fear breeds bullying, as well as mob violence, seems simplistic and clouds the real theme of forgiveness.
Viewers older than the PG-rated crowd will enjoy the arresting visuals and how "ParaNorman" turns stereotypes upside down. The dumb-blonde cheerleader (Kendrick) and hunky jock (Casey Affleck) prove that you can't judge anyone based on appearances.
Too bad that morbid subject matter might keep the targeted age group from seeing this movie and that the slight story might produce yawns among everyone else. Wonderful stop-motion and immersive 3-D techniques can't stop a misconceived concept from running amok like Frankenstein's monster.
Rated PG for scary action and images, thematic elements, rude humor and language. 1 hour, 36 minutes.
- Susan Tavernetti