Opens Friday at Fifth Avenue and International Village At first glance, ParaNorman may seem like a film better suited to a Halloween release, what with the whole he-sees-dead-people and zombie themes.
But our protagonist, Norman, is much more weighed down by the torment he receives at school than by his casual conversations with ghosts. His parents don't understand him, either. It's less a film about ghosts and goblins and more one with a keen lens on bullying, making the film ideally slated for release just before school lets in.
The 3D stop-motion offering from LAIKA opens with a bad B-movie horror flick airing on TV. Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) is watching, while his near-sighted Granny comments from the couch. Only problem? Granny's been dead for months.
His mother and father (Leslie Mann, Jeff Garlin) are at their wits' end. He's got to get over it says dad, railing "This isn't the West Coast!" Older sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick), a vision in tacky midriff-baring sweats and over-applied lipgloss, is similarly unsupportive, angered by how much having a freak for a younger brother is putting a dent in her social life.
The family lives in Blithe Hollow, a town that makes its living off a legend. An evil witch cursed a judge and a jury in 1716, with grim results. It's a story used to sell postcards, but unbeknownst to the citizens of Norman's town the curse is all too real. Norman gets the skinny from his crazy Uncle Prenderghast (John Goodman), the last in a line of men who have been keeping watch for the past 300 years. When Uncle P kicks the bucket (not once, but twice, in a humourous scene) it falls to Norman to keep the witch at bay.
He doesn't fight alone. Norman is doggedly pursued by Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), also on the receiving end of bullies' taunts because, as he cheerfully points out, he is fat and has irritable bowel syndrome, among other complaints. Neil's sunny outlook on life is a comfort in a day packed with chats with the dead, and an ever-increasing sense of dread as the witch and her victims threaten to rise from her grave.
Smit-McPhee voices Norman with pathos and vitality, as needed. He's no stranger to creepy, having battled cannibals alongside Viggo Mortensen in The Road and a vampire in Let Me In. ParaNorman exploits many traditional horror movie devices and features some old-school suspense, all framed within a kids' comedy. Kids might not get it, but parents will laugh at Norman's "Halloween" movie ringtone and Neil's unintentional Jason Voorhees impression.
It's a stop-motion animators' nightmare: there are a thousand tiny details in each frame, from the panelling on the family's woody wagon to crowd scenes, wherein each figure had to be posed, frame by frame. Technically, it's a worthy follow-up to LAIKA's excellent Coraline.
The showdown with the witch is a feast for the eyes, though it runs a bit long, and a solution to the romance question between Norman's sis and Casey Affleck's dunce-jock Mitch seems like a cheap fix. Blips in an otherwise visually marvelous and touching coming-of-age story.
Some scenes may be better suited to older kids rather than younger ones, but ParaNorman's messages of tolerance and letting your freak flag fly should override most misgivings about the scares on offer.