By MICHAEL SMITH
Compared to the buffed-to-a-sheen computer-perfected look of Pixar and Dreamworks animated films, there is a hand-crafted originality and, yes, a beauty to the stop-motion brand of animation that still bewitches.
That old-world look fits the atmosphere of “ParaNorman,” the latest spooky little picture from the Laika studio that produced “Coraline,” a special movie that, like this one, can prove more than a little problematic in determining the proper audience for this art.
Like that film, “ParaNorman” is a 3-D visual treat of a horror film for the little ones, and it’s rated PG. It is also a motion picture that may endear itself most to adults with a wicked imagination as well as sense of humor. If a parent I didn’t know simply asked, “Is ‘ParaNorman’ a movie my child would like?” the answer would be that it depends on the child and their reaction to dark humor, which makes these movies sometimes as misunderstood as our story’s hero.
Norman is a youth with some issues. Such as the amount of time he spends talking with his grandmother about D-grade horror movies they watch on TV. You see, Norman’s grandmother is dead. Not that this stops her from kvetching as an on-screen zombie eats an afternoon snack of a human. “That will ruin his dinner,” she tut-tuts.
Norman has that “sixth sense,” if you will. He sees dead people and converses with them all over town. He has more friends who are dead than alive. This is odd behavior, obviously, in the eyes of the other kids at school (and his family, for the most part) who generally regard him as weird. The local bullies see him as an easy target in the town of Blithe Hollow, a tourist trap for horror fans because the townsfolk hanged a witch, as it happens, 300 years ago today. That behavior of Norman’s sure comes in handy, however, when zombies and ghosts lay siege to Blithe Hollow when that witch decides to mark her anniversary in a particularly nasty manner. In an adventure-comedy story with plenty of frightening images (dead, demented, deformed spirits bent on revenge from the past), the movie reminds me of 1980s kids-banding-together flicks like “Gremlins” and “The Goonies.” The bullied Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee, also bullied in the brilliant “Let Me In”) ultimately works together with his bully (Christopher Mintz-Plasse, oddly ineffective here) as well as with his overweight pal from school and his bubble-headed sister (Anna Kendrick is a hoot) who sees her sibling as a dork until she and everyone in town needs his special skills.
There is comedy at work here that’s not present in “Coraline,” which may soften the creepy factor for kids. This picture is not of the quality of that exceptional Oscar nominee, but the comparison is accurate for the sake of parents. “ParaNorman” has a caper element at work (searching records at town hall, how … boring!) that never gets off the ground. The subject of bullying is timely, but it’s part of a story that’s flimsy. It’s an interesting idea basing the film’s themes around people who pick on kids who are different, as well as people who punish those they don’t understand. Like witches. If only the execution were as interesting.
“ParaNorman” may seem sleepy to children and parents trained to prefer the overzealous nature of most bouncing-off-the-walls animated films made today. Part of that is patience, part of that is a thin narrative. But the movie’s heart is always in the right place — even if the zombie-chomped brains are not.