93 min., rated PG.
Say you have a long-standing affection for the horror genre and savor anything Halloween related. If that's the case, then "ParaNorman" is going to make your mouth water. Seamlessly interweaving the macabre with an outsider's coming-of-age tale, writer-director Chris Butler's feature debut (along with co-director Sam Fell of "The Tale of Despereaux" and "Flushed Away") is crafted with such passion for everything weird, spooky, and ooky that audiences should find this effort infectious. Oh, and it's a stop-motion animated feature from LAIKA (the same studio that brought us 2009's dazzlingly inventive "Coraline") with a similar stop-motion style and gleefully morbid tone to "The Nightmare Before Christmas" and "Corpse Bride" (which was storyboarded by Butler). As animation films are often wrongfully dismissed as adult-proof, kids-only cartoons, "ParaNorman" is anything but, avoiding all pandering of most animated features. However, it does count as a delightfully macabre film and one of this summer's treats that calls on fall and Halloween.
11-year-old Norman Babcock (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) is misunderstood. He isn't treated as a freak for his big elephant ears or his appetite for zombie movies, but for his known gift that he's able to see and talk to dead people in his hometown of Blithe Hollow. His boy-crazy teenybopper sister, Courtney (Anna Kendrick), ridicules him and his parents (Leslie Mann, Jeff Garlin) don't believe that he still talks to his departed Grandma (Elaine Stritch) in the living room. Day in and day out at school, Norman faces the bullying of Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), but he luckily finds a friend in Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), the school "fatty," who's actually ecstatic that Norman can see ghosts, including Neil's dead dog. Then after he's visited by his hobo uncle, Mr. Prenderghast (John Goodman), Norman learns that a witch's 300-year-old curse will soon be unleashed on Blithe Hollow, beginning with the rising of the zombified Puritans who were responsible for lynching alleged witch Aggie (Jodelle Ferland). With the help of Neil, Neil's buff but rocks-for-brains brother Mitch (Casey Affleck), Courtney, and his abnormal gift of course, Norman will have to defeat the monsters, or the town is toast.
With the filmmakers' fandom of horror bursting in every scene, "ParaNorman" has fun decor and real visual wit. Off the top, there's a keenly spoofed scene from a grindhouse movie that would play at a drive-in. Norman wakes up to a gravestone alarm clock, uses a monster toothbrush, and sleeps in a bedroom full of brain-eating monster posters covering the walls. There are even cute nods to "Halloween" and "Friday the 13th" in the same scene, Norman's ringtone of John Carpenter's classic score going off and a hockey-masked Neil standing in the backyard. All the zombie slapstick is reminiscent of George A. Romero and Sam Raimi's works, and even the climax's enraged mob evokes "Frankenstein," but there's an inspired bit involving a townie and a bag of chips in a slow-as-a-zombie vending machine.
Butler's script is compact and quick-witted, even if the Big Finish could have used a trim, but the imagery never overwhelms the story, and that's already a plus. Of course, nothing in "ParaNorman" would be without the painstaking craftsmanship of the stop-motion animation. From the astonishing process of molding models and sets that goes into fulfilling each frame, the entire film is a marvel of rich, unique, and complex art direction. (One sequence reportedly took more than two years to create.) The autumnal town of Blithe Hollow, undoubtedly inspired by Salem, Massachusetts, is eye-poppingly realized, and the characters' physical features are exaggerated but detailed (Jessica has huge hips, Mom and Dad have bellies).
The voice performances couldn't be better, as every character has a personality that endears in one way or another. Stritch, as the glowing orb of Grandma, gets a few funny lines, one stating that she didn't go to Heaven because it had "no cable or Canasta." Kendrick sells her snootiness with relish (and plenty of pink lip gloss), and Affleck is a particular hoot as musclehead Mitch, who's given a character reveal that's surprisingly bold for the medium and the PG rating.
There are surprisingly touching messages about bullying and tolerance that aren't too preachy, but gags involving rotting corpses and the constant theme of death might scare away the kiddies. Then again, if they're old enough to laugh off the Sanderson sisters sucking the lives out of children in the Halloween staple "Hocus Pocus," they can more than handle this. Spooky, spirited, and lovingly handcrafted, this is a labor of love made with wit, heart, goosebumps, and brainnnns.
Grade: A -