Visually stunning and emotionally charged, the stop-motion feature ParaNorman is a surprisingly heavy bit of family entertainment — and that’s saying a great deal about a ‘toon starring a kid who sees dead people. It’s more Coraline than Sixth Sense, however, but with a great deal to say about the virtues of tolerance.
Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee, The Road) is a troubled lad, a pre-teen outcast who has a hard time fitting in thanks to his “gift”. Even his family has a hard time accepting him, except for his grandmother (Elaine Stritch) — or rather, her ghost which haunts the living room couch.
The only other people who accept Norman are his equally odd classmate Neil (Tucker Albrizzi) and — much to Norman’s chagrin — his crackpot uncle Prenderghast (John Goodman). The latter insists that it is Norman’s destiny to his home town of Blithe Hollow of a 300-year-old curse stemming from an infamous witch trial, one that the town milks for tourism. When the dead begin to rise from their graves and scare the bejeebers out of the locals, Norman recruits his sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick), Neil’s brother Mitch (Casey Affleck), and school bully Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) to help undo an ancient wrong.
For the most part, co-directors Sam Fell and Chris Butler (the latter also wrote the screenplay) do an excellent job of walking a fine line between melancholic drama and kid-friendly comedy, with some choice gags and horror movie references thrown in for grown-ups. Butler takes a crack at everything from dealing with the loss of a loved one to bullying to mob mentality, and he does so without getting preachy, though the story is too busy to keep a consistent tone. The secret behind the curse is surprising and heart-breaking, and Norman’s solution is creative and poignant; it’s one of the most mature and satisfying endings one is likely to find in an animated feature, especially a comedy populated with ghosts and zombies.
Visually, the duo deliver the goods with a stunning and almost seamless mix of stop-notion animation with some judiciously applied CGI flourishes, and — as if stop-motion wasn’t a tedious enough technique to begin with — they shot it in 3-D. They and lead animator/producer Travis Knight have gone to great lengths to create a richly detailed world populated by a richly imagined cast of characters, making ParaNorman one of this year’s best features, animated or otherwise.