ParaNorman is the first of three horror-movie-inspired animated features this year, to be followed by Hotel Transylvania and Frankenweenie. Laika, the studio that gave us Coraline, is responsible for this tale, which assumes that kids will get the “joke” and not be distressed by its macabre content. But in fact, for all of its gags, ParaNorman is unapologetically dark and even sad. You can’t ask viewers of any age to become involved with a young hero like Norman and not care that he’s befriended by the spirit of a dead girl and threatened by a lynch mob.
Norman is an odd little boy who sees dead people. His own family can’t make sense of him, let alone his schoolmates. Only another outcast like a chubby boy named Neil would even consider having him as a friend. Norman lives in a New England town that exploits its historic ties to witchcraft, but when he discovers that an angry spirit is about to invoke a 300-year-old curse and destroy the community, no one will believe him.
ParaNorman isn’t a bad movie by any means, but I was never completely comfortable with it. I admire its character and production design, which achieve the kind of look that sets stop-motion animation apart from CGI. And it’s encouraging that even in 2012, some filmmakers still favor this hand-crafted, labor-intensive medium. But its storytelling is overly complex, shoehorning tangential ideas and characters into an already challenging narrative.
Sam Fell, who directed The Tale of Despereaux and the underrated Aardman feature Flushed Away, codirected this movie with Chris Butler, who wrote the screenplay. They have good ideas, many of which pay off well, but they didn’t have a blueprint to follow, as Coraline did with Neil Gaiman’s imaginative novel, and it shows.
The filmmakers’ smartest move was casting good actors instead of star personalities to provide their voices. The gifted child actor Kodi Smit-McPhee (The Road, Let Me In) tackles the leading role, and is joined by several people who are amusingly cast against type (Anna Kendrick as his airhead sister, Casey Affleck as a surfer dude, Christopher Mintz-Plasse as a bully), not to mention the redoubtable Elaine Stritch as Norman’s dead grandmother.
I always root for animated features and wish I could give this a better review. But if you can persuade your kids to sit through the closing credits, you’ll be rewarded with a time-lapse sequence that shows just how the animation team “built” their multi-jointed model of Norman.