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August 20, 2012

Stop-motion animation studio Laika made a big splash in 2009 with its adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s novel Coraline. Now we can safely say this was not a fluke, as their sophomore effort, ParaNorman, delivers a comic-zombie movie that expertly balances the spooky and the funny. And, like all good zombie movies, it packs layers of subtext for those who like to peel back the flesh and get at the bones of the story.

Norman Babcock (Kodi Smit-McPhee) lives in the small Massachusetts town of Blithe Hollow, which seems — like parts of Salem — to run on the tourist trade surrounding the stories of a witch trial three hundred years ago. Norman is the weird kid: shy, withdrawn, picked on by the class bully, Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), and wary of the gregarious fat kid, Neil (Tucker Albrizzi). His parents (Leslie Mann and Jeff Garlin) worry about him talking to his grandmother (Elaine Stritch), since she’s been dead for a while now, and they worry that his crazy uncle (John Goodman) has been putting ideas into his head.

But, of course, neither Norman nor his uncle are crazy; both of them can see and talk to the dead. As the anniversary of the witch’s trial nears, he tells Norman that it’s up to those like them to keep her curse at bay. And then promptly dies. Or the other way around. Either way, he’s not here to help anymore, so Norman must sneak out of the house to do what needs to be done.

Naturally it’s not quite as simple as that. Norman’s cheerleader sister, Courtney (Anna Kendrick), enlists the aid of Neil and his hunky older brother, Mitch (Casey Affleck) to find Norman as the witch’s night descends and all hell breaks loose.

The animation is gorgeous. It may lack the fantastic found-object Other-world from Coraline, but there’s just as much attention to detail. The faces are wonderfully expressive, with each main character given a personal style. The only significant exception is the striking similarity between Courtney’s face and her mother’s; whoever made that decision earned their entire paycheck right there. And the stop-motion work itself is shot beautifully, with in-camera effects live-action directors seem to have forgotten about in the age of CGI. Director Sam Fell makes full use of the style’s potential for some great slapstick, carried over from his work on Aardman’s Flushed Away and Rex the Runt.

Thankfully, Fell uses the 3-D effects sparingly. For much of the film I could look over my glasses and see the main foreground of the image clearly focused at screen depth while only the background was blurrily doubled. Still, with many scenes as dark as these are it can only help to see the film in 2-D, especially if you happen to go to a theater that cheaps out on power for the projector bulbs.

But as good as ParaNorman looks, its genius is in co-director Chris Butler’s script. The pacing is — forgive me — dead-on, moving steadily forward without bogging down unnecessarily at any point. As the mystery of the witch’s curse comes to light the film tells an effective, surprisingly nuanced tale. The surface layer is easily accessible to kids, and valuable to those likely to identify with Norman. But for aficionados of the zombie genre there are some insightful overtones that I wish I could go into without giving away the plot.

Last year another animated “kids movie” — Rango — was the clear all-around winner with something for all different kinds of movie lovers. This year ParaNorman is shaping up to be the one to beat. If the producers live-action CGI blockbusters aren’t asking themselves what animated films like these two are doing so right, they need to start.

Oh, and you’re going to want to stay all the way through the closing credits.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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