Review of ParaNorman

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In this animated comedy thriller, a small town comes under siege by the undead. Only a misunderstood local boy Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee), who has the ability to speak with the dead, is able to prevent the destruction of his town from a centuries-old curse. He'll also have to take on ghosts, witches, zombies and worst of all, the moronic grown-ups. But this young ghoul whisperer may find his paranormal activities pushed to their otherworldly limits. The voice cast of ParaNorman also includes Casey Affleck, Tempestt Bledsoe, Jeff Garlin, John Goodman, Bernard Hill, Anna Kendrick, Leslie Mann, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Elaine Stritch & Tucker Albrizzi.
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Norman Babcock sees dead people. Not the ghastly, eat your souls type of dead people, but rather a pleasant, “How do you do?” type of dead people. That is, until he gets wrapped up in an ancient curse and an entirely different type of dead people come to town.

ParaNorman is the latest feature film from Laika, the stop motion animation studio behind 2009's Coraline. Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is just trying to navigate his way through middle school in the New England town of Blithe Hollow, a task made more difficult by his paranormal abilities. He explains TV shows to the ghostly specter of his dead grandmother in his living room, and catches up with the town's dearly departed during his walk to school. The fact that no one else can see the people he's talking too means his abilities aren't all that well received by his fellow citizens. When not conversing with the other side, he has to deal with overbearing teachers in the classroom and bullies in the neighborhood. At home, he has a family that doesn't understand why he can't just act like a normal kid.

Just as his life gets to be, well, exactly as tiresome as it always is, his estranged oddball uncle (John Goodman) shows up to tell him that his extrasensory abilities are no accident of chance. It seems that the area's history of witchcraft, which the town has lately been using to gin up tourism, is tied to a real live curse that only Norman can prevent.

So it ends up that Norman and an unlikely band of his peers and near-peers, including his dweeby friend Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), erstwhile nemesis Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), dismissive older sister Courtney (Twilight's Anna Kendrick), and local beefcake Mitch (Casey Affleck) wind up in the woods above town on a supernatural mission.

Unfortunately, things don't quite go by the numbers. Instead of the curse being lifted, a hoard of the undead are unleashed on the unsuspecting but quickly trigger happy townsfolk. With the rest of the town more interested in pitchforks than solutions, it falls on Norman and his compatriots to dive in and save the day.

The plot is largely boilerplate children's movie material, but the film surfaces above the tropes long enough to add some interest to an otherwise flat story. Norman is mostly a standard issue bullied nerdy movie kid, but has just enough sass and strength of will to avoid feeling like he walked off a tiresome after school special. In a fun twist on zombie invasions, the undead in ParaNorman are more endearing than the townsfolk they're attacking, and are at least as afraid of you as you are of them. More broadly, enough background and exposition is snuck into the film to build a mythos, which gives the fairly simple turn by turn plot some heft that it would otherwise lack.

The above isn't to say that the story is weak or any kind of a let down. Just don't expect it to change your life or your outlook.

While the story is at times pedestrian, there's nothing pedestrian about the production values. ParaNorman is a gorgeous film. The long efforts of over 300 artists, artisans, and engineers went into the production, and every man-hour is evident on screen. In an industry landscape where it often seems that everything but celebrity paychecks are digital fantasies, ParaNorman bucks the trend and uses practical sets and in-camera effects for almost everything. Because of this, Norman's world fits together and works to an extent that's rarely seen in effects pictures today. Every character, prop, every set, and every and clump of dirt in every sequence was made up of real objects in space. They had to fit together and work together on set, and so they fit together and work on camera.

Even the finest technical acuity is useless without accomplished art direction, and here too Laika takes care of business. All of the character designs, from silhouette on down, tell their own stories and add to the story at large. The environmental art, from minute details of Norman's bedroom to the landscape of the deep dark woods, is similarly proficient. The town of Blithe Hollow is a fun and interesting place to spend a few hours.

Through a tour de force of technical wizardry and visual artistry, ParaNorman tells a solid tale that should entertain children and adults alike (Though, be mindful of the PG rating. The climatic finale may be a overly intense for some small children).

ParaNorman opens nationwide August 17th.