Every kid has that movie that’s going to scare the crap out of them for the first time. The stop-motion animation studio Laika, which was behind 2009’s fantastic “Coraline” and now this Tim Burton-meets-low-rent monster movie mash-up “Paranorman,” again manages a good first step for scary movie virgins.
Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a young kid living in Blithe Hollow who’s a bit of an oddball, not just because of his stiff stand-up head of hair, but also that he talks to ghosts, his dead grandma (Elaine Stritch) chief among them. Neither his parents (Jeff Garlin, Leslie Bibb), sister (Anna Kendrick), or the torturous school bully (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) believe he has this power or care to listen. The only one who believes him is his deranged Uncle (John Goodman) who he learns may not be so deranged when he finds out that a centuries-old witches curse is real and that he must use his power to save the town from zombies.
Visually this is all terrific looking, especially if you’re a kid. Walls move and melt away, there are gothic flashbacks to Salem-like witch trials, all the gruesome loss of body parts that a PG rating will allow, and the finale is hauntingly suspenseful.
Unfortunately it’s also preachy, with a “listen to your kids, even if they’re weird” sort of moralizing that’s a bit depressing. And it’s true what they say about zombies; once they’re out of the ground, there isn’t all that much a screenwriter can do with them.
Luckily “Paranorman” has a dark sense of humor that occasionally brings a big chuckle. A scene where Norman must pry a necromancing book from the hands of a dead body is a potent jolt of physical comedy. The jokes about dumb high-school teenagers though? Didn’t care much for them. Mostly this works because of real solid visual craftsmanship, making “Paranorman” stand as some of the best animation of the year.
Get your tickets for “ParaNorman” (starting August 17th) and other films reviewed on Screen Comment here