THE PITCH: In this stop-motion animated horror-comedy, Lonely, outcast Norman (voiced by The Road’s Kodi Smit-McPhee) discovers that his ability to see dead people might rescue his hometown from a witch’s curse that causes the dead to rise.
BEST LINE: “Welcome to Blithe Hallow: A great place to HANG!” announces a billboard, accompanied by an illustration of a grinning witch wearing a noose. The tasteless way the Salem-like town celebrates its dark history provides a great running joke.
NICEST LINE: “He’s not afraid of you, he’s afraid for you,” says Norman’s mother (Leslie Mann), explaining the seemingly hostile behavior of his Dad (Jeff Garlin).
BEST BAD PUN: Norman’s crazy uncle, who keeps the witch’s curse at bay, visits Norman in a school restroom stall and announces, “The ghost isn’t going anywhere until I pass on my duty to another!”
MONEY SHOTS: Norman greets his ghostly friends, many from different historical eras, on the way to school. Norman’s new friend Neil (Tucker Albrizzi) teaches him how to throw a stick, with disastrous results. Norman experiences visions that turn a school play into a haunted forest. Puritan-era zombies rise from their graves, only to recoil with horror at the excesses of 21st century culture.
BODY COUNT: One dead body, for requisite rigor mortis jokes. Seven marauding zombies. One unfriendly ghost/witch. One ghost dog bisected down the middle.
VOICE CAMEOS: Oscar-nominee Anna Kendrick voices Norman’s shallow older sister, Casey Affleck provides the vocals for a dimwitted school jock and Broadway star Elaine Stritch plays the ghost of Norman’s mother. Christopher Mintz-Plasse, a go-to nerd for live-action movies, plays a bully here (not unlike Jonah Hill’s bullying role in How To Train Your Dragon).
HORROR REFERENCES: ParaNorman begins with a 1970s-style “Our Feature Presentation” announcement, followed by a “scratchy” print of a vintage zombie, like we’re watching Grindhouse for kids. Hockey masks and the “Halloween” theme song shout out to slasher flicks. An adversary at the end evokes one of those black-haired ghosts from countless recent Japanese horror movies.
SOCIAL CONTEXT: Most of the human characters are overweight and look grotesque, from an obese schoolteacher’s pendulous arms to Norman’s parents’ conspicuous guts, as if the film is implicitly attacking middle-American obesity. A great gag about junk food culture shows a potential zombie victim who can’t decide whether to run for his life or get an unhealthy snack from a vending machine.
WORTH THE 3D UPGRADE? No. Apart from a couple of gimmicks, including a burning teddy bear that soars at the screen, the 3D isn’t very noticeable, and pales in comparison to Coraline, a similarly spooky animated film also from Laika Studio.
SOUNDTRACK HIGHLIGHTS: The closing credits very cleverly employ “Little Ghost” by The White Stripes. An Air Supply tune provides an amusing counterpoint to a desperate chase scene. The kids in the school play sing a tone-deaf snippet of Donovan’s “Season of the Witch,” but the teaser trailer that uses the real Donovan song is more effective. That trailer may even be better than the feature film:
EXTRAS: A post-credits stinger shows the high-speed creation of one of the Norman puppets in a neat little how-to detail.
BOTTOM LINE: While Norman can cross the line between the living and the dead, ParaNorman, co-directed by Flushed Away’s Sam Fell, has more trouble alternating between slapstick, horror plotting and social commentary about adolescent loneliness and mob mentality. With overly familiar characters but some cool set pieces, it operates at much the same amusingly mediocre level as Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs. Maybe the zombie trend is ready to rest in peace.
ParaNorman. 2 stars. Directed by Sam Fell and Chris Butler. Stars the voices of Kodi Smit-McPhee and Tucker Albrizzi. Rated PG. Opens Fri., Apr. 17. At area theaters.
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