Kids flick has genuine scares, plenty of heart
"ParaNorman" is a rare breed of kids movie, and not just because of the style of animation it employs.
It feels like a genuine treat to have been able to see not one but two films in theaters this year made using stop-motion animation. "The Pirates! Band of Misfits" was a light but fun bit of silliness. It wasn't going for much of overall substance, and that's OK, especially when you have something like "ParaNorman" come along.
"ParaNorman" is a film that reminds me of the sorts of kid-centric fare that was fairly common when I was growing up, entertainment with a bit of an edge, that wasn't afraid to produce genuine scares or have (gasp!) cursewords. Most kids movies these days are pretty antiseptic. There's nothing wrong with having squeaky-clean entertainment, but that's pretty much all there is, so it's nice to see something like "ParaNorman" that feels aimed specifically at a subset of "older" pre-pubescent kids who want to see something that that their four-year-old kid brother or sister couldn't tag along to.
Norman (voice of Kodi Smit-McPhee) is not your average kiddo. He's got a gift (or a curse, depending on how you look at it) that allows him to see and talk to dead people. He regularly chats up his dearly departed grandmother while watching zombie flicks and the spirits of the dead are just about the only people who will actually talk to him. No one believes him, you see, resulting in a lot of stares from the fellow residents of Blithe Hollow and even more torment from the school's bully, Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse).
Blithe Hollow has a haunted past, however, one that involves witch hunts and trials, though it has been glossed over and diluted to the point where witches and witch imagery is used to sell everything from toys to hot dogs. That dark past will come back to (literally) haunt the town as a dormant, 300-year-old curse is about to be unleashed and it will take Norman's very specific gift to prevent said curse from destroying Blithe Falls.
What really surprised me about this is how it never takes the expected turns. The zombies that eventually show up are monsters, but not necessarily because they're zombies. And the witch at the center of the curse? There's more to her than meets the eye. All of this reveals a surprisingly tender heart at the core of the film, as well as a message about acceptance, understanding and not lashing out at the things you fear that is rarely aimed at the target audience. For a movie that's been advertised largely as a spook-fest, there's a level of nuance and tenderness that was as surprising as it was welcome.
The biggest treat of all, however, is the animation.
Animation studio Laika's previous efforts are seen in the equally spooky "Coraline," a film that had wonderful animation, so it should speak to their talent that "ParaNorman" eclipses it. It's not just the astounding level of expressiveness in the characters or the wonderful art and character designs or the complexity of movement that impresses. This is a gorgeously shot film, with an attention to camera placement and shot angle that isn't typically found in a stop-motion animated film.
"ParaNorman" isn't perfect, though. Some of the character relationships feel undercooked (Norman and his equally teased friend from school, Neil, especially) and the overall story could have used a little polishing at the script stage, but overall this is a pretty great piece.
My biggest complaint is that this wasn't released around Halloween as it's the sort of movie that deserves to become a yearly staple of the season.