There are things that go bump in the night. You know it’s true. You’ve heard strange noises outside your window, seen something move in the corner of your eye. We’ve all encountered, at some point or another, phenomenon that we cannot logically explain. But you aren’t afraid of these things, not really. Maybe at 2 a.m. when you’ve just watched a trailer for “Sinister.” Ultimately, we know the sun will come up and the ghosts will fade back into the shadows.
Yet there are still things we fear. More concrete things. The bully at school, the boss at work. Ideas that don’t seem so bad in the abstract but hurt like hell in the moment: loneliness, humiliation, isolation. That kind of fear does things to us. It makes us shy, irritable, withdrawn, mean. It can even drive us insane.
“ParaNorman” is the story of a boy who’s afraid because everyone think’s he’s a little crazy, and a town that goes a little crazy because it’s afraid. Independent animation studio Laika explored similar territory in its charming adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s novella “Coraline,” but this follow-up is a more complete effort. “Coraline” played liked one of Tim Burton’s early works, a wild, feverish nightmare of visual pleasure. There is method behind the madness of “ParaNorman:” it has genuine thrills and chills that are designed less for their eerie, gothic beauty (though they have plenty of that), than as a reminder that our lives, particularly as children, are often governed by fear, and how we react to it.
Another strong contrast to “Coraline” is our hero, the eponymous Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee). Whereas Coraline was outgoing, headstrong, a bit bratty, Norman is quiet and reserved, an outcast at school and misunderstood at home. That may have something to do with the fact that Norman is able to see and speak with ghosts, and his sleepy little New England town seems to be a particularly popular spot for the undead. Poor Norman, clearly raised not to be impolite, greets them all on the street, attracting the unwanted attention of bullying classmates like Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) and the concern of his parents (Jeff Garlin and Leslie Mann). But what is he supposed to do when his dead grandmother (the wonderful Elaine Stritch, with not nearly enough screen time) remains on her favorite couch in the living room? Ignore her?
Resigned to his outsider status, Norman rebuffs the friendly advances of a fellow eccentric, Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), clearly hoping to simply pass through middle school as quietly as possible. But soon Norman starts experiencing more harrowing visions of witches and angry mobs, curiously mirroring certain events in the town’s Salem-esque colonial history. Tasked by his possibly deranged uncle (John Goodman) with preventing these visions from coming true, Norman is challenged to find the witch’s grave and prevent an undead uprising.
Some expected twists and turns occur. Norman’s solitary quest turns into a group effort, with those in tow including Neil, Alvin, Norman’s flaky sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick) and her quarterback crush Mitch (Casey Affleck). These are stock characters, but the excellent voice work raises the motley crew to Scooby Doo levels of lovability. Kendrick has the emotional chops to make it believable when pink-lip-sticked, bubble-gum-popping Courtney has a change of heart, Mintz-Plasse clearly revels in getting to play against his live-action type, and Affleck is so self-consciously dim-witted you can’t help but think of an overgrown puppy.
Smit-McPhee, for his part, totally nails Norman. He’s a smart, wary boy, quiet and unobtrusive, confident enough not to try and change himself but also a little bitter that his interests separate him so much from his family and peers. It’s a fine emotional path to walk, one that can lead to explosions of anger and frustration but also courage and heroism. Even the relatively straightforward task he’s initially charged with is greatly challenging, and Norman has to confront a lot of demons (inner and outer) before all is said and done. This is a grand movie for little boys and girls who are a little bit “different-” it doesn’t necessarily glorify Norman’s eccentricities, but it wholly accepts them. Rather than ending with the typical Indie Outsider notion that we can get along in life DESPITE our personal oddities (see: “Rocket Science,” “Thumbsucker,” etc.), “ParaNorman” suggests that those differences may all come from a similar place. The common ground is somewhere far more primal than a love of cheesy zombie movies or a predilection towards break dancing.
Laika’s new 3D color printer technology gives their stop-motion figures an expressiveness to go with these unexpected emotional depths. In general the animation craft on display is impeccable. Every character model has its creative peculiarities, and Norman’s town has that special golden-orange sheen of autumn in Massachusetts. But the animators save their best for last and Norman’s final confrontation with the witch’s (extremely angry) ghost, a spectacular sequence as dazzlingly beautiful as it is absolutely terrifying. With an $83 million budget, “ParaNorman” is clearly pushing the bounds of what a stop-motion film can look like, and we can only hope it encourages more of such efforts.
But what really carries “ParaNorman” is its playful sense of humor – even amongst all the talk of death and paranoia, a clever visual gag or surprising one-liner is never too far away. I personally liked the way the film turned the inevitable zombie uprising on its head – after decades of films and video games, we might be a little more, um, prepared, battle the undead than you might think. Fear, after all, does not always make us cowardly.
Now playing in theaters.
Verdict: 3 1/2 out of 4 stars