And like that movie, ParaNorman has a very particular look to it. The people are both recognizably human and just a little odd-looking — with faces that exaggerate ears or noses and look both vaguely plastic and also rather lifelike. It’s a neat visual style, one that allows the movie to work in its supernatural elements while still giving us human characters and emotions. And it sets the movie and its characters apart from the standard slick Dreamworks-ish animation.
Norman (voice of Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a bit of an oddball. He likes scary movies, and when we first meet him he’s explaining a B-grade horror movie airing on TV to his grandmother (Elaine Stritch). Except, as we soon learn, Grandma is dead and has been for a while. While Norman’s mom (Leslie Mann) and dad (Jeff Garlin) insist that Grandma is in a better place, Norman insists that that place is the living room. And that’s not all — on his way to school, Norman says a cheery hello to a host of dead people, from a soldier on horseback to a gangster in cement shoes. When Norman gets to school, we realize that these howdy-dos might be the only friendly words spoken to Norman all day. The other kids shun him as that weird kid who claims to see ghosts, and Norman has cleaner and a cloth all ready to scrub the word “freak” off his locker. Of course, he’s not the only one having a hard time of it — the chubby but outgoing Neil (Tucker Albrizzi) has to scrub the word “fatty” off his locker and, like Norman, is frequently the target of the bullying Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). But Norman seems reluctant to make friends, though when the strange Mr. Prenderghast (John Goodman), the town oddball who also happens to be Norman’s uncle, shows up to tell him about coming trouble, Norman may need a buddy or two. Seems that Blithe Hollow, the Massachusetts town with a Salem-like past, might be revisited by a few of its earliest residents thanks to the curse of a very angry witch.
Sometimes, things can surprise you. The bully can be even dorkier than the nerd he picks on, a boy-crazed big sister (excellently voiced by Anna Kendrick) can turn out to have a caring side, an animated Halloween-y looking affair can actually be a great back-to-school movie. With its witches and zombies and ghostly road-kill pets, ParaNorman might not be a great movie for the 6-year-old who has trouble sleeping with the light off, but it seems perfect for kids ages 9 or 10 and up, particularly as they embark on a new year. At its heart, the scary story isn’t so much about the supernatural but about what happens when some people are scared of other people and seek to ostracize them in some way. But the real skill of the movie is that that message is not delivered as afterschool-special-ishly as I’ve stated it here. The movie gives us plucky goofy kids and caring but misunderstanding adults and situations that — zombies and curses aside — aren’t so different from actual life. I was pleasantly surprised by how the movie didn’t talk down to its audience and was able to tell a smart, adventurous tale while still delivering its message of acceptance. And, again, does so without using lame, tween-turn-off words like “acceptance.”
Backing up this solid story are the refreshingly unique look of the movie (which borrows little elements from the classic horror genre Norman loves) and rich vocal performances. Even small-ish roles, like Goodman’s Prenderghast or Tempestt Bledsoe (Vanessa Huxtable!) as a sheriff feel like fully fleshed-out personalities.
Quirky, funny and with a delightfully different visual style, ParaNorman is the perfect way to ease the kids back into school. A-
Rated PG for scary action and images, thematic elements, some rude humor and language. Directed by Chris Butler and Sam Fell and written by Chris Butler, ParaNorman is an hour and 33 minutes long and is distributed by Focus Features.