The young boy in “ParaNorman” suffers from what you might call “Sixth Sense” syndrome, which is the ability to see and communicate with dead people. There are plenty of dead people for him to encounter, too: he lives in New England (that place is crawling with ghosts), and his quaint hometown, Blithe Hollow, has a Salem-like history of executing witches and such. In fact, the 300th anniversary of the town’s most famous witch-related incident is fast approaching. Some say the occasion will be marked by the fulfillment of a horrible curse…
Ah, but do not be alarmed! ‘Tis all in the spirit of fun that “ParaNorman” tells its Halloween-ish tale. Produced by Laika Entertainment (which made “Coraline”) using stop-motion animation and marvelously handcrafted models and sets, this slyly macabre zombies-and-ghouls story is meant for kids — kids like 11-year-old Norman, actually, who stays up late to watch old horror movies on TV and has gotten used to communing with the dead. Sometimes his late grandmother (voiced by Elaine Stritch) watches with him.
With a small, weak body and hair that stands on end as if he’s constantly in a state of fright, Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee) looks the part of a haunted lad. But his only real source of unhappiness is the way he’s misunderstood and disbelieved for his gift. “I wish everyone could see what I can see!” he says, exasperated. “I didn’t ask to be born this way!” At school, an idiotic bully named Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) teases him. At home, his parents (Jeff Garlin and Leslie Mann) dismiss his ghost-seeing as imagination, while his teenage sister, Courtney (Anna Kendrick), is too busy with the usual concerns of teenage girls to care either way.
Norman’s insane Uncle Prenderghast (John Goodman), who looks like a homeless Fidel Castro, believes him, though that is not much comfort. It’s Prenderghast who relates an old legend to Norman, informing him that he may be able to prevent a cemetery full of zombies from wreaking havoc on Blithe Hollow.
The ensuing adventures are great juvenile fun, with Norman, Alvin, Courtney, Norman’s fat friend Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), and Neil’s dumb-jock brother (Casey Affleck) racing around town in various combinations, trying to ward off an apocalypse. Rest assured, though, it’s a family-friendly sort of apocalypse, with the kind of undead stooges one finds in Disney’s Haunted Mansion. I can’t imagine any kid who enjoys Halloween (I mean the holiday, not the movie) not being delighted by “ParaNorman.”
It’s from an original screenplay by Chris Butler, an animator who’s also making his debut as co-director (with Sam Fell, who helmed “Flushed Away” and “The Tale of Despereaux”). The story runs out of steam before it’s over, and seems to be spinning its wheels for a while. (The story is steam-powered, yet it also has wheels, I guess.) But you could spend all day being caught up in the dazzling and inventive visuals on display, admiring the craftsmanship and artistry required to produce such a colorfully twisted end-of-summer confection.
B (1 hr., 33 min.; )