ParaNorman is the second stop-motion animation movie from Laika Entertainment, whose first film, 2009’s Coraline, was a spooky, scary wonder. On the surface, the new picture is even more frightening, replete with ghosts and zombies and monsters. The story is also more complicated: Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) is an outcast nerd who loves horror movies and sees dead people, like the ghost of his beloved grandma (Elaine Stritch), who remains perched in her favorite spot on the living room couch and talks to her grandson as if she were alive.
Then an ancient curse cast on the town by a witch threatens to make the dead to rise from their graves, turning Norman into a reluctant hero. A lot of ParaNorman, which was directed by Chris Butler and Sam Fell, relies on familiar formulas: The crazy old coot (John Goodman) who may know a secret; Norman’s snotty older sister (Anna Kendrick); his chubby best friend (Tucker Albrizzi); the school bully (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). Unlike Coraline, which focused intently on the childhood terror of suspecting your parents may not be who they seem to be, the story of ParaNorman sprawls in a dozen directions. There are zombie attacks (mostly funny, rarely scary), teenage antics (the kids drive around in a van that bears a faint resemblance to Scooby-Doo’s Mystery Machine) and a third-act revelation that changes the tone of the film from spooky to beautiful, gentle tragedy.
None of this is all that engaging. But the art design of the movie makes up for the slack story. Butler and Fell are diehard fans of the horror genre and they have peppered the film with an endless array of subtle homages and gags, from scratchy VHS tapes of slasher flicks to aural cues of everything from Tubular Bells to the theme from Halloween. A lot of this stuff will sail over the heads of children, who are without question the target audience (unlike Pixar movies, this one doesn’t offer much for grown-ups to chew on). The stop-motion animation, combined with the angular design of the characters, keeps the eyes entranced, though.
ParaNorman is a minor but memorable late entry into the summer movie season, and even though it’s in 3D, this one seems destined to find its true success on home video, where children will probably want to watch it over and over — and hide under their covers during the scarier parts.