Here's the historical designation of the new animated film "ParaNorman": It's the third feature made in the painstaking stop-motion process — consciously unrealistic, herky-jerky and rough-hewn, in the George Pal "Puppetoons" or Tim Burton "Corpse Bride" vein — as well as in stereoscopic 3-D. The first two to do so were the very fine"Coraline" and the noisy, bustling"The Pirates! Band of Misfits."
The other distinction worth noting: In this summer of 2012, "ParaNorman" is one of the good movies. Though not up to the riches of "Coraline," also made by the folks at LAIKA, Inc., an animation company in Hillsboro, Ore., "ParaNorman" blends its strains of zombie movie tropes, supernatural curses and stoical, misunderstood preteens with a careful hand. Even when the component parts are familiar, the treatment thereof feels newly observed and thoughtfully integrated. Lead animator and producer Travis Knight establishes a mood, at once sinister and comic, and allows the characters room to move around inside, as they introduce us to the nooks and crannies of the Salem, Mass.-styled town of Blithe Hollow.
Young Norman has a vertical mini-forest of hair and two rectangular, quizzical eyebrows. His home life is bordered by a harsh older sister, a hot-tempered father and a loving but weary mother. Norman has the "Sixth Sense" problem: He sees dead people, one of them being his kindly grandmother, floating around the family home. The grandmother is voiced by Broadway legend Elaine Stritch, which gave me faint hopes of at least one rendition of Sondheim's "The Ladies Who Lunch." Dashed!
Bullied at school, Norman's shadowed by his mysterious Mr. Prenderghast who is desperate to share a secret involving the town's witch-curse. "ParaNorman" morphs into a variation on the movies Norman loves, specifically the undead-focused. There's a sad story of another misunderstood preteen at the root of the curse, and Norman must lead his own band of misfits on a quest to solve the riddle and save the town.
The notion that witch-hunt and pack-animal persecution recur throughout human history gives "ParaNorman" its foundation. The notion that stray body parts, acting alone and acting up, are a solid source of visual slapstick gives the film its comic spark. It's too bad screenwriter and co-director Chris Butler (Sam Fell is the other director) larded the story with 21/2 action climaxes when one would do. The movie, I think, errs by going for the conventionally scary and bombastic Big Finish, even though it's a Melancholy Big Finish, and therefore more intriguing than the average everyday "Ice Age" sequel Big Finish.
What works about "ParaNorman" is its subtle interweave of the stoical and the heroic. The voice work is inspired, without a lot of theatrical flourish. The low-key musical score by Jon Brion, one of the year's best, teases out the macabre humor in each new challenge faced by Norman.
For all their painstaking detail, I never much took to the Tim Burton universe of stop-motion,"The Nightmare Before Christmas"or "Corpse Bride." But "Coraline" and "ParaNorman" are several steps up in terms of ... well, everything that makes a film successful and interesting. The stories seduce rather than bully. The throwaway gags are choice. (At one point in the zombie-invasion section of the film, a three-second radio dispatch is heard: "Officials are urging people to panic and run.") And despite a heavy-going and not-great final 20 minutes, "ParaNorman" gets you in Norman's corner and keeps you there. And for a bonus, the film offers the year's funniest single joke, involving a race between an incoming zombie and a vending machine dispensing, a little too slowly, a bag of chips.
'ParaNorman' -- 3 stars
MPAA rating: PG (for scary action and images, thematic elements, some rude humor and language)
Running time: 1:33
Opens: FridayCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun