Norman Babcock sees dead people. And as tough as that was for little Cole in The Sixth Sense, it’s even more so for the pint-sized, picked-on boy in ParaNorman. The latest stop-motion animated treat from Laika Entertainment, which also produced 2009’s Coraline, is equal parts spooky, scary, and downright intense… with a slight smattering of cute and humorous, apparently just so the studio had some jovial parts to include in the trailer.
Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee) lives in the town of Blithe Hollow, a Salem-like town rich in history that just so happens to be celebrating the 300th anniversary of its famous witch trial. While he and his dead grandma (Elaine Stritch) sit in the living room watching B-grade zombie movies all night, the rest of Norman’s family gets more and more fed up with the weird little boy who claims to be able to talk to ghosts.
But then Norman gets some validation from his bizarre uncle Mr. Prenderghast (John Goodman), who tells Norman that he’s the town’s last chance at breaking the dreaded witch’s curse, and that the clairvoyant kid better get to the graveyard pronto to save the day.
Wouldn’t you know it, though, the town bully (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) butts in and messes everything up, and before you can say ‘Scooby-Doo’, the streets are littered with zombies. So it falls on Norman, his typical-teen sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick), his portly buddy Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), and Neil’s muscle-head brother (Casey Affleck) to really save the day.
ParaNorman lesson one: Just because a movie is animated doesn’t mean it’s for kids. There’s very little here that won’t have anyone under the age of six or seven quivering under the seats throughout. And there are other parts that will be equally as intense for tweens, even. I imagine a lot of parents are assuming that, aw, this’ll be cute. It’s not. It’s pretty dark, twisted, and did I mention intense?
ParaNorman lesson two: Pixar doesn’t have the market cornered on high-quality, well-crafted animated movies anymore. Laika’s gone two-for-two now, and Illumination Entertainment (Despicable Me), Dreamworks (Megamind), and even ILM (Rango) are also closing fast.
ParaNorman lesson three: Screenwriter and co-director Chris Butler has deftly stepped into the space at Laika left vacant after the contentious departure of Coraline (and The Nightmare Before Christmas) director Henry Selick. Butler’s vision of Blithe Hollow as a quirky, slightly askew Tim Burton-esque dreamscape will suck you into ParaNorman. The mind-boggling attention to detail will keep you there. And the hair-raising (though surprisingly simplistic) story will linger long after you’re gone.
Not ready to issue the eulogy for handcrafted animation just yet, Butler spent the better part of three years putting ParaNorman together. And it pays off in spades, particularly during the climactic scene in the woods where Norman meets up with the (sorta) big bad witch herself. Any trace of happy-happy-fun-time goes out the window, leaving your jaw on the floor and your knuckles white.
ParaNorman may not be anything like what you’re expecting in a story about a cute kid with Eraserhead hair and Tootsie Roll eyebrows, but sometimes adults deserve to enjoy animated movies, too.