Stop-motion animation is one of the most resilient techniques in the history of movies, having initially proven its appeal at the turn of the 19th century and soldiered on through the onslaught of CGI. The exceptions to the ghettoization of stop-motion animation, from "Robot Chicken" to "Corpse Bride," prove the process hasn't lost its appeal among newer technologies. Of course, whereas animators may struggle to root digital images in the real world, stop motion has a leg up by starting there. Upgraded to 3-D, the effect is even more wondrous, pulling viewers into a world that seems familiar while departing in a spectacular act of optical magic.
That's the primary distinction that made both Henry Selick's 2009 Oscar nominee "Coraline," and now "ParaNorman," stand out. Selick's ethereal adaptation of Neil Gaiman's book made its eerie themes of dark truths encroaching on childhood innocence more pronounced; original property "ParaNorman" struggles to match its technical wizardry with an equally compelling story. If only the talent driving the visuals had enhanced the screenplay as well.
Both productions of the Oregon-based Laika animation studio, "Coraline" and "ParaNorman" have much in common: They each feature a disturbed, alienated child aiding ghostly characters stuck on Earth until the mystery of their deaths is solved. Unlike "Coraline," however, "ParaNorman" dives right into its supernatural ingredients. From the opening scene, it's clear that wide-eyed middle schooler Norman Babcock (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) sees dead people — loads of them, from his doting grandmother who watches television with him to a half dozen affable glowing spectres he greets on the way to school.
Divorced from any specific narrative, the movie's earliest scenes are disarming and charming, despite the ghoulish context. Norman doesn't question his power or appear particularly bothered by the ghosts; the grinning corpses that greet Norman along his commute to school are the friendliest of their kind since Casper.
While his neurotic father (Jeff Garlin) dismisses his son's chatter as the ramblings of a disturbed child, Norman's apparent comfort with his visions immediately establish his comfort as an outsider. At this point, whether or not his floating visions truly exist only matters if you're equally bothered by the possibility that Hobbes was a product of Calvin's imagination.
When the plot grows complicated, however, it quickly becomes evident that directors Sam Fell and Chris Butler intend to explore a lot more than an overactive child's mind. Set in a small New England community haunted by its ancient history of witchcraft trials, "ParaNorman" eventually finds Norman using his power to literally address the demons of his town's past. After his spooky uncle (John Goodman) tells him he must stop "the witch's curse" before disaster strikes, Norman races against time to stop a group of newly risen zombies from wreaking havoc in town. These would be the persecutors of a late witch whose spirit has grown restless in the years since her death and it's up to Norman to calm her with the help of a few newfound friends.
The ensuing romp finds Norman joining forces with a portly classmate (Tucker Albrizzi), his hunky teen brother (Casey Affleck) and Norman's churlish older sister in order to stop the resurrected dead in their tracks. Their ensuing attempts unfold with a series of comic chase scenes interspersed with witty dialogue, but Butler's script trades nuance for a breezy sense of humor that frequently undercuts the deeper themes at work.
At the same time, the bleak cause of the disaster — no less than America's lingering guilt for the murder of those charged with witchcraft — endows "ParaNorman" with a profound message about the need to come to terms with a past generation's sins. More than the troubled the script, the visuals reflect the intrusion of deeper truths on an oppressed world, as they shift from the mundane grays of suburbia to the effervescent, neon palette that overwhelms the screen in the sensational climax. Jon Brion's pensive score accentuates the imagery to marvelous effect.
Unlike the polished universe of Pixar's "Brave" or countless other recent CGI efforts, "ParaNorman" maintains a delicate, handcrafted look that underscores its ideas. The movie is truly progressive down to a handful of minor details (in a sly nod to a society that has moved forward, the closing scene includes an acknowledgement of sexual preferences that I'm pretty sure has never surfaced in a movie of this type). And yet everything that makes it succeed also draws attention to the derivative and often sloppy qualities of the script that hold it back. As a gothic fantasy aimed at viewers the same age as the protagonist, "ParaNorman" is both a cut above and more of the same.
Criticwire grade: B-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Focus Features releases "ParaNorman" nationwide on August 17. Arriving at the tail end of the summer, it should do well among family audiences and has a good chance of remaining in play for awards season, given the limited field for animated features. However, mixed reviews may result in its inability to replicate the success of "Coraline" from years ago.