A monster-kid paean with a chilly, autumnal feel, ParaNorman is another richly textured stop-motion spook show from Laika, the studio behind Coraline. First-time writer Chris Butler and Flushed Away director Sam Fell take up the mantle of departed director Henry Selick, creating an atmosphere with a handcrafted, tactile feel that separates it from the slicker CGI atmospheres of its family-film competitors. That nostalgic element is echoed in Butler’s script, which is packed with nods to a bygone fright-film culture, from the scratchy TV print of a drive-in zombie flick that opens the film to the monster models that cram Norman’s shelves to the Halloween ringtone on his phone.
Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee, also the creepy kid in Let Me In) can see and talk with the dead, a “gift” that makes him an outcast with his peers but which he handles with a loner’s equanimity. As he walks to school, greeting the ghosts that crowd the streets of his neighborhood, a somber tone is established that’s an even greater contrast to the antic, pop-culture-savvy tone struck by most modern animated films. Most striking, however, is the film’s casual acceptance of death, an acknowledgment of mortality that resonates more than the story’s more blatant “anyone can be a hero” message. Norman is eventually called upon to battle a witch’s curse placed upon his hometown, a Salem-like tourist trap that cynically celebrates its infamous history but isn’t prepared to confront its realities when a gaggle of Puritan zombies suddenly rise from their graves.
As he digs up the true story behind the town’s hats-and-brooms bastardization of its past, Norman discovers that true horror is more often the result of fear than its cause, and finds that a couple hundred years hasn’t done much to change human nature. The humor lags well behind the gorgeous visuals, but there’s no shortage of stunning detail to admire even in the most tired sight gags.