Directed by Chris Butler and Sam Fell
Starring: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Anna Kendrick, Christopher Mintz-Plasse
Rated PG-13 for scary action and images, thematic elements and some rude humor and language
Norman Babcock sees dead people.
As the title portmanteau of ParaNorman — the second feature from Pacific Northwest animation house Laika — suggests, he is mostly cool with that. After all, the kid wakes up to a groaning zombie alarm clock every morning, and pretends to foam at the mouth while brushing his teeth. He obviously has no issues interacting with the spirit realm.
Besides, unlike the living, the spooks don’t judge him. A drama geek with an electro-shock hairdo who is prone to vivid hallucinations that cause reality to strip away like rapidly peeling paint, Norman is an easy target for bullying. His school locker is defamed so often he keeps a bottle of cleaner inside it to wash away the daily reminders that he is a “FREAK.” Things aren’t much better at home, where his dad wonders aloud how he raised such a strange boy. The only flesh-and-blood human who understands him — aside from Neil, the resident freckly fat kid at his middle school — is his estranged uncle, a schizophrenic hobo who insists Norman is the only person capable of stopping the town of Blithe Hollow from incurring the wrath of a witch’s curse.
All that probably sounds familiar — if not from the countless other movies about misfits in search of redemption, then from the first Laika picture, 2009’s Coraline. In that film, a young outcast with absentee parents also traversed between worlds and learned lessons about growing up, and what it really means to “fit in.”
Comparisons between the two are inevitable, so let’s compare. Is ParaNorman as good as its predecessor? No, it’s not. It doesn’t have the depth of imagination, nor the emotional pull. Although it contains moments of impressive visual pow — it’s animated in remarkable stop-motion — it doesn’t match the barrage of sheer awe that made Coraline such a wondrous experience. And while Coraline was based on a popular Neil Gaiman book, ParaNorman, an original story from Chris Butler, feels more like something that’s come before. It is, in fact, a celebration of things that have come before. Directors Butler and Chris Fell are clearly channeling their own childhoods here: The movie starts off with Norman enthralled by a cheap pan-and-scan zombie flick, complete with a throbbing synth score and visible boom mic. His bedroom walls are plastered with images of various nasties cut out from magazines. Heck, the ringtone on his cell phone is “Tubular Bells.” ParaNorman is a pastiche valentine to the horror genre, which makes it endearing, but not necessarily unique.
As long as we’re measuring the films against each other, though, let it be said: ParaNorman is a lot more fun. With Norman setting out to save his city from a horde of colonial zombies, the movie becomes a supernatural caper not far removed from the mold of an old Scooby Doo episode; eventually, Norman and his motley gang of reluctant cohorts — which comes to include Neil and his jock brother, Norman’s bubbleheaded sister and a breakdancing bully — end up driving around in a van that looks suspiciously similar to the Mystery Machine. The action is bolstered by the cast’s standout voice work. Kodi Smit-McPhee imbues Norman with great empathy. Jeff Garlin is hilarious as Norman’s raspy exasperated father. And scrawny Christopher Mintz-Plasse, as Alvin the bully, somehow conveys the insecurity of a doughy lunkhead even though, in real life, he was more likely the one who spent high school getting shoved into lockers.
It is also much funnier. For all of Coraline’s gothic beauty, it never induced much laughter (which tends to happen in movies involving ghost children with buttons sewn over their eyeballs). But a streak of sly, subversive humor charges Butler’s screenplay. It takes jabs at trigger-happy police officers and inverts the horror film dynamic, depicting the frightened citizenry as the true bloodsuckers. At one point early on, Norman walks into his kitchen. “What are you watching in there?” asks his father. “Sex and violence,” he replies.