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"PARANORMAN"
(2012) (voices of Kodi Smit-McPhee, Tucker Albrizzi) (PG)

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QUICK TAKE:
Animated Horror/Comedy: A boy, who can see and talk to ghosts, finds himself appointed to deal with a 300-year-old witch's curse and seven related zombies that are now on the loose in his small town.
PLOT:
In the small town of Blithe Follow, Norman Babcock (voice of KODI SMITH-McPHEE) is considered the odd kid, what with him walking around talking to people who aren't there. He even does that at home, much to the chagrin of his parents, Sandra (voice of LESLIE MANN) and Perry (voice of JEFF GARLIN), and older teen sister, Courtney (voice of ANNA KENDRICK).

In fact, Perry is concerned that his son will turn out like the boy's reclusive and strange uncle, Mr. Prenderghast (voice of JOHN GOODMAN), and the boy's actions make him the target of bullies such as Alvin (voice of CHRISTOPHER MINTZ-PLASSE) at school, leaving chubby Neil (voice of TUCKER ALBRIZZI) as his default friend. Yet, Norman isn't losing his mind, as he has the ability to see and talk to ghosts, including his late Grandma (voice of ELAINE STRITCH).

That gift has led Mr. Prenderghast to inform Norman that it's now up to him to stop a centuries old curse from afflicting the town once again. It seems that 300 years ago, The Judge (voice of BERNARD HILL) and his jury of six convicted young Aggie (voice of JODELLE FERLAND) of being a witch and had her hanged. As a result, she cursed them and the town, and it's now up to Norman to figure out how to stop that.

With the help of the others, including Neil's somewhat dimwitted brother, Mitch (voice of CASEY AFFLECK), Norman sets out to do just that, but must contend with the vengeful ghost, seven unearthed zombies and an angry mob of residents who want to run the undead from their town.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
In M. Night Shyamalan's superlative 1999 psychological horror film "The Sixth Sense" eight-year-old Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment) eventually owns up "I see dead people," something the adults around him don't initially believe. Now, thirteen years later, Norman Babcock is having the same problem. Thankfully, that's not in "Return of the Sixth Sense."

Instead, it's played mostly for laughs and in stop-motion animated form in "ParaNorman," a fun and entertaining horror comedy romp aimed at kids as well as adults with a working knowledge of previous horror flicks. If it reminds some viewers of 2009's "Coraline" (also a stop-motion animated product), that shouldn't be a surprise, considering the otherworldly plot aspects, its child protagonist and the fact that it comes from the same production house, Laika.

It's always a good sign when the filmmakers -- in this case, writer/director Chris Butler and co-director Sam Fell -- quickly manage to make the viewer forget the format in which their story is being told. After all, the old stop-motion animation technique (where the physical -- rather than computer-animated or hand-drawn -- characters and set pieces are painstakingly moved bit by bit so that still images of them can be played back in real time to create motion) is a bit clunky looking and could easily be distracting.

That's not the case here as the movie starts off with a made-up clip of an old school, cheapie horror flick that our protagonist (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) is watching on TV with his grandmother (Elaine Stritch). The only issue -- at least to his parents (Leslie Mann and Jeff Garlin) and older teenage sister (Anna Kendrick) -- is that dear old grandma is no longer around. Not in terms of having lost mental acuity, mind you, but rather she's been deceased for some time. Nonetheless, Norman continues to carry on conversations with her and other such spirits, something that's made him a town oddball, including resulting in him being tormented by the school bully (Christopher Mintz-Plasse).

He also ends up harassed by his seemingly demented and formerly reclusive uncle (John Goodman) who sets the main plot into motion by informing the boy that he must stop a witch's curse that's plagued their town for centuries and is about to rear its ugly head again. From that point on, Norman tries to figure out exactly what that means, all while dealing with his detractors, a group of zombies that have sprung up, an angry mob of locals and the vengeful spirit that's behind all of the supernatural mayhem.

Although the film is a horror comedy at its core, it also features some deeper thematic issues, most of which revolve around bullying. Beyond Norman receiving the brunt of that, there's also his chubby classmate (Tucker Albrizzi) who gets picked on due to his looks, while the town's unofficial mascot -- a stereotypically terrifying witch who was hung 300 years ago -- turns out to have been a girl (Jodelle Ferland) who suffered the most from being viewed as different by her elders.

That might sound perhaps too deep, depressing and/or intense for a pic like this (and the film does begin to spiral out of control near the end when nearly all hell breaks loose and the fun evaporates), but the filmmakers wisely pull back and balance all of that with plenty of jokes, action and bits of homage regarding various horror films from the past.

There's also a plethora of fine details in the lushly animated visuals, most of which similarly revolve around the horror-comedy theme. Vocal work is solid across the board, and Christopher Murrie's editing and Jon Brion's score keep things moving at a lively pace (especially for a film featuring a bunch of typical, lumbering zombies).

While it likely won't go down in the annals of animated films as a great entry, it's nonetheless a clear and solidly entertaining effort from start to finish. And you don't need to see dead former animators such as pioneer Willis "King Kong" O'Brien to recognize that it's definitely a labor of love for all involved, especially considering the time and difficulties of making a film like this. "ParaNorman" rates as a 6.5 out of 10.




Reviewed August 14, 2012 / Posted August 17, 2012


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