Film Review: ParaNorman

New supernatural tale from the stop-motion studio behind 'Coraline' is a rollicking good time until its jarringly somber and earnest final act.

Stop-motion animation has carved out its own spooky sub-genre, Tim Burton leading the way with The Nightmare Before Christmas, Corpse Bride and the upcoming Frankenweenie. It must have something to do with all those inanimate objects coming magically alive through the craft and patience of artisans willing to toil for hours over a few seconds of footage.

ParaNorman, the Portland, Oregon-based LAIKA studio’s follow-up to its Oscar-nominated Coraline, is a highly entertaining addition to the ghostly stop-motion roster. Like Coraline, it centers around a child (this time a boy) subject to otherworldly forces, though here it’s not a sudden, strange encounter but an unavoidable fact of young Norman Babcock’s daily existence. Like that celebrated kid in The Sixth Sense, Norman sees dead people (and dead animals too). And there are more dead people hanging around (sometimes literally) the economically bereft New England town of Blithe Hollow than you might imagine.

Unfortunately, no one believes Norman can really commune with spirits, so he’s regarded as an oddball and bullied at school. His only real friends are his dead grandmother, usually ensconced on the living-room sofa, and his tubby, excitable schoolmate Neil. The plot kicks into gear when Norman is visited by his eccentric Uncle Prenderghast, who enlists the boy’s help in defeating a long-ago witch’s curse that is about to wreak havoc on the town, where the main tourist draw is its witch-hunting heritage. When his frantic uncle himself drops dead, it’s up to Norman to save Blithe Hollow, abetted by Neil and such unexpected allies as Norman’s self-absorbed sister Courtney, Neil’s physically imposing but dunderheaded brother Mitch, and mean school bully Alvin.

From its opening parody of a low-budget ’50s horror movie playing on the Babcocks’ TV to its winking nods to Halloween and Friday the 13th, ParaNorman is clearly the work of filmmakers with an abiding love of this genre. Their most brilliant stroke is a complete upending of all those shopworn clichés about the undead; in Blithe Hollow, the sluggish pace of its zombie invaders makes them hilariously ineffectual, and in one brilliant series of rapid-fire visual gags, we see modern “civilization” from their own terrified perspective.

The human characters are also a droll bunch. An unrecognizable Anna Kendrick is very amusing as Norman’s unsupportive sister, who is instantly smitten by the dim but undeniably buff Mitch (an equally funny Casey Affleck). Young Tucker Albrizzi brings ceaseless energy to Norman’s upbeat pal Neil, and old pros John Goodman and Elaine Stritch make a lively uncle and grandma, respectively. And Kodi Smit-McPhee, of the post-apocalyptic The Road and vampire shocker Let Me In, is ideal casting as the supernaturally attuned title character.

ParaNorman is so much fun and so dense with visual delights, it’s a bit of a jolt when it suddenly takes its premise altogether seriously, as Norman confronts the doomed little girl with special powers who harbors a bitter grudge against the people of Blithe Hollow. Their showdown is so fierce and violent (and earnestly message-laden), it seems to belong to a different movie than the jokey lark we’ve been enjoying up to that point. ParaNorman never quite recovers from that jarring shift in tone, but a two-thirds success rate is better than most.

As in Coraline, the LAIKA studio excels in production design; the miniature sets are so detailed, you’ll wish a “making-of” short accompanied the main feature. Sam Fell and Chris Butler co-directed from a script by Butler, and though ParaNorman lacks the cachet and stylistic assurance of Coraline director Henry Selick and author Neil Gaiman, it’s a raucously creative achievement the studio can be proud of.