Combustible Celluloid
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With: (voices) Kodi Smit-McPhee, Tucker Albrizzi, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Anna Kendrick, Casey Affleck, John Goodman, Leslie Mann, Jeff Garlin, Elaine Stritch, Bernard Hill, Jodelle Ferland, Tempestt Bledsoe, Alex Borstein
Written by: Chris Butler
Directed by: Chris Butler, Sam Fell
MPAA Rating: PG for scary action and images, thematic elements, some rude humor and language
Running Time: 93
Date: 08/03/2012

ParaNorman (2012)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

I Free Dead People

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Back in the 1930s and 1940s, kids would flock to Universal monster movies, and then to sci-fi monster movies in the 1950s. Kids loved them. Parents hated them. Some kids were probably a bit scared, but pretended not to be. ParaNorman continues that tradition. The only difference is that, now, it is actually being marketed to kids, which probably takes some of the fun away. But there's plenty of fun left.

ParaNorman was written and directed by Chris Butler, who was a storyboard artist on Corpse Bride and a storyboard supervisor on Coraline, which is a great resume for a film like this. (The veteran Sam Fell, of the less spooky Flushed Away and The Tale of Despereaux, is a co-director.) Butler knows that kids like dark, spooky things and that they like their stories to go to fantastic places.

This story involves Norman Babcock (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee), who is a normal kid except for one thing: he can see dead people. At the beginning, he watches some TV (monster movies, of course) with his dead grandma. After a walk to school saying good morning to all the ghosts, he runs into the creepy Mr. Prenderghast (voiced by John Goodman), his uncle, who is very much alive (for the time being). He warns that Norman must take over a terrible ritual, but doesn't explain exactly what the ritual is.

Norman finds out a little too late, and accidentally unleashes the ghost of a witch and a horde of zombies. And so, with the help of another school outcast, Neil (voiced by Tucker Albrizzi), the school bully Alvin (voiced by Christopher Mintz-Plasse), Norman's teen sister Courtney (voiced by Anna Kendrick) and Neil's weightlifter brother Mitch (brilliantly voiced by Casey Affleck), Norman tries to solve the puzzle, stop the witch and zombies, and save the town.

Like Corpse Bride and Coraline, ParaNorman is created with stop-motion animation rather than computer animation, and so it has a much warmer more organic feel; it's made with real elements. It's almost as if the textures and tone make the story spookier, and we can compare ParaNorman to the computer animated Monster House for a test drive. Yet the visuals are not old-fashioned. We get transparent spirits, and awesome storms and light shows.

And, like the hero of Monster House, Norman is a sad fellow, tormented and weighed down with knowledge that kids shouldn't have. So why is it OK for kids to see this? Because Norman shoulders all this stuff and still comes out fine, and because his supernatural problems outweigh the ordinary problems that the rest of us worry about. Thankfully, Norman's four sidekicks are given plenty of funny stuff to do and say; it's especially funny to see Mitch's blank expression as he struggles for long moments to comprehend the zombie invasion around him. Plenty of other talented voices turn up for smaller parts and more laughs: Leslie Mann, Jeff Garlin, Elaine Stritch, Bernard Hill, Jodelle Ferland, Tempestt Bledsoe, and (my old college friend) Alex Borstein.

As a kid I loved the laughs and chills of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (on TV), and if I was that age again, I'd probably love ParaNorman just as much. As an adult, I still like a whole lot.
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