With 2009's Coraline the team at Laika Studios established themselves not just as skilled new talents in the specialized realm of stop-motion animation, but expert detailers of the loneliness and bizarre imaginative twists of childhood. Now with ParaNorman, their first original story, the Laika team-- led by directors Sam Fell and Chris Butler-- have made good on that promise and expanded it, telling not just another moving and relatable story about childhood, but adding horror elements to the tired children's adventure genre and making it feel fresh and renewed.
Before the Goonies-style group adventure kicks off, we spend crucial character-building time with Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who comes by his fascination with horror movies honest-- he can see and communicate with dead people, from his ever-present Grandma (Elaine Stritch) to a dog buried in a neighbor's yard. Everyone in Norman's town knows about this, and most of them make fun of him for it, including his older sister (Anna Kendrick) and occasionally even his exasperated Dad (Jeff Garlin), who, like any red-blooded father with an unusual son, just wants him to be normal. Norman's lonely life is exquisitely revealed in details and vignettes from his daily routine, and even when Norman's visions of ghosts start to get more intense and scary, everyone around him only sees it as another chance to poke fun.
Except, of course, there really is something unusual going on-- as revealed by Norman's uncle (John Goodman), who also communicates with the dead, a witch hanged in their town centuries before will rise up and punish everyone unless Norman fulfills one very important task. The band of misfits who wind up helping him, through accident more than design, include the local bully (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), chubby fellow reject Neil (Tucker Albrizzi) and his meathead older brother Mitch (Casey Affleck), and Norman's own skeptical sister, who really just wants to make out with Mitch. When the witch returns and casts her spell, bringing back the corpses of the seven men responsible for hanging her so long ago, the kids are not only outrunning the resurrected old-timey zombies, but eventually their own families and neighbors, whose mob mentality starts looking awfully familiar to anyone who remembers the real story behind all those witch trials back in the day.
The thoughtful way that ParaNorman deals with its ostensible monsters isn't really a revelation-- after all, it's the only way to tell a story that's also about a kid who's mostly misunderstood. The themes and lessons of the movie are familiar ones of the children's film genre, but it's the way ParaNorman brings you to them that's so spectacular. Butler's script moves seamlessly from tight action sequences to long bits of engaged character development, from the silliest of jokes to slyly ironic twists that take you a minute to even figure out. And the animation, boasting beautifully handmade characters fused seamlessly with supernatural CGI, is dazzling and constantly surprising, not just in how much detail there is in each facial expression and elaborate set, but in just how much Laika's imagination defies what you thought was possible within stop-motion. The final set piece, in which Norman finally confronts the witch, is dark and strange and legitimately scary-- and also one of the most gorgeous things you're likely to see onscreen this year.
With infinite warmth toward its characters, whip-smart humor and a plea for human compassion that feels especially necessary these days, ParaNorman is a movie worth wrapping yourself up in. It inspired in me the kind of love that's not necessarily logical, and may have overlooked some flaws that I just can't admit right now. But it cast exactly the right kind of spell on me, the kind that's exceedingly rare at any movies, but especially mainstream Hollywood ones. . At least give the chance to do the same for you.