Norman tries to prevent a zombie apocalypse in ParaNorman.
In what's looking like a banner year for animated films, ParaNorman is without question the sweetest we've seen so far. The film's acceptance themes are anything but subtle, but its story is clever, its animation is crisp, and its characters are really charming. A double feature with Tim Burton's Frankenweenie would make for a very heart-warming, entertaining Halloween—for adults and kids alike.
Norman Babcock (voice of Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a good-natured kid whose best friend is his Grandma (voice of Elaine Stritch). The problem is she's dead. Norman sees and often converses with the dead, which alienates him from his parents and classmates in sad and painful ways. And in a town like Blithe Hollow (presumably standing in for Salem, Massachusetts) with a dark history of curses and accusations of witchcraft, death is everywhere—making Norman's "gift" completely inescapable.
When a scraggly town crier (voice of John Goodman) tells Norman that he must use his gift to save Blithe Hollow and its citizens from imminent doom, he balks. But a storm is brewing, which makes him nervous, so he visits the old man's house, where he's told he needs to read from a book at the place where a supposed witch was put to rest hundreds of years ago. So he does, but nothing happens, and without warning, a handful of zombies rise from the grave to wreak havoc—unless Norman can somehow stop them.
Once the zombies rise, ParaNorman transforms from a character-driven film to something plot-driven, but writer/director Chris Butler and co-director Sam Fell smartly never lose sight of Norman's own demons—his inability to connect with his father, the constant ridicule he receives from kids at school. Norman is sweet, but it's easy to see why he's alienating. Of course, you know he'll change over the course of the film. The trick is to make that growth feel organic. Butler and Fell pull it off better than you might expect. Not only is the transformation natural, but it's entertaining as hell.
It wouldn't exactly be accurate to classify ParaNorman as an action movie, but there are some pretty thrilling chases. The real star of the film, however, is the animation. This is claymation at its absolute best. It looks more like a Halloween movie than anything I've ever seen before with oranges, blacks, filthy greens, and haunting purples dominating every frame. The character design, also, is noteworthy—some characters' heads are shapes I couldn't even describe to you.
ParaNorman is also quite funny—oftentimes to the point that you'll laugh out loud. It features a wide, diverse cast of characters, all of whom ultimately play an important role in the film's resolution, which is pat but satisfying. The film takes you on a pretty wild ride, and by the time you reach that conclusion, you'll feel it's earned. It's hard to argue with a film that can accomplish all that. Though it's slight, it doesn't make a single major misstep.