Few movies so taken with death have felt so rudely alive as “ParaNorman,” the latest handcrafted marvel from the stop-motion artists at Laika (“Coraline”). Drawing on a deep affection for horror movies and a keen sense of spooky, snarky fun, British helmers Sam Fell and Chris Butler spin an imaginative patchwork tale of a boy who sees dead people, a witch’s curse and a small-minded township reeling from a zombie uprising. Probably too morbid for moppets, the Focus release won’t command rabid B.O., but its singular sensibility should captivate older kids, teens and adults, spelling a healthy homevid afterlife.
From its clever opening scene — a droll riff on horror-thriller conventions, framed in boxy pan-and-scan with a boom mic intruding clumsily on the action — the picture evinces a sly, sophisticated wit and an easy familiarity with the sort of old-school creature-features that once defined the reputation of Focus’ parent studio, Universal. Maintaining a similarly high level of knowing humor, the material here could theoretically have yielded a fine film in any style of animation; still, it’s hard to imagine a more intuitive fit than stop-motion, a process whose demand for painstaking perfectionism at every stage appears to have extended upward to Butler’s wicked-clever screenplay.
No less than 2009’s “Coraline,” “ParaNorman” is classic adolescent-misfit stuff, serving up an immediately empathetic character in Norman Babcock (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee), a bright but unpopular kid with earnest blue eyes and a tall, hedgelike shock of brown hair. Living with his family in the New England town of Blithe Hollow, Norman has the very “Sixth Sense”-like ability to see and commune with the dead, carrying on a relationship with his late grandmother (Elaine Stritch) and other invisible, ectoplasmic beings who have left behind unfinished business.
While it’s presented to viewers as no big deal, Norman’s gift worries his skeptical parents (Leslie Mann, Jeff Garlin), annoys his teenage sister (Anna Kendrick) and gets him in trouble with a school bully (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). It also earns Norman the attention of another local outcast, the overgrown Prenderghast (John Goodman), who warns him about an ancient curse that will soon take effect, causing the dead to rise again.
In a setup that merges zombie-thriller and teen-movie tropes, Norman and his reluctant allies — who include chubby classmate Neil (Tucker Albrizzi) and his jockish older brother, Mitch (Casey Affleck) — must fend off an undead army in a dark forest, a pitchfork-waving mob and a witch with a 300-year-old grudge (voiced with memorable shrillness by Jodelle Ferland).
As derivative and occasionally belabored as the proceedings are, they’re enlivened by a steady stream of smart sight gags and one-liners that occasionally favor viewers with an irreverent wink, but never stoop to jabbing them in the ribs; even when “Tubular Bells” pops up on the soundtrack, the yuks feel entirely of a piece with the universe Fell, Butler and their ace team of designers and animators have constructed. Indeed, there’s a sharp, acerbic edge to the humor that turns out to be no mere laughing matter; churning beneath the story is a core of genuine rage at the idiocy of the mob mentality, the collective impulse to terrorize or ostracize those who refuse to blend in.
“ParaNorman,” then, insists on the importance of weirdness, idiosyncrasy and personal distinction, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the continually stimulating and mercurial visual style concocted by Fell (who directed “Flushed Away” and “The Tale of Despereaux”) and rookie helmer Butler. The intrinsically unstable look of stop-motion rendering, with its putty-like puppets and wobbly, frame-at-a-time rhythms, has long been suited to the nightmare realms inhabited by directors like Tim Burton and Henry Selick, and the effect here is at once eerily enveloping and gloriously, unabashedly cartoonish.
The ramshackle houses and colonial-style architecture of Blithe Hollow, modeled on early-Massachusetts townships like Salem and Concord as well as the photography of William Eggleston, convey a striking sense of place accented by the autumnal hues of Tristan Oliver’s widescreen cinematography. Lensing is as agile and resourceful as that of any live-action production, from the mobile camerawork (achieved with rigs that only compound the degree of difficulty of individual shots) to the use of old-fashioned rack focus.
The persuasiveness of the story’s milieu provides an anchor for its more fantastical images, such as a witch’s face leering malevolently down from the skies, a vision that might have been rendered in artfully crinkled tissue paper. Only the climax, a blinding-white vision that sticks out from the rest of the film, reps a visual disappointment, albeit one compensated for by the sequence’s sheer emotional force.
Although the 3D isn’t deployed quite as impressively as it was in “Coraline,” it’s done with a similar degree of taste and artful restraint. Voicework is topnotch, particularly Smit-McPhee’s winning underdog turn, and Jon Brion’s playfully creepy score nails the pic’s tone.