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'ParaNorman' offers abnormal frights

8:12 PM, Aug. 19, 2012
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Norman, voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee, hides from a school bully in a scene from 'ParaNorman.' / LAIKA/Focus Features
Norman, voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee, stars in 'ParaNorman,' the story of a boy who is ostracized by friends and families because he can see, and converse with, dead people. / LAIKA/Focus Features

‘ParaNorman’

★ ★ ★
(good)
Rated: PG for scary action and images, thematic elements, some rude humor and language.

Norman, voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee, pretends he is a zombie in a scene from 'ParaNorman,' the story of a boy who is ostracized by friends and families because he can see, and converse with, dead people. / LAIKA/Focus Features
Norman, voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee, gets spooked by his zombie lamp in 'ParaNorman,' the story of a boy who is ostracized by friends and families because he can see, and converse with, dead people. / LAIKA/Focus Features

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As creepy as it is fun, and it is plenty of both, “ParaNorman” will delight fans of old-time horror movies.

What’s so enjoyable about the movie is how it doesn’t skimp on the scary-movie details. Yes, it’s stop-motion animation (created by the studio artists at LAIKA, who made the equally spooky “Coraline”) that kids should like, but much of what’s here will connect squarely with an older audience, too.

For instance, a kid is told he has to retrieve something from the hands of a dead body that has been ripening for a day or two inside an abandoned house. Surely they won’t show the dead person, right? Wrong. Directors Chris Butler and Sam Fell (Butler also wrote the script) make that rare leap: They trust their audience, young and old. They know that kids don’t shy away from some honest scares, and enjoy giving them plenty.

Norman (voice of Kodi Smit-McPhee), like the kid in “The Sixth Sense,” sees dead people. He also carries on conversations with them. It takes him forever to walk to school because he’s so busy exchanging pleasantries with the ghosts that haunt Blithe Hollow, a New England town whose economy is evidently based on a particularly nasty witch trial centuries ago.

His gift does not make Norman popular, at home or at school. (His permanently standing-on-edge hair probably doesn’t help, either.) At home, his mom (Leslie Mann) puts up with his talking to his dead grandmother (Elaine Stritch), but his father (Jeff Garlin) wants none of it. His sister (Anna Kendrick) occasionally takes time away from talking on her cellphone to complain that Norman is a freak, too. It’s worse at school, where Norman is teased and bullied. Only tubby little Neil (Tucker Albrizzi) is nice to him, but Norman is so used to abuse by now he prefers being alone.

The paranormal activity seems to be heating up in town, and a weird old man (John Goodman) warns Norman that he, too, can see dead people — and Norman needs to protect the town from an impending curse involving colonial-era zombies and a 300-year-old witch (Jodelle Ferland).

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It’s all classic old-horror stuff — the outcast having to protect the town and his tormentors, relying on the help of his sister, his sort-of pal Neil, Neil’s older brother Mitch (Casey Affleck) and bully Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), along with his parents.

In that regard, it sounds pretty standard, a typical lessons-learned kid movie. In some respects it is. What’s different about “Paranorman” is that it goes deeper than that. The resolution involves issues of trust, betrayal, love and forgiveness. Truly, this is one animated film that would work just as well as a live-action movie.

All this and jokes about a ghost dog’s butt.

Which is to say it’s a nice balance between the funny, the silly, the scary and the moving. There are a few problems — some of the business with the zombies doesn’t quite hold up, or didn’t for me. And while Norman’s exile from friends and family probably rings true, it’s rather unpleasant to watch, particularly for an extended period.

But the look of the film is great — it’s a beautiful homage to every zombie movie you’ve ever seen (and you will enjoy this movie a lot more if you have, in fact, seen zombie movies). The filmmakers give Blithe Hollow, with its witch-themed stores, billboards and hot-dog stands, a unique feel. It’s always getting dark or dark already there, seems like — just like in any horror movie worth its salt.

“ParaNorman”is worth that, and a lot more.

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