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PARANORMAN – The Review

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For many years most of the movie going public has associated animation with the hand drawn features of  Walt Disney, like FANTASIA and DUMBO. Younger audiences may think more of the computer-generated features started by Pixar with TOY STORY almost 20 years ago. But there’s another type of animation that’s occasionally used in features, stop-motion animation. Instead of drawing, the artists move a figure ( sometimes a puppet, sometimes clay ) one frame at a time to simulate motion. In Hollywood’s Golden age, this technique was used in the special effects department, first by Willis O’Brien with the original 1933 KING KONG and later by film wizard Ray Harryhausen with his Sinbad series and JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS. Several foreign film makers used this method for short films along with George Pal producing the Puppettoons short series here for Paramount. TV entered with the Gumby shorts and later the Rankin/Bass company produced several popular holiday specials starting with ” Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”. Eventually RB branched out into feature motion pictures, most notably with MAD MONSTER PARTY. Certainly that film inspired Tim Burton’s hit ( with animator Henry Sellick ) THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS in 1993. Since then England’s Aardman Studio released a few features starting with CHICKEN RUN and Sellick followed up with JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH and CORALINE. Well, the studio that helped produce that last film, Laika Entertainament, has made PARANORMAN, which is another leap forward in the art of stop-motion feature animation. And it’s really, really funny.

The film’s title refers to Norman Babcock ( voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee ), a pre teen lad with Eraserhead-like hair who has an unusual gift, although sometimes he thinks it’s a curse. It’s not his vertical follicles. Seems he can see and talk to dead people. These spirits just aren’t ready to move on to the next level-they’ve got unfinished business, including Norman’s Grandma’ ( Elaine Stritch ). This causes no end of concern for Norman’s Mom and Dad ( Leslie Mann and Jeff Garlin ) and embarrassment for his older sister, cheerleader Courtney ( Anna Kendrick ). It’s not much better at school where he’s mercilessly picked on by Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse ), although Norman has an ally with chunky outcast Neil ( Tucker Albrizzi ). Their little New England town of Blythe Hollow is preparing for its tri-centennial when its forefathers tried and hanged a woman for witchcraft ( the standard old crone witch icon becomes the town mascot ). One day, outside the school, Norman is approached by his eccentric Uncle Prenderghast ( John Goodman ), who knows about the boy’s gift. He explains that unless Norman reads from a mystical book at the witch’s grave at sunset, her curse will make the dead rise and destroy the town. Can Norman, aided by Courtney, Alvin, Neil, and his jock older brother Mitch ( Casey Affleck ) thwart these supernatural forces ?

To say anything else might spoil the wonderful surprises in this inspired romp. I will say that this is a visual treat from the character design ( so expressive ) to the look of Blythe Hollow ( the witch adorned signage ). You’ll find yourself chuckling even before you hear the witty dialogue. The film begins with a hysterical tribute to low-budget late night TV horror flicks that puts us right in the proper ” spirit ‘ for the ensuing hijinks. Those include a clunky school pageant / play about the witch trial directed by an overbearing drama coach ( Alex Borstein ). A later sequence with Norman trying to retrieve the mystical book is superb slapstick that would make Buster Keaton proud. All this before the kids unite to stop the walking dead ( these klutzes are more the walking doofus ) like a junior Scooby Doo gang ( or better yet, THE MONSTER SQUAD ). The action and laughs never let up till the final face-off ( which may be just a tad too serious and confusing ). The last scenes may hammer home the films plea for tolerance of the different tooheavy a hand ( especially when a character’s orientation is revealed ). These are minor quibbles with what is one of this Summer’s very best films ( this has to be a Best Animated Feature Oscar nominee along with BRAVE and, perhaps, the upcoming FRANKENWEENIE ). Like many kid flicks, the adults may enjoy it for the subtle humor that may be over the heads of tykes. So is it okay for the little ones? The smallest may be skittish about the zombies, who look gnarly but are pretty benign ( no muching and noshing ). It all depends on the young individual. At seven I was monster crazy, with my room decorated almost like Norman’s ( another visual treat with posters, toys, toothbrushes, and slippers- I almost expected to see a copy of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine ). Oh, and the 3D works very well with these stop-motion marvels. So, if your kids can handle some mild scares, take them to movies and share a wild,spooky adventure with Norman and his gang. PARANORMAN is inspired cinema artistry and one of the year’s best comedies.

Overall Rating: 4.5 Out of 5 Stars

Jim Batts was a contestant on the movie edition of TV's "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" in 2009 and has been a member of the St. Louis Film Critics organization since 2013.

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