Movie review: Monster movie 'ParaNorman' mixes dark journey with clever comedy


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Norman's mother assures him that his late grandma is "in a better place now."

The boy, though, insists, "No, she's in the living room."

Minutes earlier, he and she were watching a zombie movie although only Norman can see her.

He is an 11-year-old ghost whisperer whose special skills have earned him the unwanted attention of a bully who scrawls "Freak" on his school locker. In "ParaNorman," he doesn't see all ghosts, just the ones of people who died suddenly or in a bad way or who have something to figure out or finish.


'ParaNorman'

3 stars = Good
Ratings explained
  • Starring: Voices of Kodi Smit-McPhee, Anna Kendrick, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Casey Affleck, Tucker Albrizzi.
  • Rating: PG for scary action and images, thematic elements, some rude humor and language.

Even in a town called Blithe Hollow, which uses a 300-year-old witch hunt to market itself and to lure tourists, Norman is a misfit. In that regard, he's like his newfound pal Neil, whose weight is just one of the reasons he is a target.

Norman is confronted one day by his estranged eccentric Uncle Prenderghast -- or "the weird stinky old bum who lives up on the hill" as Neil describes him. He reveals that an ancient witch's curse is real, and it's up to Norman to save the town.

Soon, the boy whose hair naturally stands straight up, as if he had been frightened in an old horror movie, finds himself in the creepy company of zombies, and they're not just on the posters on his bedroom wall. It's a real night of the living dead with lessons about children who happen to be different or oddballs, through no fault of their own.

Norman's dad, for one, has little patience with his son who made a scene at school. "It's one thing being a mental case in front of the family," the father says, but another when it happens before the whole town.

When the boy says, "I didn't ask to be born this way," his father adds, "Neither did we." Ouch.

"ParaNorman," a stop-motion animated feature, is from the companies behind 2009's "Coraline." That title character was an 11-year-old who discovers a secret passageway in her new apartment that leads to a world where her "other" mother and father live. It seems perfect until the other parents reveal their true selves and want to replace Coraline's eyes with buttons.

As with that movie, this one is rated PG and puts characters who are children in jeopardy although the idea of Coraline probably hit home more than a boy who can gab with ghosts.

Although it mines clever comedy from ghouls who lose their arms or other body parts and humans who lose their minds, there is a disturbing thread in "ParaNorman" about a girl who met a horrible demise and appears as a spirit. That makes this more suitable for children perhaps 9 or 10 and up; this is not for preschoolers who happily lapped up the "Madagascar" and "Ice Age" sequels.

"ParaNorman," directed by Sam Fell and writer Chris Butler, features the voices of Kodi Smit-McPhee (the boy in "The Road") as Norman, Anna Kendrick as his superficial older sister and Leslie Mann and Jeff Garlin as their parents; Tucker Albrizzi as Neil and Casey Affleck as his older brother; Christopher Mintz-Plasse as the bullying Alvin; John Goodman as Uncle Prenderghast; and Elaine Stritch as Norman's dead grandma.

In what may be a bid for easy laughs or distinctive looks, most of the teens and adults have exaggerated physical features. Norman's dad sports a gut worthy of Norm on "Cheers," Norman's sister is literally hippy, and Neil's brother has an upper body like an inverted triangle, with wide shoulders tapering to a teeny waist.

It's been a remarkable year for animated movies with such standouts as "Dr. Seuss' The Lorax," "The Pirates! Band of Misfits" and "Brave." This doesn't reach that high, but it does manage to be a monster movie about middle-schoolers, and if you stick around through the credits, you can watch Norman come to animated life.

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Movie editor Barbara Vancheri: bvancheri@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1632. Read her blog: www.post-gazette.com/madaboutmovies. First Published August 17, 2012 4:00 AM


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