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Review: ParaNorman Packs a Potent Punch

“Perfect. Now the geeks are in charge!”

Thus (sarcastically) speaks Courtney (Anna Kendrick) during a sticky situation in ParaNorman, during which it appears that arcane and situationally specific knowledge is all that might save our lead characters. But as if it really needs pointing out, it’s a line that sums up the entire movie: a zombie-flick (mostly) fit for brave children, one that extols the virtues of horror movies and toy collecting while smacking down intolerance as the real villain. It may also be the only kids movie to open with a parody of the Grindhouse “Our Feature Presentation” logo at the beginning (complete with fake film scratches and pops), which tells you exactly what type of person is making the movie, and which parents they’re really aiming at… in order to hook their kids as well, of course; something they will likely succeed at doing. For ParaNorman, despite some uninspired trailers, is exactly what it wants to be – a family movie that doesn’t pander, pushing boundaries without being inappropriate. That it’s in 3-D stop-motion is just gravy.

Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a lot like (some of) you and me. He owns some monstrous-looking action figures, has the theme to Halloween as his ringtone, sticks his feet into open-mouthed zombie slippers and watches cheesy horror movies on TV with grandma. Except nobody else can see grandma – she died a while back, and her ghost still hangs out on the living-room couch. She’s far from the only spirit still floating around, either – young Norman, far from being a frightened Haley Joel Osment,  is pals with all of them, but mocked for it.

All of this is in the trailers, and frankly they haven’t done a great jobs of selling the movie in one sense – the humor in them is obvious, utilizing wink-wink references and silly scatological humor about such things as dog butts. On the other hand, the ads have done a great job of keeping most of the second half of the story under wraps. Following a nicely efficient “ticking-clock” set-up in which Norman is warned by his creepy and estranged uncle (John Goodman) that he must read a specific incantation at the graveyard that night or all hell will break loose, things inevitably go awry, a curse is unleashed, the 3-D depth of field actually changes, and the rest of the movie incorporates some wild action sequences as well as some ingenious and even heart-wrenching reversals. Some of the stuff at the end gets so downright surreal that you may well feel your mind is being messed with – albeit in a great way. Better yet, there are moments in this cartoony stop-motion flick that are genuinely scary, and not just in a cheap-shock sense (though there’s a bit of that too – the teddy bear filled with moths is a particularly nice use of 3-D).

The story’s love-hate relationship with mass-commercialism nicely mirrors that which many a viewer may recognize in himself or herself. Norman is shunned or picked on for being weird, due to his ability to speak to the dead, but this ability manifests itself in a large collection of corpse-themed posters, kick-knacks and toys; a metaphor for all geeks and their obsessions. However, the town itself, nicely named “Blithe Hollow,” reflects the dark side of merchandise and obsession; known for being a place where witches were executed (a billboard depicting a cartoon witch in a noose welcomes tourists to “a great place to hang”), it has taken a theme to the extreme, with every store and local business somehow riffing on cauldrons or spells or other witchy motifs, making a mockery of the actual incident that will – natch – return to haunt the townspeople in short order (subtext: do you still want your cool stuff if it has a basis in cruelty?).

The tedious chorus of cranks who go on about Harry Potter encouraging witchcraft will undoubtedly find plenty to complain about herein, while the rest of us are busy marveling at what a solid ensemble cast has been put together. In addition to those already mentioned, we get Alex Borstein as an overdramatic teacher, Leslie Mann and Jeff Garlin as Norman’s parents, Christopher Mintz-Plasse as dim-bulb bully Alvin, Bernard Hill as the main zombie, Casey Affleck as an oblivious jock, Elaine Stritch as Grandma’s ghost, and even Tempestt Bledsoe as a motorcycle cop. Tucker Albrizzi is a name not as known as the rest, but he’s certainly a highlight as the fat kid determined to be Norman’s pal no matter how much the loner insists otherwise.

In the end, however, even a good cast isn’t a guarantor of greatness – just ask Brad Pitt about Sinbad some time. What puts ParaNorman over the top is that it truly has heart, and not in the standard Disney “let’s pretend a character is dead so we can make you cry” way. When death enters ParaNorman‘s world, it’s the real deal, and can hit you hard even if there is an assured afterlife. To say too much more would spoil some secret (so far) treasures. No, your kids shouldn’t come out traumatized when all is said and done, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be touch and go moments along the way. Indeed, one can compare this movie to a ride in the best sense.

ParaNorman opens Friday, August 17th.

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