Like that poor misunderstood kid in “The Sixth Sense,” the title character in “ParaNorman” sees dead people.
Norman (voice of Kodi Smit-McPhee) is an embarrassment to his family and a target for bullies at school, but he can't help that souls with unfinished business on Earth, such as his Grandma (voice of Elaine Stritch), appear and talk to him.
“ParaNorman” may be rated PG, but the scare factor is too intense for preschool kids. Like “Coraline,” this claymation feast plays with the horror genre while also slipping a couple useful messages to the grade-schoolers and tweeners watching it.
The sense of humor, clever and wry, will appeal to adults, too.
Norman lives in a small New England town that trades on its history of witch trials. The 300th anniversary of an execution triggers a crisis. Norman's bizarre uncle Prenderghast (John Goodman) tells him the zombie spirits of the town's founding fathers, who executed the suspected witch, will rise up from their graves at sunset.
Norman is the only one who can stop them, plus the vengeful wrath of the witch herself, and he has to visit the witch's grave to do it.
He has company. The chubby kid at school, Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), who understands being picked on, befriends Norman. Neil's big brother, Mitch (Casey Affleck), is the stereotypical jock, while Norman's big sister, Courtney (Anna Kendrick), is a blabby cheerleader with attitude. The dim-bulb school bully, Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), also gets sucked in for the horror show.
The stop-motion claymation is Oscar-caliber, and the voice work is very strong as well (Leslie Mann and Jeff Garlin voice Norman's parents). Visuals depicting the witch are beautiful in a ghoulish sort of way, and there are edgy bits of humor scattered throughout.
Less successful: The zombies aren't given enough to do that's imaginative or scary, and the tone of the ending doesn't seem to match what came before. Suddenly the movie loses that edge.
On the other hand, the messages for kids here are pretty good. One is that some obstacles in life are scary, but we need to face them.
Another, on the ever-present theme of bullying these days, explains that people who say and do mean things are often motivated by fear.
“ParaNorman” pays tribute to the B horror movies of the 1950s in its opening segment, then establishes its own gags rather than referencing other movies all the way through. It's got plenty of imagination and originality.
I'd be hesitant about taking my 7-year-old nephew or niece. But I think kids a couple years above that age will love “ParaNorman” precisely because it wants to scare them a little here and there.
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