'ParaNorman': Otherworldly Pleasures
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
As much as I love the old Looney Tunes and vintage Disney shorts and features, and enjoy complaining that they just don't make 'em like they used to, every now and then I see a contemporary animated film that makes me believe that we just might be living in a new golden age of the genre. And I'm not just talking Pixar.
Jan Svankmajer, the Aardman gang ("Chicken Run" and the Wallace and Gromit pictures), those "Triplets of Belleville" kooks ... all these auteurs and outfits are up to fantastic stuff, as is, it so happens, Laika Entertainment, the company behind the awesomely beautiful and evocative creepy-crawly stop-motion animation gem "Coraline." These folks are like the slightly family-friendlier EC Comics of the genre, and their newest picture, "ParaNorman," is, among other things, their scariest yet.
I know what you're thinking: How scary can a movie about a nerdy small-town boy who sees dead people really get? You've seen that movie before, no? Well, no. Norman is first seen watching a vintage horror picture on the TV with his grandmother, who, as it turns out, is not all there ... at all. On his walk to school, we see all the poor unable-to-get-to-the-afterlife souls that he communes with, and at school we meet all the mean kids who abuse Norman on account of his "gift," including a genuine lummox named Alvin. Because it's fall, and because the town is a New England one whose tourism ads tout a witchcraft-heavy past, it's all rendered in breathtaking autumnal colors and the ghosts have an amazing 3-D translucence.
Soon the folks who scorned Norman come to rely on him, of course, as it's only via his powers that an ancient curse upon the town can be lifted. The curse does not get reversed in time, and the ensuing zombie action is kind of tame ... at first. But for the last 30 minutes or so, the living trees and other manifestations of the curses' wrath result in some of the most genuinely jarring horror imagery to come out of any recent fright-fest, live-action or animated. And when the secret of the curse is revealed, "ParaNorman" morphs yet again, from an edge-of-your-seat thriller to a two- or maybe three- hanky weepie.
All the while, the movie serves up characters that skirt the commonplace but rarely come off as clichéd. (They are expertly voiced by a cast that includes Anna Kendrick, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Elaine Stritch, Casey Affleck, John Goodman, Tucker Albrizzi and Kodi Smit-McPhee in the title role.) Norman turns out to be, when all is said and done, something of an outcast among outcasts, and the movie comes by its ain't-no-delinquent-just-misunderstood denouement both honestly and movingly. Even if you don't feel a connection to the story, beautifully written by Chris Butler and co-directed by Butler and Sam Fell, if you're any kind of animation or graphic art fiend or even mild enthusiast, the visuals are sure to stagger you. "ParaNorman" is an extrasensory delight for sure.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.