ParaNorman: quirky depiction of classic fable

Equal parts old-school and cutting edge, “ParaNorman” is a delightfully funny, thought provoking, and visually innovated stop-motion animated film from the makers of “Coraline.”

Like the undead, animated movies are their very best when they’re not all over the place; and ParaNorman, a spooky 3-D story about a boy who can commune with the dearly and not quite so dearly departed, is an under-control animated adventure, and the most fun you’ll have with ghosts and zombies all year.

Directed by Sam Fell and Chris Butler, the film centers on Norman, a zombie obsessed eleven year old, and a victim of the school’s not as-smart-as-they-come bully Alvin.

At home Norman is loved, but misunderstood; his father is constantly berating him for his conversations with “ghosts”, and his well-meaning,  if a little loopy mom is positive it’s only a phase. His lip glossy teenage sister Courtney doesn’t really care all that much, she has more things to worry about, like boys.

Norman pretty much just hangs out with his grandmother watching scary movies on the TV, which isn’t that big of a deal, except for the fact that she’s dead.

Surprise, surprise, no one believes Norman can really talk to the dead, except for his eccentric (and I do mean eccentric) Uncle Prenderghast — and, of course, the dead, who are around every corner in Blithe Hollow, a tourist town whose claim to fame is a legendary witch hunt, and curse, which happened 300 years ago.

The town is complete with a giant statue of the captured old witch, warty nose and all. Even the annual school play is a reenactment of the trial and hanging of the witch.

Uncle Prenderghast tracks down Norman to tell him he’s the only prevention to a curse cast by the old witch which would let a gang of old zombies on the loose, and then dies, leaving the grisly problem in Norman’s lap. Running amok ensues.

Stop-motion animation allows a story like this to flourish; not only in the way the lines between the different realities can be blurred, but how the style of film itself evokes a kind of spooky fairy tale quality that beckons the viewer inside.

In this strange, new world, all the characters come to life in inventive and innovative ways, with the modeling allowing for a level of sculpted detail that is harder to achieve in more traditional animation styles. The ghosts are a bit wispier and see-through (and decayed) than the town folks and, to be honest, a more fun than fearful bunch.

The zombies are awesome. The animators are clearly having a good time as the undead lose and retrieve bits of their decaying bodies along the way, and the mood is infectious. There are some zombie and witch related rampages that might be too frightening for the kiddies, but all in all, it’s fairly family-friendly.

The best part of the film is it’s quirky little riffs on kids’ problems and brain-thirsty zombies. There are a few hilarious jabs at familiar stereotypes, the best found among Norman’s band of unlikely companions: A new friend named Neil/Tucker, the well-meaning and also-bullied fat kid, and Neil’s older and buff, but not-too-bright brother Mitch.

“ParaNorman” is a wryly funny movie, resplendent with its tributes to horror thrillers and a rich cast of characters, has delightfully spooky breathtaking visuals, and a welcome absence of potty humour. The film is ripe with a sharp, cutting humour, that is not entirely ironic; underneath the hilarity and fun visuals is a core of ire towards the idiocy of the mob mentality, and the collective impulse to terrorize or ostracize those who refuse to blend in.

Don’t assume that “ParaNorman” is all about being an aesthetically beautiful film; it delivers a potent multi-pronged fable that touches on the meaty themes, from bullying to dealing with death. It also delivers an especially resonant message about not succumbing to a cult of fear.