‘ParaNorman’ review: A boy and his ghoulish toys

Above, a scene from "ParaNorman." (Photo credit: Focus Features)

Above, a scene from “ParaNorman.” (Photo credit: Focus Features)

—    Critic’s pick

‘ParaNorman’ a visual treat

Brilliantly askew the way only human touch can manage, draped with lush and creative visuals from the main character’s spiky hair to the ghouls abound, “ParaNorman,” a 3-D stop-motion animation from the Oregon-based Laika, is touching, funny, sometimes frightful and, most of all, a visual treat.

Its stunning animation, created with both computer and human touch, should remind of Laika’s previous feature film, “Coraline” (2009). The stop-motion is engaging in a way the story or characters don’t always emulate. Its beauty is in the detail: Watch Norman talk to his dead grandmother (voiced by Elaine Stritch) as though she were truly there, instead of her being shrouded in a sticky green mist; watch the ghouls, dismembered and lacking skin in some cases, prattle about as though they still live; watch the sky change between a dizzying array of colors.

“ParaNorman,” in a story as old as the dead rising from their graves, is simply about a misunderstood boy. And you can’t blame him for being upset about his plight. He sees and talks to dead people. (Cue “The Sixth Sense” joke.) And because of his gift, he’s more or less ostracized from society at large, hence he becomes more attuned to the dead lingering around him. And so the sad cycle continues.

Norman’s (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) less-than-standard appearance doesn’t assuage the concerns of his family or neighbors, either. With his ever-on-end hair, hunched shoulders and intense gaze, he’s off putting, a miniature dark hero, if you will. He has his odd tics, though, while funny to watch, they tend to cause concern to his family. But his nature is his redemption: He’s not looking to be redeemed, because he doesn’t consider himself to be in the wrong. He simply wants to be understood.

But the people in his life – from his vapid cheerleader sister, Courtney (Anna Kendrick), to his less-than-understanding father, Perry (Jeff Garlin), to the classic bully character, Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse – make this task complicated. Even in his own home, Norman and his gift are left in the cold. Critically, most of the other characters lack the substance Norman has, at least at first. As the story progresses, it seems inner strength does come from within, and some heart-warming sequences follow as a result.

But again, the story, involving witches and judgmental Puritans, isn’t the draw here. For all the cuteness and fuzzy feelings the plot may garner, it’s still the striking visuals that keep you enthralled. It’s the change in scenery from the brightly lit city to the haunting woods. It’s the emotive expressions our heroes show when in danger or when fighting the battle. Really, it’s every little thing, zombies and ghosts included.

Four ghoulish stars out of five, and a critic’s pick.

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