Family Movie Review: ParaNorman (PG)

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MPAA Rating: PG     Length: 93 minutes

Appropriate for ages 10 and up. The movie's horror-themed elements are no more intense, really, than your average haunted house, but younger children's defenses could be worn down by the zombie-heavy action or the more ghoulish images and sounds, some of which are intense and come out of nowhere. There are a few swear words—a "hell", a "freakin'", a "jackass"—as well as some teen flirtatiousness. The issue of bullying rears its head mostly for comic effect. One character quips that bullying is "part of human nature;" the idea is never refuted, though the bully is made to look foolish.

In the stop-motion mold of Coraline and The Nightmare Before Christmas, ParaNorman is a grotesquely fun haunted roller coaster ride.

By Jared Peterson

Norman Babcock (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) sees dead people, which, as we all know by now, has its downsides. Everywhere he looks in his sleepy New England town, there are ghosts—always restless, mostly polite, and often rather the worse for wear, depending on how they died.

Unlike the jittery whelp in The Sixth Sense, Norman has made peace with his morbid gift; he loves zombies and horror movies and treats the deceased like eccentric neighbors. He makes no secret of what he can do, but of course no one believes him. He's an outcast at school and an oddity at home. When a kooky, reclusive uncle (John Goodman) reveals that Norman is the key to lifting a 300-year-old curse from the town, the ensuing adventure has him confronting tormentors from all sides, from his manly-man father (voiced by Jeff Garlin) and eye-rolling teen sister (Anna Kendrick) to the school bully (Christopher Mintz-Plasse—McLovin'!), not to mention half a dozen undead Puritans and a very angry witch.

ParaNorman was written by Chris Butler, who was an artist on Coraline, and codirected by Butler and Sam Fell, who helmed the touching and complex The Tale of Despereaux. The film's look mimics the mix of angular realism and grotesque fantasy of Coraline and Tim Burton's stop-motion work, while the structure amounts to The Goonies, above ground and with fiestier skeletons. (Not a dig—when was the last time you flipped past The Goonies on TV and didn't watch it through to the end?) Like all of the above, the movie has deeper, slightly darker themes that touch on the loneliness of being unique and misunderstood.

As Norman, Kodi Smit-McPhee conveys the sadness and exasperation of being a kid who "gets" what no one else can or will. (He's already had some practice playing a supernaturally challenged loner in the chilling Let Me In.) Among a great voice cast, there are standouts: Anna Kendrick (from Up in the Air and one or two vampire movies you may have heard of) as Courtney, Norman's boy-crazy teen sister; and Tucker Albrizzi as Neil, Norman's portly self-appointed sidekick. Each gets some of the best lines in the movie and delivers them with pitch-perfection.

Though ParaNorman is a little dark, and a little more PG than you'd think, its humor and themes make it a good early Halloween treat.

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