For all the ghostly hauntings, zombie uprisings and witching ways of “ParaNorman,” it is the irreverent spirit of the classic 1985 film “The Goonies” that most strongly pervades the animated feature.
A 3-D stop-motion horror-comedy for kids — it's not suited for most preschoolers but youngsters who survive the terrors of elementary school bus rides can handle it — “ParaNorman” is a throwback in more ways than one. In the age of helicopter parenting, it actually allows young characters to experience a harrowing adventure without adult supervision, it dares to dole out genuine supernatural scares along with real-life frights and it has the nerve to introduce dryly cheeky British humor that doesn't originate from a toilet or a tired pop culture reference.
The story may get a bit muddled, but writer/co-director Chris Butler deserves kudos for taking risks with children's fare that aren't often seen in cinemas anymore.
The latest 3-D stop-motion project from Laika, the Portland, Ore.-based studio that made the similarly dark 2009 fantasy-horror feature “Coraline,” “ParaNorman” is set in the small, shabby hamlet of Blithe Hollow, where the denizens keep the local economy alive by exploiting the town's frightful past, particularly the spooky lore about a witch hunt that happened there 300 years ago.
For a community of such macabre tastes, the townsfolk are surprisingly intolerant of 11-year-old Norman Babcock (voice of Kodi Smit-McPhee), who can actually see and talk to ghosts. He's not exactly haunted by his supernatural gift: He and his long-deceased grandmother (Elaine Stritch) while away Saturday afternoons watching old zombie movies together, and Norman's walks to school involve friendly chats with the assorted specters hanging around town.
But Norman's family — his loudmouth father (Jeff Garlin), flaky mother (Leslie Mann) and superficial older sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick) — are uncomfortable with or downright hostile about the boy's singular abilities. At school, he is dubbed “Abnorman” or worse and is the favorite target of resident bully Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). The perpetually cheerful and loyal Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), a fellow outcast because of his rotund appearance, is Norman's only real friend, or at least the only one who is still breathing.
As the anniversary of Blithe Hollow's witch trial nears, Norman's creepy Uncle Prenderghast (John Goodman) approaches the boy with wild claims that the legendary witch's curse is real and about to come true. Prenderghast is getting up there in years and says he needs Norman's special talents to help him with his continuing quest to keep the witch's spirit calm and her hex at bay.
Of course, when a septet of zombies — led by The Judge (Bernard Hill) — rises from the grave and begins shambling into town, it gives Uncle Prenderghast a certain credibility.
While the local adults gather their shotguns, pitchforks and torches and work themselves into a dangerous panic, Norman embarks on his madcap mission to save the town, with his sister, Neil and Neil's slow-witted but strapping older brother Mitch (Casey Affleck) in tow and overzealous Sheriff Hooper (Tempestt Bledsoe) wrongheadedly pursuing their “Scooby Doo”-inspired vintage van on her dinky scooter.
“ParaNorman” offers impish humor and fun thrills, plus some outrageously memorable characters, but Butler and co-director Sam Fell aren't just serving up an empty-headed monster movie for the kiddies. Like “The Goonies,” “Gremlins” and “E.T.,” “ParaNorman” spikes the adventure with truly sad and sobering moments dealing with real-life issues like bullying, death and the mob mentality.
With “ParaNorman,” the spirit of those 1980s Amblin movies is resurrected in impressively detailed, lovingly crafted stop-motion 3-D, giving the Laika production a visual and aesthetic edge over most of the live-action or computer-animated films haunting theaters these days.
— Brandy McDonnell
Starring: Voices of Kodi Smit-McPhee, Anna Kendrick, Casey Affleck, Tucker Albrizzi, John Goodman, Jeff Garlin, Leslie Mann, Elaine Stritch. (Scary action and images, thematic elements, some rude humor and language)