The biggest threat that Norman Babcock (voice by Kodi Smit-McPhee) must face is a group of zombies who shamble about with a marked lack of energy and direction. The biggest disappointment that viewers of ParaNorman have to deal with is that the film itself comes to resemble these undead creatures. Writer Chris Butler, who also co-directed, employs a neat little premise here as he takes the central conceit of The Sixth Sense by focusing on a boy who can see dead people – and animals for that matter – and renders this with a degree of wicked black humor and surprising poignancy. Had Norman spent most of his time dealing with these apparitions, the result might have a quirky comedy in the vein of Henry Selick’s Coraline, a film ParaNorman, falls short of emulating.
Norman isn’t the only one in his family who can see the deceased – his black sheep uncle (John Goodman) is similarly cursed and is intent on letting his nephew know that he has a grave responsibility he must attend to. Three hundred years earlier, a witch who was condemned to death cursed the townsfolk of Blithe Hollow, saying that she would return one day and that the dead would rise from their graves when she did. That date is fast approaching and as his uncle is nearing his own death, he charges Norman with stopping the curse from playing out. This involves reading from a magical book over the witch’s grave. The problem is, Norman doesn’t have the mystical tome and he has no idea where the wicked one is interred.
This is all well and good, but the film seemingly takes an eternity to build up a head of steam. The conditions of the curse are outlined, as a service to those suffering from ADD, three times within the movie’s first 20 minutes. It takes nearly as long for Norman to track down the book he needs. Along the way he’s joined on his quest by his best friend (Tucker Albrizzi) and his dimwitted brother (Casey Affleck), the school bully (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) and his dimwitted sister (Anna Kendrick), all of whom have as much personality as the pieces of felt and plastic that are part of the stop-motion figures that were used to bring them to life.
The film is consistently engaging on a visual level. The sets are meticulously rendered as Norman inhabits a universe consisting of nothing but jagged lines and crooked angles, all of which lend the buildings in Blithe Hollow a canted, eerie look, while the woods themselves seem constantly on the verge of consuming all who enter in. All of this is shot in 3-D and if there’s one certainty regarding this process is that it works best with animated features. The depth of field in the film contributes to the feeling that Norman is lost in a world that cannot be contained while various objects that seemingly jut out into the audience – my favorite being a zombie’s mouth that’s come through a wooden door – deliver some well-timed jolts. Unfortunately, this wonderfully rendered world of weirdness is in the service of a film that moves in fits and starts, failing to create a story worthy of its environment.
Contact Chuck Koplinski at email@example.com.