‘ParaNorman’: Brains! Brains!

August 15, 2012


The last time a kid was saying “I see dead people” in a movie, it was “The Sixth Sense” – and it was meant to be frightening.

Now the kid who’s saying it is the star of “ParaNorman,” which is meant to be funny and exciting.

Unfortunately wrong on both accounts.

Directed by Sam Fell and Chris Butler from a script by Butler, “ParaNorman” is a marvel of stop-motion animation, built on a script of flat jokes and frantic, frenetic but uninvolving action. It wants to be a horror comedy, but the horror is mild-mannered and the comedy never ignites.

Kodi Smit-McPhee voices Norman Babcock, a middle-school outcast because of his odd habit of speaking to the dead. His father (Jeff Garlin) yells at him for claiming to watch TV with his deceased grandmother, while Norman’s mother (Leslie Mann) preaches understanding to her short-tempered hubby.

Norman lives in a New England town that has built its tourist industry around a history of executing witches back in the old days – but Norman has started having visions about those olden times. They seem to forecast death, destruction and the return of the dead from the grave, part of one witch’s curse before her death. The only one who believes him is a crazy uncle (John Goodman), who tells him that reversing the curse is something only Norman, with his special gift, can do. But no one believes him until it’s almost too late. Eventually it comes down to a posse involving Norman, his chubby best friend Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), and the two youngsters’ older siblings (along with the class bully).

The voice cast – Anna Kendrick, Casey Affleck, Christopher Mintz-Plasse – isn’t exactly all-star, but wouldn’t need to be if the writing were better. But it’s not. Instead, the film climaxes with a lengthy sermon on the psychology of bullying. Whee!

It’s a shame because the animation is truly stunning (though the 3D doesn’t make it more so). I hadn’t read the press notes before the screening I saw and spent a good part of the film trying to decided whether it was, in fact, stop motion or CG. It’s that seamless.

Perhaps kids will enjoy “ParaNorman” – young kids who have little discernment and are easily amused. Adults, however, will merely endure it.

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