Modern animated films often come in suspiciously similar batches that indicate studios are keeping a wise eye on the competition: Antz and A Bug’s Life were released in close proximity, as were Finding Nemo and Shark Tale, and Madagascar and The Wild. Fall 2012 features a similar pileup of macabre monster comedy cartoons, each with their own worthy pedigree. But while Frankenweenie and Hotel Transylvania have big-name directors on their sides—Tim Burton and Samurai Jack/Dexter’s Laboratory creator Genndy Tartakovsky, respectively—ParaNorman mostly earns high expectations because it’s the second stop-motion 3-D film from Laika, the animation studio responsible for 2009’s stellar Coraline. ParaNorman does boast Coraline’s CGI-smooth movement and attention to detail, and ups the visual ante with new technology that allows for more variety in character design. And its Jon Brion score provides for more variety than the usual selection of pop hits. Nonetheless, ParaNorman doesn’t live up to Coraline’s thematically consistent, propulsively nightmarish story. It plays with comedy and drama, but keeps failing to commit to one or the other.
Debuting co-director Chris Butler (partnered with Flushed Away and Tale Of Despereaux director Sam Fell) scripted the film, and his story seems like something Coraline writer Neil Gaiman might dream up: Zombie-obsessed horror-movie fan Norman (voiced by The Road’s Kodi Smit-McPhee) can see and communicate with the dead, which he does casually on a daily basis, hanging out with his grandmother’s ghost and what-upping the ubiquitous spirits haunting his hometown. But his gifts for getting along with the dead isolate him from the living. Though his entire town thrives around commercially exploiting an old legend about a witch’s curse, Norman’s normalcy-obsessed father (Jeff Garlin) and eye-rolling sister (Anna Kendrick) take a dim view of his belief in ghosts, and lunkheaded bullies like Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse, who could only play a hulking thug in an animated film), use his seeming imaginary friends as an excuse to pick on him. Then Norman’s crazed Uncle Prenderghast (John Goodman) turns up to tell him that the witch’s curse is real, and Norman’s gift makes him responsible for keeping it at bay year after year. Before long, Norman is facing eerie visions and actual zombies, and chasing around town with an unlikely crew of misfits, trying to break the curse.
There are a dozen morals packed into ParaNorman, which orders kids to believe in themselves and be themselves at any cost, and lectures them on the wrongness of bullying, moral self-righteousness, and giving in to a mob mentality. Meanwhile, Norman models responsible behavior by gamely fighting on behalf of the people who scorned him, which is virtually everybody but his new buddy Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), the latest attempt to revitalize the archetypal fat nerd as an irrepressible, good-natured, bully-proof hero. (See also: Super 8 and the Diary Of A Wimpy Kid movies.) But all the messages and winks at the audience whisk by at surface level without becoming organic parts of the story, and the results feel overcrowded, distracted, and preachy. Meanwhile, the film zips between melancholy and gross-out slapstick, trying to mine tragedy from Norman’s isolation one moment, and playing it for amusement in the next. Only the ending sequence, which dives headlong into horror, picks an idea and a tone and sticks with it. The results are breathtakingly chilling, but it’s easy to wonder what heights ParaNorman could have reached by doing one thing that well throughout, instead of 10 things at once, haphazardly.