Like its villainous witch, "ParaNorman" is scary but it also has a warm good heart about it. The latest from Laika, the stop-motion animation studio behind "Coraline" is an original feature about tolerance and understanding that just happens to have ghosts, zombies, a vengeful witch, and some of the most gorgeous stop-motion work I've seen in a while.
The small New England town of Blithe Hollow is all set to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the execution of the notorious witch Agatha, who cursed her accusers and has become a kind of grotesque mascot for the town. Our hero is poor put-upon Norman Babcock (Kodi Smit-McPhee) whose problems include a sister that's perpetually embarrassed by him, a father that doesn't understand him, and the ability to see and talk to ghosts which make him an outcast--laughed at by his classmates and bullied by local tough Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse).
After his eccentric uncle abruptly kicks the bucket, it's Norman's gift that makes him responsible for keeping the witch's curse at bay for another year. Unfortunately, some poorly-timed hassling by Alvin leads to Norman not completing the ritual which has kept the witch's spirit asleep over the last 300 years, and before you know it, Norman, his sister, his new friend Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), Neil's dim-witted brother (Casey Affleck), and Alvin are all being chased by the witch Agatha's seven walking dead accusers.
"ParaNorman" treads that fine line between scary and funny for younger viewers. The shambling, rotting zombies' appearances are offset by their ineptness. I can't imagine much here keeping any kid awake at night, but then the shock of a mostly toothless face springing out of a grave doesn't have the same effect on me as it did when I was the age of the film's target audience.
The story, by co-director Chris Butler, makes a strong case for tolerance and not succumbing to fear without being preachy about it. Without giving away too much of the plot (although you can probably guess where it's going), there's something here for everyone to take away about understanding or at least accepting the differences of other people and the tragedy of persecution. There's a little bit of a middle act drag as Norman and company have to fend off both the zombies and angry townspeople (it plays too much like the initial zombie attack at Norman's uncle's house), but this section doesn't go on for more than a couple of minutes before opening up the story and revealing more about its characters.
Co-directors Butler and Sam Fell along with the Laika animators make Blithe Hollow a textured, visually compelling world that gets even better when the supernatural bits break out. Special notice should be given to some of the effects used in the transitions, particularly the burn-in that happens during Norman's visions as well as the hauntingly-lit limbo in which he finds himself during his encounter with Agatha.
Both a technical and story accomplishment with its heart and instinct for horror in the right places, it's my hope that someday "ParaNorman" becomes a Halloween staple in the future.
Special features and presentation
What a great-looking disc. The detail is so fine in the picture that you can see every little bit of texture in the stop-motion models and fine elements in the environment. And it's great for stop-motion fans who might want to obsess over every blade of carefully-placed grass or far-off props in the distance.
Given the highly technical nature of the production, it's no surprise that Laika documented so much of it along the way. Butler and Fell provide optional commentary for three preliminary animatics (09:09, HD), one of which provides a look at an early version of the opening sequence, while another, "Missing Ghosts" reveals a cut subplot about the town's spirits going missing in the midst of the witch's curse.
"Peering Through The Veil: Behind The Scenes of 'ParaNorman'" (40:49, HD) is a nine-part making of with a look at the stop-motion process and development of the film at Laika. This is your best chance to get a look at the guts of Laika and the legions of models and props that went into the production. Seven additional featurettes (14:53, HD) shine a spotlight on the creators of "ParaNorman" and some of the characters in the film. Finally, Fell and Butler provide commentary for the film itself.
"ParaNorman" is available on DVD, Blu-ray, and VOD from Universal Pictures Home Video.