Laika Studioís latest animated film, PARANORMAN, is a story with heart, soul, and a killer funny bone. The humor ranges from the broad to the subtle, and even ventures into that most dangerous of territories, the poignant, and it does so with a sure hand, backed up with an astounding feat of animation.
Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee), the Para of the title, is the sweet but weird kid in his small town of Blithe, MA. Aside from self-rising hair and a devotion to schlock zombie flicks, this introspective 11-year-old can also see the dead. Moreover, because he is polite, he engages them in conversation when they address him. Itís earned him the derision of his peers, led by Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), the contempt of his cheerleader sister (Anna Kendrik), and the consternation of his parents (Leslie Mann, Jeff Garlin). That is until the 300th anniversary of Blitheís curse, courtesy of a witch, natch, turns out to be more than a myth that drives the townís tourist trade. Suddenly, Norman is the unwilling key to the townís very survival, or so heís told by his eccentric, and none too hygienic uncle (John Goodman), who claims credit for having kept the witch at bay all these years, and that now itís Normanís turn.
The key to why this is not just another amusing film with delightful animation is the carefully drawn parallels written by co-director Chris Butler, a longtime animation handyman at Laika and elsewhere. The scariest parts of the film arenít when Norman is confronted by decaying but animated 18th-century corpses, itís when he is in his bedroom listening to his parents fight about what to do with their strange son. Confronting the witch is more or less a replay of the gauntlet of abuse, accepted with calm equanimity, that he has to run everyday at school. Though the medium is stop-motion with a few CGI flourishes, the emotional response it evokes is as real as it gets.
Which is not to say that this film is a downer. Anything but. Butler and Sam Fell have used the classic horror film tropes in the service of both horror and humor. The action is rippingly brisk, but takes time for Norman and his new friend, the ebulliently roly-poly Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), to bond over a game of fetch with the ghost of Neilís dog. Great storytelling is in such details, and in others, such as the wickedly pointed subtext of junk food that runs through the film, and the unfussy way that the morals of the story, about bullying and preconceived notions, unfold. The jokes, and there are plenty, donít take over the film, which is why when the mystery is revealed, it is a moment of profound emotional resonance to which the film has been building, and that may bring a tear to the eye unbidden. A lovely counterpoint to humor that can take the form of a zombie rising from the grave buttocks first.
As for the animation, it is divine. Highly detailed, purposefully designed, imaginatively executed, it is more vivid that reality itself, delighting in imperfections and the sight-gag while also attaining alarming heights of pure terror and from the most unexpected sources. The trees are the scariest since the living forest of the Wizard of Oz, but the way reality burns away for Norman at the most inopportune times, or the phantoms coiling themselves out of toilet paper in his middle-school bathroom gives them severe competition.
PARANORMAN is both lively and charming, starting from a place of, youíll pardon the expression, deadpan humor, and ending with both terrific punch lines, and the debut of Normanís crooked smile that is no less heart-warming for its being off-center. Au contraire, like the film itself, itís the little things that are not quite right, but are nonetheless perfect, that make this film perfection itself.
NB: stay through the credits, there is a lovely reward for your patience.