Film review: ParaNorman (PG)

Director: Chris Butler/Sam FellRunning time: 92 minutes* * * *

Director: Chris Butler/Sam Fell

Running time: 92 minutes

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THERE are a few scenes and images in ParaNorman that might scare children, but don’t let that frighten you off. This isn’t a warning, but rather a recommendation. Juvenile terror can be a spooky pleasure, yet few movies excel at telling kids scary tales, pulling them into a meticulously detailed and darkly invigorating world that is familiar in many ­respects but menacing in ­others.

Co-directed by Sam Fell and Chris Butler, ParaNorman is set in the stop-motion animated town of Blithe Hollow, where the townsfolk hanged a witch 300 years ago and have built a tourist industry around the event.

Eleven-year-old Norman ­Babcock (Kodi Smit-McPhee) isn’t part of the sightseeing beat, but perhaps he should be, since he regularly sees and chats to dead people. On the walk to school, for instance, he greets generations of loitering spirits, including a 1930s gangster wearing cement shoes, a pilot hanging by his parachute from a tree and a crushed squirrel. At home he watches TV and blethers with his late grandma (Broadway veteran Elaine Stritch; good to know she’s still in the land of the 
living).

The ghosts may be less substantial than the living, but they are a lot friendlier. At school Norman is an outcast, and a favourite target for local bully Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) alongside chubby classmate Neil (Tucker ­Albrizzi). His unsupportive parents (Jeff Garlin and Leslie Mann) are sceptical of ­Norman’s powers, while his vain sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick) is never off her phone and couldn’t care less who is on the line to her ­brother.

However, Norman’s ghostwhispering becomes useful when the witch’s restless spirit isn’t mollified by the town’s annual ritual. She’s now on her way back and only Norman, his recently deceased uncle (John Goodman), and a ragbag of misfits can stop her raising an undead army.

If you are familiar with The Goonies or Monster House then you’ll have a good idea of the tone of ParaNorman, but it also borrows liberally from zombie movies, and pays frequent tribute to its parent studio Universal and its many sympathetic old-school monsters. More unexpectedly, there are also nods to German expressionist horrors, such as The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari, for those who are insufficiently beguiled by the film’s invention of toilet-paper zombies.

Sam Fell is an Aardman veteran, having co-directed Flushed Away in 2006 and the less successful Tale Of Despereaux in 2008, while Chris Butler supervised storyboards for creepy kid features Coraline and Corpse Bride. Both pepper the film with gleeful tween humour, spiced with riskier material such as a piece of extended black comedy which centres on rigor mortis. It all seems age-appropriate to me, but then I once hosted a discussion about cinema for a class of 12-year-olds which was immediately hijacked and converted into an appreciation of the best deaths in Saw.

If ParaNorman sometimes gets a little preachy, at least the main issue of mob mentality being used to bully those who don’t fit in is reasonably interesting, and laudably the film fights for the right to be weird.

The result is never dull, doesn’t overplay the peril, and respects the art of stop-motion so there is always something interesting going on visually. It’s also shot in 3D – I know, I’m not happy about surcharges either – but it is deployed to complement the story rather than overpower it. I’d also ­suggest lingering during the final credits for a brief behind-the-scenes extra, which shows how Norman came to life. «

On general release from Friday