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From the makers of Coraline, but lacking that 2009 film’s captivatingly macabre, gentle touch, ParaNorman is an amusing but only fitfully involving animated caper about an 11-year-old boy with the ability to communicate with the dead — and undead.
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With its technically assured stop-motion animation and promising setup, the film, co-directed by Sam Fell (Flushed Away) and Chris Butler (storyboard supervisor on Coraline), had the makings of something more substantial, but it ultimately comes up short on story and character development.
There should still be enough going on to engage both the stop-motion and zombie-flick aficionado, but the unmistakable Tim Burton–Henry Selick vibe likely will be too intense for younger viewers.
VIDEO: Anna Kendrick on Voicing a Character in ‘ParaNorman’
Set in the sleepy town of Blithe Hollow, whose tourist-attraction bragging rights hinge on it being the site of a 300-year-old witch hunt, ParaNorman concerns the extrasensory talents of young resident Norman Babcock (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee), whose habit of conversing with its dead denizens has made him the local freak.
Sharing that view is his flustered dad (Jeff Garlin) and shallow big sis (Anna Kendrick), who are creeped out by the fact that Norman likes to watch TV with the ghost of his grandma (Elaine Stritch).
More encouraging is his odd, homeless uncle Prenderghast (John Goodman), who sees in the big-eyed kid a kindred spirit — and the only one who’ll be able to prevent a stubborn witch’s curse from breaking loose all sorts of hell, starting with the zombified founding fathers.
Wry touches abound, from the retro titles onward, but though the filmmakers have said that they were going for a “John Carpenter meets John Hughes” vibe, those diverse styles never quite come together.
VIDEO: ‘ParaNorman’ Trailer Promises a Spooky Trip
But more problematic than establishing a unifying tone and sticking with it is the failure of Butler’s script to give his characters (particularly those walking-dead elders) enough to do and inventive ways of doing it.
Although the 3D element doesn’t really enhance all that much, Laika Studios’ distinctive stop-motion technique makes for notably fluid, jerk-free, detailed animation that continues to introduce fresh, intriguing possibilities to the venerable Ray Harryhausen model.
Opens: Friday, Aug. 17 (Focus Features)
Production companies: Laika
Voice cast: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Tucker Albrizzi, Anna Kendrick, Casey Affleck, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Leslie Mann, Jeff Garlin, Elaine Stritch, Bernard Hill, John Goodman.
Directors: Sam Fell, Chris Butler
Screenwriter: Chris Butler
Producers: Arianne Sutner, Travis Knight
Director of photography: Tristan Oliver
Production designer: Nelson Lowry
Music: Jon Brion
Costume designer: Deborah Cook
Editor: Christopher Murrie
Rating: PG, 93 minutes
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