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Published: Friday, 8/17/2012

'ParaNorman' is bewitchingly edgy, for a kids' movie


Norman, the young hero of the animated delight ParaNorman, hears dead people. He sees them, too. So there's no sense trying to comfort him because you think he's missing his dead grandma too much.

"Grandma's in a better place."

"In the living room?"

Since Norman has grown up in Blithe Hollow, a town with a rich history of witches and witch trials, it's only natural that Norman is a little "ParaNorman." But it gets him teased, and his creepy-crank of an uncle (voiced by John Goodman) won't leave him alone. Norman has a destiny, his uncle says, a duty to lift the 300-year-old curse that's hung over the town since one infamous witch trial centuries before. The witches are coming back to haunt the town. Only "ParaNorman" can save it.

ParaNorman is a stop-motion animated marvel from some of the same folks who gave us Coraline and Corpse Bride, and it wears its bloodlines with pride. It's that rare kids' movie with edge, a witchy, witty romp that could frighten the very youngest moviegoers and makes parents blanch at some of the jokes. This isn't Ice Age, children.

Norman, voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee of The Road, has a plump pal, Neil (Tucker Albrizzi). He has a shallow teen sister, Courtney (Anna Kendrick).

And he has a nemesis, the kid who torments him at school, and after school. That would be Alvin, voiced by Christopher Mintz-Plasse.

But if Norman has a prayer of figuring out this curse and stopping the dead from taking over Blithe Hollow, he'll need all their help -- and that of Neil's car-obsessed, muscle-bound brother (Casey Affleck).

ParaNorman, written by Chris Butler, an artist who worked on Corpse Bride and Coraline, and co-directed by Butler and Sam Fell (Flushed Away), wears its anarchy well. They've made a genuinely spooky movie. But it's a spooky picture with a morbid sense of humor.

The ghosts of those murdered by the town during its witch trials have more to fear from the armed, beer-swilling rubes they haunt than the town does from the ghosts. The odd faintly off-color remark passes the locals' lips -- as you'd expect -- when the dead return to life.

Norman enlists friends, family, and foes in his quest. He makes them take a vow keep it secret -- "Swear!"

Equal parts scary, intense, emotional and humorous, ParaNorman is also a movie of messages, about what "scared, stupid people" are capable of (witch trials), of misjudging the "different," and the consequences of intolerance. That makes ParaNorman almost paranormal in its kids-movie ambitions, and that's a good thing.



Directed by Chris Butler and Sam Fell. Written by Chris Butler. A Focus Features release, playing at Rave Franklin Park, Fallen Timbers, and Levis Commons. Rated PG for scary action and images, thematic elements, some rude humor, and language. Running time: 93 minutes.

Critic's rating: ***

The voices of Kodi Smit-McPhee, Anna Kendrick, John Goodman, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Casey Affleck.

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