Norman Babcock sees dead people.
As the title portmanteau of ParaNorman—the second feature from Portland animation house Laika—suggests, he is mostly cool with that. After all, the kid wakes up to a groaning zombie alarm clock every morning, and pretends to foam at the mouth while brushing his teeth. He obviously has no issues interacting with the spirit realm.
Besides, the spooks don't judge him, unlike the living. A drama geek with an electroshock hairdo and prone to vivid hallucinations that cause reality to strip away like rapidly peeling paint, Norman is an easy target for bullying. Things aren't much better at home, where his dad wonders aloud how he raised such a strange boy. The only flesh-and-blood human who understands him—aside from Neil, the resident freckly fat kid at his middle school—is his estranged uncle, a schizophrenic hobo who insists Norman is the only person capable of stopping the town of Blithe Hollow from incurring the wrath of a witch's curse.
All that probably sounds familiar—if not from the countless other movies about misfits in search of redemption, then from the first Laika picture, 2009's Coraline. In that film, a young outcast with absentee parents also traversed between worlds, and learned lessons about growing up and what it really means to "fit in."
Comparisons between the two are inevitable, so let's compare. Is ParaNorman as good as its predecessor? No, it's not. It doesn't have the depth of imagination, nor the emotional pull. Although it contains moments of impressive visual pow—it's animated in remarkable stop-motion—it doesn't match the barrage of sheer awe that made Coraline such a wondrous experience. And while Coraline was based on a popular Neil Gaiman book, ParaNorman, an original story from Chris Butler, feels more like something that's come before. Directors Butler and Sam Fell are clearly channeling their own childhoods here: The movie starts with Norman enthralled by a cheap pan-and-scan zombie flick, complete with a throbbing synth score and visible boom mike. His bedroom walls are plastered with images of various nasties cut out from magazines. Heck, the ringtone on his cell phone is "Tubular Bells." ParaNorman is a pastiche valentine to the horror genre, which makes it endearing, but not necessarily unique.
As long as we're measuring the films against each other, though, let it be said: ParaNorman is a lot more fun. It's supernatural caper not far removed from an old Scooby Doo episode; eventually, Norman and his motley gang of reluctant cohorts—which comes to include Neil and his jock brother, Norman's bubbleheaded sister and a break-dancing bully—end up driving around in a van that looks suspiciously similar to the Mystery Machine. The action is bolstered by the cast's standout voice work. Kodi Smit-McPhee imbues Norman with great empathy. Jeff Garlin is hilarious as Norman's exasperated father. And scrawny Christopher Mintz-Plasse, as Alvin the bully, somehow conveys the insecurity of a doughy lunkhead even though, in real life, he was more likely the one who spent high school getting shoved into lockers.
It is also much funnier. For all of Coraline's gothic beauty, it never induced much laughter (which tends to happen in movies involving ghost children with buttons sewn over their eyeballs). But a streak of sly, subversive humor charges Butler's screenplay. At one point, Norman walks into his kitchen from the living room. "What are you watching in there?" his father asks. "Sex and violence," he replies. If nothing else, ParaNorman has a healthy sense of mischief. Sometimes, that's all a film needs.
Critic's Grade: B+
SEE IT: ParaNorman is rated PG. It opens Friday at Lloyd Center, Cedar Hills, Clackamas, Eastport, Mill Plain, Cornelius, Lake Twin, Moreland, Oak Grove, Pioneer Place, Bridgeport, City Center, Sherwood, Tigard, Wilsonville, St. Johns.