Entertainment Spotlight

‘ParaNorman’: Looks aren’t everything | 2 stars

The stop-motion animation is thrilling, but nothing else is.

Updated: 2012-08-16T19:59:00Z

BY JON NICCUM

Special to The Star

Norman Babcock is happiest when walking to his middle school, where he catches up on small talk with his eccentric neighbors.

Yet they’re all dead. Ghosts. A collection of restless spirits, some having perished centuries ago.

Unfortunately, the living people in his small Massachusetts town don’t care much for Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee of “The Road”). They either ignore or bully him, referring to the spiky haired kid as AbNorman.

“Everyone in the real world thinks I’m a freak,” he says.

“ParaNorman” embraces the “misunderstood loner solves a mystery” formula and gives it an added “I see dead people” nudge. The stop-motion animation by Oregon’s Laika production studio (“Coraline”) is terrific, full of style and energy. The story, however, is lifeless. It’s rare to find a movie brimming with this much talent that finds a way to so consistently kill its own narrative momentum.

Aside from the spectral hook, the setup for “ParaNorman” is all Disney XD sitcom formula: the quirky hero who is really the voice of reason. The crabby older sister (Anna Kendrick). Their sweet mom (Leslie Mann) and overbearing dad (Jeff Garlin). His chubby best friend (Tucker Albrizzi). The trashy school bully (Christopher Mintz-Plasse).

They live in a town where the tourist industry revolves around the Blithe Hollow Witch, whom the community hanged in 1712. Norman’s nutjob uncle (John Goodman) emerges to explain, “The witch’s curse is real, and you’re the one who’s got to stop it.”

Soon, zombies are crawling out of graves, and Norman musters his ragtag family and friends to battle them. At least that seems to be where the plot is headed — and it’s what the promotional materials would have audiences believe. Sounds like a pretty cool movie. But it sure isn’t this movie.

“ParaNorman” starts aping Arthur Miller instead of George Romero, leading to an awkward collision of kiddie horror and preachy moral discourse. This is a bait-and-switch move hoping to capitalize on the zombie zeitgeist but delivering none of its accompanying thrills.

There’s no disguising that writer/director Chris Butler (who co-directed with Sam Fell of “Flushed Away”) has a background in visuals. He’s earned storyboard credits in “Coraline” and “Corpse Bride,” which are kissing cousins of “ParaNorman.”

Butler’s writing is just fine when it concentrates on sight gags and throwaway moments — such as a townie who faces the dilemma of waiting for his snack to slowly drop from a spiral vending machine or get overrun by the undead. But Butler has no sense of overall pacing and structure.

This is the rare movie in which the climax centers on the villain striving to ignore advice from the hero. It’s the cinematic equivalent of warning a grade schooler to not run with scissors, and he responds by putting fingers in both ears and humming loudly. Exciting stuff.

Late in the tale, Norman’s blond cheerleader sister, Courtney, finally sides with him to help the townspeople save themselves. Courtney considers herself up to the task, saying, “I’ve cheered the uncheerable.” In that sense, “ParaNorman” sure gives her something to cheer about.

3-D or not 3-D?

The 3-D process generally works better in animated films, even stop-motion ones such as “ParaNorman.” It enhances this film’s visual depth, which is already ripe with detail. Pointy tree limbs poking out of the screen are the most obvious uses. But is it worth the added bump to the ticket price? Not really.

What others are saying

• Michael Rechtshaffen, the Hollywood Reporter: “With its technically assured stop-motion animation and promising setup, the film had the makings of something more substantial, but it ultimately comes up short on story and character development.”

•  Bill Gibron, PopMatters.com: “This is a heartfelt homage to horror movies past and present, a giddy combination of ‘Goosebumps’ and the ‘Groovie Goolies.’ ”

• Eric Kohn, IndieWire: “The movie is truly progressive down to a handful of minor details. And yet everything that makes it succeed also draws attention to the derivative and often sloppy qualities of the script that hold it back.”

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