Silver Screen: ParaNorman ***1/2
Goth fans looking for the artsy aesthetic focus of Tim Burton or the neo-fairytales of Neil Gaiman might be a bit disappointed with the supernatural-themed, stop-motion-animated comedy ParaNorman, which was created by the producers of Coraline and sports obvious Burton influences. It's jokey, prone to slapstick, and generally just broader, but it's a surprisingly diverting family comedy with a breezy but macabre sense of humor.
The eponymous Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) is an outcast in his cozy Massachusetts town of Blithe Hollow, where his spooky insistence that he can talk to dead people repels his fellow students and unnerves his parents (Leslie Mann and Jeff Garlin). His kooky hermit of an uncle (John Goodman), who claims he's a fellow corpse whisperer, warns him that the town's upcoming historical celebration of their participation in witch trials will unleash the undead. Norman and his pal Neil (Tucker Albrizzi) must enlist the help of their unwitting older siblings, a self-obsessed cheerleader (Anna Kendrick) and a meathead (Casey Affleck), to uncover the secret of Blithe Hollow before it's overrun with zombies.
An early scene fatures some of the sharpest (and darkest) visual gags, as we watch a confused-seeming Norman wander down the street talking to himself. The camera spins a 360 to reveal what he sees, a bustling avenue of chatty ghosts, including an owl flying overhead with its wise head thrust through plastic six-pack rings. The slightly gory (and not-so-slightly Edward Gorey) humor hits a note here it won't much sustain in favor of fast-paced, horror-themed adventures. It's more reminiscent of 2006's endearing Monster House, which seemed at least as indebted to Goosebumps stories as B-movies and grownup ghost stories.
Codirectors Chris Butler and Sam Fell worked on Corpse Bride and Flushed Away respectively, and ParaNorman is recognizably a merging of those two sensibilities. It works nicely, in part because the gags land far more often than they miss with the seemingly requisite just-for-adults jokes liberally applied and also because Butler's script has real heart. The story smartly finds links between bullying and the witch trials, yet finds sympathy for all of its characters, even the eventually likeable thug voiced by Christopher Mintz-Plasse. That's a nifty bit of casting, positing McLovin' as the heavy, but the cast of ParaNorman seems to play mostly against type: Kendrick's ditzy cheerleader and Affleck's slow-witted jock are both funny turns from actors getting to work outside their wheelhouses. Kids, especially those inclined toward Halloween fun, will dig it, but it's entertaining enough you needn't bring them along to justify going.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.