With “ParaNorman,” the ghoulification of American family entertainment hits a dead end. Decades of happily morbid classics from the minds of Charles Addams, Edward Gorey, and especially Tim Burton have allowed us to accept that maybe children should play with dead things, at least when they’re brought to life with craft and creativity. Burton’s “Corpse Bride” was the genre’s most recent high-water mark — an unexpectedly soulful romance that worked for audiences of all ages.
“ParaNorman” is supposedly for kids, but it’s really aimed at their snarky older brothers, and it illustrates the limits of the new family creepshows. The movie comes from Laika Entertainment, the Portland, Ore.-based stop-motion animation studio that made the far superior “Coraline” (2009); as a work of painstaking craftsmanship, “ParaNorman’’ is unassailable, maybe even awe-inspiring.
And it’s about a little boy who sees dead people. Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) lives in Blithe Hollow, a placid suburban town with a curse left over from the Puritan days — think a Tinkertoy version of Salem. His gift for seeing ghosts is comforting when it’s his deceased grandma (Elaine Stritch!) or the familiar spooks around the neighborhood, but Norman’s mother (Leslie Mann), father (Jeff Garlin), and mall-brat sister (Anna Kendrick) are unable to cope with the kid’s talent, and the hulking school bully, Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), has it in for him. Norman’s a sad little boy, and for good reason — almost everyone else in the movie is hateful.
“ParaNorman” is the story of what happens when the hero’s eccentric uncle (John Goodman) dies — cue the rigor mortis slapstick — and leaves Norman in charge of stopping the town’s curse. This involves keeping the zombie-fied remains of a group of 17th-century judges from emerging out of their graves while dissuading the witch they executed from unleashing the apocalypse. (Is there any movie made these days that doesn’t involve the end of the world?)
The movie has its moments of dark whimsy and cheeky wit, but most of what it has is body parts. “ParaNorman” is rated PG and is being sold as a gruesome but essentially high-spirited family-friendly romp. I suppose that’s true if you don’t mind your 6-year-old put into clinical shock by the sight of slavering, dismembered creatures coming at them in 3-D.
And those are the good guys. In a self-consciously clever irony, the zombie judges are set upon by the narrow-minded townsfolk of Blithe Hollow with torches, shotguns, and random household appliances, the sheeplike stupidity of the living in sharp contrast to the charmingly decomposing dead. The last thing we need are kiddie films that harp unrealistically on sweetness and light, but “ParaNorman” swings so far to the other extreme that it’s a little depressing. But, hey, you know your children. If they’re older and thick-skinned, give it a go. If they scare easy, by all that is holy, stay away.
On a technical level, the film represents an advance from traditional stop-motion materials (clay and foam) to a new generation of 3-D printers used to create a broader range of facial expressiveness. What this means visually is that the world of “ParaNorman” has a vague post-modern Mr. Potato Head feel to it — a look that is novel and sometimes breathtaking in its details but more often cluttered and inelegant. Like much else here, it suggests that the gifted artisans at Laika dove so deeply into the making of this movie that they forgot who they were making it for.