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Dead and Alive

by Laura Leon on August 23, 2012

Directed by Chris Butler and Sam Fell

Following in the footsteps of Coraline, the Oscar-nominated, 3D stop-action movie, ParaNorman delivers a solidly entertaining story in stunning visual manner. Eleven-year-old Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a regular kid, except that he speaks to the dead and he’s bullied incessantly. The movie nicely avoids the question of whether or not the former is the sole reason of the latter, preferring to let linger the impression that there are a lot of mean people in the town of Blithe Hollow, a Salem, Mass.,-type place sucking revenue from tourists hankering to hear stories about ancient and condemned witches. Even Norman’s dad (Jeff Garlin) seems, well, brutish, as he lambastes his son for telling him that Granny (Elaine Stritch) wants him to turn up the heat. Only . . . Granny died last year.

Just when it looks like Norman’s lot in life can’t get any worse, his weird uncle Prenderghast (John Goodman) warns him of the witch’s curse and what’s about to befall the town, and then keels off into the other world, or, rather, in this case, the school’s boys’ room toilet. Only Norman, it seems, has the power to prevent a full-scale zombie takeover, and, given the treatment his fellow citizens have meted upon him, it’s a wonder he doesn’t raise up his hands and say “whatever.” But Norman respects the dead, and he doesn’t want their already scary rep further diminished by a cantankerous witch’s vengeful return to the living. And so, with unintended help from friends like Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), his sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick) and Neil’s bicep-bulging bro Mitch (Casey Affleck, stealing scenes); he tries to head the apocalypse off at the pass.

There’s a lot of hurrying and scurrying and multiple “OMG!” moments throughout the movie. Some of this gets a little tiring and some of it, at least for my 6-year-old son, got a little too scary.

However, the movie’s special effects are magical. Like Coraline, the 3D and stop-motion animation are used to lure us into a lurid fairy world, one that is equal parts beautiful and horrific. Moments in which Norman blacks out and time travels to 300 years ago are recognizable from nightmares, and yet crackling with vibrant immediacy. ParaNorman is something that many movie fans will skip over, thinking it’s just another “dumb kid’s movie,” an assumption that would be a mistake. For all its scary moments and zombie underpinnings, the movie is a sad-but-sweet tale of loneliness and fitting in. It’s a surprising coda to the summer blockbuster season.