'ParaNorman' is dead-on fantastic

Never judge a zombie by his rotting flesh. That’s the simple truth behind the brilliant and ghoulish stop-motion feature “ParaNorman” from Laika Entertainment (“Coraline”).

Unequivocally original with breathtaking stop-motion animation (stay to the end of the credits for a very brief demo of Norman’s creation), “ParaNorman” is easily the best animated film of the year. The overly exaggerated human and zombie features, in and of themselves, are incredibly imagined. Each character is uniquely defined and represented, making Norman’s world rich with detail and expression. Writer and director Chris Butler’s script about a young boy struggling with his sixth sense of seeing dead people is razor-sharp, fiendish and packed with edgy humor and laugh-out-loud dialogue.

“ParaNorman’s” message is simple and strong: don’t judge people – even dead people. Norman is an outcast at school. Playground gossip about him seeing ghosts has made the young boy a social deviant. Bullied, teased and shunned, Norman finds solace, much to his parents’ (Jeff Garlin and Leslie Mann) chagrin and disbelief, by watching retro zombie flicks on the tube with his dead grandmother (Elaine Stritch).

Each character is deliciously animated and beautifully developed. Keeping with the theme of judgment, each of the main characters begins as a stereotype, encouraging the audience to judge them. At the outset Norman’s sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick) is a scantily-clad, overly flirtatious, OMG-ing Barbie doll. Norman’s best friend Neil (Tucker Albrizzi) is a fat, oddly nerdy idiot whose brother Mitch (Casey Affleck) is a ripped, bodybuilding airhead who loves his truck as much as his own biceps. Finally Norman’s nemesis is the nose-picking, dumb and egotistical bully Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). But as the film progresses, the script wonderfully turns those stereotypes on their heads.

When Norman’s creepy estranged uncle (John Goodman) bequeaths to him the role of protecting the town on the anniversary of a centuries-old witch’s curse, Norman finds the courage to finally stand up for himself and save the town from eternal damnation. As the dead rise from the grave and wreak havoc on the town, Norman, in a race against time tries to uncover the mystery behind the curse, leading us into an exciting maze of history, New England Puritans, curses, and witches (you know, "Scarlet Letter" stuff).

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The film’s message doesn’t just pertain to the victimized Norman. It extends to the dead, as well. As zombies and ghosts rise from the grave, the townspeople of Blithe Hollow turn from sleepy-town citizens to pitchfork, mob-obsessed vigilantes. It’s only Norman and his band of oddball friends who can convince the townspeople that the dead are only misunderstood.

Though “ParaNorman” is very family friendly, older kids and adults will get the most out of the humor and story. Younger kids may find some of the scenes just a little too scary. Also, horror movie fans will revel in the frequent nods to classic films.

From Chris Butler’s wickedly clever script with a relevant and heartfelt message, to the state of the art animation, to Jon Brion’s score, a mix of humorous retro 80’s synthesized horror music and gothic orchestral set-pieces, to a top-notch cast of voice talent, “ParaNorman” is dead-on fantastic entertainment.