The 3-D animated ParaNorman was made by the same stop-motion studio responsible for 2009’s creepily visionary Coraline, and, beyond their unsettling imagery and children’s horror-fantasy themes, both films share an eerie sense of quiet: There’s surprisingly little ambient sound in these films, almost as if the filmmakers forgot to record room tone. It’s a little distracting, but not necessarily in a bad way: It adds to the unease, not to mention the odd feeling that what we’re watching is happening inside the characters’ heads.
That sealed-in quality is particularly appropriate for ParaNorman, as it’s about an introverted 11-year-old who’d rather watch schlocky horror flicks on TV instead of interacting with the outside world. More pertinently, Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) can also see and talk to dead people; the ghost of his dead grandmother understands him way better than his very much alive parents. This gets him labeled a freak, even though he actually lives in Blithe Hollow, Massachusetts, whose main claim to fame is a history of witch hunts and its main tourist attraction the statue of a witch executed there centuries ago. Said witch allegedly put a curse on the town, and sure enough, Norman is starting to have ominous visions, feeding the suspicion that the witch is about to return and sic an army of the undead upon the fallen burgh. Meanwhile, zombies are coming out of the grave, and Norman realizes that he might be the only person who can save Blithe Hollow.
There’s a lot of potential there for some seriously crazy imagery, but interestingly, ParaNorman doesn’t try to make our eyes pop with visual invention. Rather, it recreates the handmade, low-rent quality of the B-movie horror flicks it honors — so that the 3-D animated ghouls kind of look like bad actors in bad makeup staggering around listlessly. That’s a genuine risk in an era where animated films appear to be in a kind of technological arms race with each other, each trying to out-wow the other. Coraline itself was something truly striking — a new kind of elemental nightmare, shot like a storybook come to terrifying life — whereas ParaNorman feels lived-in, suffused with comfortable nostalgia. In many ways, it feels as withdrawn and modest as its morose, uncomfortable hero.
That can only take you so far, however. The movie feels aimless at times, perhaps because it also doesn’t take itself too seriously. Luckily, there’s also plenty of irreverent humor to get us through the night, and, in the final act, a surprising amount of pathos — especially as Norman finds out what truly happened to the so-called witch. But in the end, perhaps the most touching quality of this film is its low-key, but sensitively rendered portrait of a young, awkward child who hasn’t quite managed to figure his way out in the world yet. Not to put too fine a point on it, but anybody who was once a lonely boy glued to creature features on TV may well find themselves quite moved by this ambling, charming film.