Based on both the characters in the movie and the device-carrying kids I sat next to while I watched it, it’s pretty clear that ParaNorman is aimed at a specific type of child, the kind precocious enough to navigate through a smartphone but not yet wise enough to see through the artificial intelligence that it offers. The movie, a gentle riff on The Sixth Sense made with gorgeously detailed stop-motion animation, is pitched exactly this way: Kids need to be smart enough to understand its plot (and cultural references) and savvy enough to see that it’s been made in a style, and with an air of intelligence, that is somewhat different than what they’re used to — but they also need to be naïve enough to miss the hollowness at its core. Laika, the Portland, OR animation studio that produced the movie, seems to be banking pretty heavily that enough kids are holding enough smartphones to make their little monster movie a big hit.
The titular Norman is a stature-less social pariah with a blackened patch of crab grass for hair, a handy cell phone, and the ability to see (and converse with) far more innocuous ghosts than did the kid in The Sixth Sense. He also has an old hobo (John Goodman) for an uncle, who is himself afflicted with a talent for ghost-seeing. Uncle hobo knows he’s about to die (presumably because he’s a movie’s idea of a bum, constantly cackling while hacking away at the edge of life) but first needs to pass onto his nephew the burden of keeping a malevolent witch from destroying their quaint New England town on its 300th anniversary. The witch is an old maid who was accused of consulting with the devil and burned at the stake in 1712; every year since, she’s been howling out of the sky (one of the most beautiful images in the movie), threatening to raise the corpses of the seven Puritans who condemned her so they might exact her revenge on the town. The uncle is the latest in a long family line of ghost-seers charged with keeping the witch at bay, and Norman is now slated to take over.
Over one long night, Norman teams up with a crew of kids that used to sneer at him, including his pear-shaped, ostensibly popular sister (Anna Kendrick) and a skateboarding bully who eerily resembles a baked potato (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), to stop the walking corpses and put the witch back in her hole. Along the way, he finds his rhythm in life, convinces everyone in town that he’s not a freak for saying he can see the dead, wins the respect of his tough-love father, and blah blah blah. The true problem with ParaNorman, leaving aside its overuse of kids’ problems as a punchline rather than as the stuff that makes people people, is that after it gets its nifty story all set up, it has nowhere to go. You expect flights of impressive fancy from a film as visually meticulous and often stunning as this, but the ending is rushed and deflated, a would-be grand reveal that fails because it wasn’t properly set up. We don’t see anything in the final third we weren’t already happy enough with in the first.
That first, though, is made up of some genuinely rousing sequences that manage, despite the intense artifice of stop-motion animation, to feel like actual childhood traumas, which is quite a feat. Laika, who are also responsible for the disappointing but eye-popping Coraline, have an undeniable talent for brilliant tableaux as well as for rendering clay faces emotionally, even if they also have a cruel tendency to emphasize the nastiest, lumpiest parts of their characters’ bodies. Happily, Norman, who is front and center in every painstakingly animated scene, is their most fleshed-out character and the one for whom they clearly feel the most sympathy. ParaNorman can only take the bold, contentious stance that we should maybe be a little nicer to cute little kids who’ve been bullied, so it’s not reaching for much thematically, though its status as a pleasing thing to look at can’t be contested. The only interesting question might be whether Norman himself could represent the middle-brow kids demographic that ParaNorman plays to. And the answer is that he could, or he might, if his childhood frustrations weren’t casually crammed into a warmed-over ghost story for the benefit of kids who aren’t treated with nearly as much respect.