While speaking to the dead might have its advantages—always having someone to talk to, for one—11-year-old Norman Babcock (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee), the titular character in stop-motion animated film ParaNorman, finds it both a blessing and a curse. After all, he can still watch cheesy zombie movies on TV while chatting with his dearly departed grandma (Elaine Stritch). On the other hand, he continues to be teased mercilessly at school by bully Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) and is the object of numerous arguments between his two frustrated-but-loving parents (Leslie Mann and Jeff Garlin) at home.
Amid all of this drama, including a condescending teenage sister (Anna Kendrick), it's only when his former witch-burning town of Blithe Hollow is suddenly besieged by grave-busting zombies that Norman is called on to use his ghost-whispering gift to stop a centuries-old curse from permanently raising the dead.
ParaNorman, directed by Sam Fell and Chris Butler, is a comic thriller from LAIKA (Coraline) and Focus Features, and geared toward tweens and older. From the very first frame, the audience knows what it's in for, and it isn't Casper the Friendly Ghost. There are, of course, ghosts, but the zombies are particularly creepy with their corpse-like faces, haunting grunts and pesky limbs that don't seem to want to stay put.
So parents beware, small children up to 8 will most likely get frightened—my 5-year-old daughter, in fact, said she was going to have nightmares during some particularly zombie-rific scenes.
But for tweens and teens, however, ParaNorman is a success.
Cleaning the word "Freak" off of a locker door is certainly nothing any sane adult would wish on a child, but the monster-obsessed Norman handles the slings and arrows of his tweenage existence with a calm, albeit lonely, peace of mind. He is the ultimate outsider, attracting only ghouls and one friend with an actual pulse, the loyal, mocked-for-his-weight Neil (Tucker Albrizzi).
Despite all of the ridicule surrounding him, Norman is comfortable with who he is. In fact, it's his deceased but straight-talking grandma who tells him that it's OK to be scared—just don't let it change who you are. And, in this film, lots of people are changed because of their fear of others. It's Norman, though, who musters the courage to lead a group of otherwise scared naysayers on a quest to save their town—and shows everyone how to rise above ridicule.
And, at seeing this, my almost-kindergartner seemed to have forgotten her own fears and begged me to buy the movie.
What We Love: A beautifully crafted film with wit and humor that features a strong central character.
Hold on a Minute: The ghosts, witches and zombies (oh my!) might be too scary for young children.