“ParaNorman,” written by Chris Butler, directed by Butler and Sam Fell, 93 minutes, rated PG.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: The zombie subgenre is, sadly, a trend suffering from oversaturation in media. A majority of the zombie stories released today – on film, television or in literature – are a far cry from what George Romero created in 1968 with “Night of the Living Dead,” a film that will forever be one of my favorites.
Today, zombies are finger puppets at the front counter of your local music store or something geeks emulate on college campuses to prove just how much they don’t fit in.
By no fault of its own, “ParaNorman,” a stop-motion animation horror tale from Chris Butler and Sam Fell, has the unfortunate luck of poor timing in the midst of a zombie epidemic that is slowly seeping out of pop culture and into retirement.
Norman (voice of Cody Smit-McPhee) is a misunderstood kid living in Blithe Hollow, a small New England town that has been haunted for 300 years by the curse of a condemned witch. Norman is misunderstood because, unlike everyone else in town, he sees and talks with dead people. And the curse? The seven Blithe Hollow residents who sentenced the witch to death 300 years ago will rise from their graves.
Norman’s supernatural gift evolves from simply communicating with the departed to having lifelike visions of the past. After being stalked by his creepy uncle, Mr. Prenderghast (voice of John Goodman), Norman realizes that he alone has the power to keep the witch’s curse at bay, sending him on an adventure to find her grave alongside his friend Neil (voice of Tucker Albrizzi), his airhead sister Courtney (voice of Maine-native Anna Kendrick), the school bully Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), and Neil’s meat-head brother Mitch (Casey Affleck, very funny).
There’s a unique world created here in Blithe Hollow, that is unlike “ParaNorman’s” stop-motion predecessors such as “Coraline” or Tim Burton’s “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” It’s a dirtier, dingier world based more in reality, with undertones of poverty and pollution. Butler and Fell also play with generations, mashing together ’70s-inspired TVs and cars with cellphones and other modern machines. The result is less alluring, but the animation is still a marvel, providing the audience with more than enough visual stimulation.
“ParaNorman” is also sharply written and self-aware, having some fun with its zombies and ghosts, and overcoming the stigma I’ve placed on the zombie subgenre. No, it doesn’t pack the wow of “The Nightmare Before Christmas” or “Coraline,” but it’s smart enough and acquainted enough with the genre to satisfy horror fans, both young and old.