Starring the voices of Kodi Smit-McPhee, John Goodman. Written by Chris Butler. Directed by Chris Butler, Sam Fell. PG. 93 min. Opens Aug. 17.
The wizardly stop-motion animation of ParaNorman is something to behold. Not since Coraline has the onscreen world of a non-live-action production felt so dense and tactile. This is no coincidence, since Chris Butler and Sam Fell’s film comes from the same Oregon-based animation studio.
But where Coraline made mesmerizing visual poetry out of its slender coming-of-age storyline, ParaNorman is essentially a trifle—and an entertaining and technically adroit one at that. Not that Butler’s script doesn’t occasionally aim for more; it’s just that it only achieves mixed results. That the protagonist is a moody junior-high-schooler who can talk to ghosts (hence his titular nickname) is a humorously ghoulish premise; what’s a bit of a stretch is using this cartoon Sixth Sense conceit to try to examine America’s Puritan roots. So when Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee) realizes that the long-deceased witch who is turning his suburban hometown into a slapstick episode of The Walking Dead was really just a lost little kid at the mercy of religious zealots, the film comes off as mawkish in a way that Coraline never did.
On the other hand, Coraline wasn’t nearly as funny as ParaNorman, which is jammed with clever sight gags (a few of which are as imaginatively morbid as anything in Beetlejuice) and genuinely well-integrated pop culture allusions (as opposed to drecky Shrek-style sops to a mainstream audience). Even if Butler and Fell’s attempts at emotional resonance come up short, you have to admire a movie that includes a deceptively offhand revelation about a minor character’s sexuality. It feels like the film is breaking new ground—even if ultimately it’s just a brisk trip over familiar territory.