ParaNorman looks spectacular. The movie sets a new standard for stop motion, with the sort of intricate, textured detail that can turn a fictional town into an inhabitable universe, that makes a movie feel like a world. The film's aesthetic is macabre yet vibrant, Oz meets Halloweentown. The art design isn't chasing realism so much as a sort of inventive tangibility, imagination that looks more real than real. The crowd scenes made up of wildly different townies, the unique businesses and homes of Blithe Hollow, the woods and sky and even the words on signs and snack packages - it all fits together in one beautiful, spooky, unconventional design that just works. And the 3D is frankly terrific, all-encompassing and wonderfully subtle.
But happily, the most lasting attribute of ParaNorman isn't the aesthetic: it's the characters. Norman himself (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a sweet, earnest oddball who charms from the very first. His family (voiced by Anna Kendrick, Leslie Mann, Jeff Garlin and Elaine Stritch) all have journeys, subtext, idiosyncrasies. His only living friend is Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), a chubby kid who offers far more than a platform for fat jokes. Neil's brave, loyal and surprisingly wise, not to mention hilarious - most of the big laughs are Neil's doing. Norman's bullied by a kid named Alvin, played by Christopher Mintz-Plasse, who has a goofy, trying-too-hard side (after pushing Norman around, he applauds himself, "That's so Alvin!") that takes the edge off his mean-spirited swagger. As Neil reminds Norman, "You can't stop bullying. It's human nature. If you were bigger and stupider, you'd probably be a bully too."
Bullying is one of the main themes of ParaNorman, a parameter surrounding a simple, central message: it's okay to be different. People may treat those who are peculiar with hostility, but that reaction comes from a place of fear, not strength. And if the weirdos among us stay true to who we are and respond to hostility with kindness, we'll be just fine. It's a message that children in particular should hear over and over but rarely learn from popular culture: the best counter to persecution is tolerance. Those quirky kids who don't fit into the usual molds deserve their own hero, and Norman is quite a hero.
The themes are mature and handled in a refreshingly earnest way, but ParaNorman rarely suffers from a heavy-handed approach - with the exception of perhaps the end. Most of the film's running time speeds by, buoyed by huge laughs and astonishing creature design. The ghosts and zombies are all wildly ambitious and original. Norman is obsessed with horror films, and the movie in turns calls back to Carpenter, Romero, Hitchcock and Raimi through familiar angles, music, creature design and some very specific jokes. For instance, there is one moment that so entirely brings to mind Drag Me To Hell in the grossest and best way possible.
The movie isn't afraid to go very gory, although it's rarely legitimately frightening. But Norman's whole-hearted preoccupation with horror flicks and ParaNorman's occasional cult sensibility will not only vindicate current young horror fans but inspire new ones. When Norman's father asks him what he's watching, he responds mildly, "Sex and violence," and while his dad blusters, I celebrate the fact that a movie overtly expresses that a child exposed to those very things can prove to be the kindest, most humane person in town.
ParaNorman is perhaps most surprisingly a very funny movie, as kids' movie humor often resorts to silly bathroom or fat jokes. While there's some of that here, most of the humor stems from witty dialogue and clever visual gags. One extended vending machine bit had the audience rolling. And the film displays a rousing sense of adventure, with high stakes and a Mystery Machine van chase scene that is exhilarating.
The message does suffer a bit from an inelegant schmaltziness at the end, and the movie loses some of its momentum while laying it on so thick. But then the film makes a brave decision that I won't spoil, a decision that in this day and age shouldn't have to be considered brave but is. ParaNorman is ambitious and inventive, marvelously conceived, but the bulk of its value lies within the movie's open-minded philosophy. It's a pity that is such a rare thing in a family film.