Clear a path, Pixar. With the delightfully offbeat zombie flick "ParaNorman," the plucky studio Laika is staking a bold claim in the crowded animation market.
It's building a unique reputation by taking glorious, old-school animation technology -- stop-motion -- and gussying it up with smartly deployed 3-D, using it to enhance rather than distract.
The impressive Oregon-based company has produced another macabre winner to follow its ingeniously twisted first full-length feature, 2009's "Coraline." Like that creepy flick, this one has some real edge to it; the material may be unsuitable for little tykes, who could encounter nightmares from the comic mayhem and zombies.
For older kids and adults, though,
this is an utter delight -- beautifully conceived, executed and acted. "ParaNorman" -- about a bullied middle-schooler named Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee), a kid who sees dead people and contends with the undead and a wee witch with anger management issues -- doesn't entirely possess the same innovative streak as "Coraline," but it sometimes comes close.
The comic ode to horror flicks is a breath of fresh air in the normally stale movie days of mid-August, and it stands out as one of the best animated features so far this year.
Directors Sam Fell ("Flushed Away") and Chris Butler, who also wrote the screenplay, and a team of animators have gone to meticulous lengths to cook up a captivating and off-kilter world. They've
done such a richly detailed job of it that even the down-on-its-heels town of Blithe Hollow -- which flailingly hopes to capitalize on its historical indiscretions by making the entire downtown witch-themed -- practically pulsates with life. Other smaller details deliver big storytelling payoffs: the dingy corridors of a middle school; Norman's well-used, comic-book-stuffed backpack;? the crazily fit body of Mitch (Casey Affleck); and the garish pink get-up worn by Norman's self-involved sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick).
The attention to detail extends to all the quirky characters, including Norman's chunky friend Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), who's also bullied; the insufferably dramatic teacher Mrs. Henscher (Alex Borstein); the seemingly cuckoo Uncle Prenderghast (John Goodman); and the insecure bully Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse).
But don't be fooled into assuming that "ParaNorman" is all about the visuals. It delivers a potent, multipronged fable that touches on meaty themes, from bullying to dealing with death. It also delivers an especially resonant message about not succumbing to a cult of fear.
That's an awful lot to stuff into a story about a boy who tries to save his town from a witch's curse, but Butler's screenplay never allows the narrative to go astray or become preachy. He effortlessly shows Norman's rite of passage from being ostracized to being accepted in his town. At times, that journey becomes touching, with a finale that is particularly moving.
The central theme about embracing each other's differences is hardly new, but "ParaNorman" employs it in a very effective and visually captivating manner -- playing it out beyond typical pat and easy resolutions.
For that reason and many more, I can't wait to see what Laika has cooking up next for us.
Rating: PG (for scary action and images, thematic elements, some rude humor and language) Cast: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Casey Affleck, Anna Kendrick, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Tucker Albrizzi, John Goodman and Leslie Mann Directors: Sam Fell and Chris Butler Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes