***1/2 (out of four)
Eleven-year-old Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) did not ask for the ability to see and communicate with ghosts. Why would he? This young horror film fan surely would have seen “The Sixth Sense” and known that Haley Joel Osment doesn’t exactly spend that movie with a big smile on his face.
The titular hero of the 3-D animated “ParaNorman” spends his adolescence as an outcast in the small town of Blithe Hollow because of a supernatural skill that’s been natural to him since birth. Strangers see Norman talking to a bike or a skunk that’s been flattened in the street; Norman sees the spirits of the dead (both on two legs and four) and says hi to these unthreatening beings, his only friends.
His judgmental parents (Jeff Garlin and Leslie Mann) and older sister (Anna Kendrick), who wish he were different, certainly don’t know that Norman will soon be front and center when a witch’s curse ravages the community on its 300th anniversary, spilling from the grave zombies who immediately terrify the townspeople. The citizens persecute the undead for virtually the same reason spelling-challenged Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) bullies Norman and his new pal Neal (Tucker Albrizzi), who feels no shame for his weight, irritable bowel syndrome or kitten lunchbox. Bullying’s part of human nature, Neal says, and if Norman were bigger and stupider, he might be a bully too.
Clever and sweet, funny and spooky, this coming-of-age ghost story from the studios behind "Coraline" tremendously blends the horrors of monster movies and the horrors of youth into an allegory about the fear that drives bigotry. While packing the screen with endearing, witty details (Norman’s ringtone is the “Halloween” theme), writer/co-director Chris Butler advocates taking the high road in a world in which revenge only fuels resentments and being different can cause alienation at any age.
A few familial relationships seem underdeveloped, and the exceptional first-act pace loses steam later on. Still, zombie movies haven’t felt so rejuvenated since “Zombieland,” a great horror-comedy that tweaked horror conventions into a fast, hilarious road movie. “ParaNorman,” which also features an excellent, against-type vocal performance from Casey Affleck as Neal’s dimwitted, muscular older brother, does it one better: This triumph salutes the fun of scary movies, but in real life dares to consider the person unfairly labeled as a monster.
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