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posted: 8/16/2012 5:00 AM

'ParaNorman' a witty, fast-paced zombie comedy

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  • Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) must deal with his parents, sister and his dead-but-still-talking-to-him grandmother (Elaine Stritch) in "ParaNorman."

      Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) must deal with his parents, sister and his dead-but-still-talking-to-him grandmother (Elaine Stritch) in "ParaNorman."

  • Alvin (voiced by Christopher Mintz-Plasse), right, takes a break from bullying Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee) to escape from zombies in "ParaNorman."

      Alvin (voiced by Christopher Mintz-Plasse), right, takes a break from bullying Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee) to escape from zombies in "ParaNorman."

  • Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee) tries to protect his town from a 300-year-old curse in "ParaNorman."

      Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee) tries to protect his town from a 300-year-old curse in "ParaNorman."

  • Video: "ParaNorman" trailer

 
 

And you probably thought this was just another shallow, stop-motion, 3-D animated comedy about zombies.

"ParaNorman" revels in weirdness, celebrates differences and attests to the power of stories to create understanding and healing.

This witty and surprising creepy comedy also condemns revenge and hate, promotes the virtues of forgiveness, plus cautions viewers to be wary of making hasty snap judgments.

This is pretty heady stuff from British directors Sam Fell and Chris Butler, who mine their obvious love of old-fashioned creature features to create a cautionary tale about an outcast whose unusual gifts make him the perfect hero to save his small, xenophobic town from a witch's curse.

He would be Norman Babcock (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee), a kid with a standing-room-only coiffure that looks as if he stuck his finger into an electrical socket.

Like Haley Joel Osment in "The Sixth Sense," Norman not only sees dead people, he talks to them, mostly his cranky deceased grandmother (Elaine Stritch) who sits on the family couch and complains.

His parents (Jeff Garlin and Leslie Mann) worry about Norman. His teen sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick) can't stand the embarrassment he causes.

At school, Norman's strange behavior talking to invisible people makes him an easy target for bullies like the abusive Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse).

But Norman has a buddy, whether he wants one or not.

His slightly rotund, stock classmate character Neil (Tucker Abrizzi) constantly follows Norman, who complains he wants to be alone.

"I want to be alone, too!" Neil says. "Let's do it together!"

Neil, too, has an older, disapproving sibling, the narcissistic muscle-bound Mitch (Casey Affleck).

They don't know it yet, but both Neil and Norman will come to appreciate their sibs in a very short time.

Norman's quaint New England town of Blithe Hollow is about to come under assault by a 300-year-old curse.

At least that's what crazy Mr. Prenderghast (John Goodman) cryptically tells Norman just before he croaks.

The freshly deceased Mr. Prenderghast pops up in Norman's restroom stall at school to warn him about a curse uttered by an innocent girl burned at the stake after being accused of witchcraft.

(This is a curious plot point unreconciled in the movie: If the girl wasn't a witch, how did she obtain the powers to orchestrate a zombie uprising 300 years later? Hmmm.)

Norman does exactly what Mr. Prenderghast tells him to do to prevent the curse, but a cruel twist thwarts his efforts.

So, Blithe Hollow becomes invaded, first by the animated corpses of the judges who condemned the little girl, second by psychotic townspeople who form a brainless, bloodthirsty mob intent on destroying anything viewed as a threat -- anything "different."

As you might observe, "ParaNorman" is a dark and shrewd little movie that hasn't been sanitized for young kids.

This marks the second stop-motion animated project from Laika, the company that gave us 2009's underrated scary fairy tale "Coraline" directed by Henry "Nightmare Before Christmas" Selick.

Like "Coraline" (which made my year's top-10 list), "ParaNorman" plumbs the darker depths of humanity that the late Chicago child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim would appreciate.

"ParaNorman" packs in the obligatory chases, races and scary faces we expect to see. But beneath the Scooby-Do contrivances of this handcrafted work lurk lessons worthy of a biblical parable.

"Stop trying to kill my brother!" Courtney shouts.

And for a moment, we can't be sure whom she's addressing. The zombies? Or her fellow citizens?

Note: "ParaNorman" rarely exploits its 3-D format, and at a press screening, the 3-D severely dimmed the images. So, my advice would be to watch "ParaNorman" in old-fashioned 2-D for a more rewarding experience.

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