"ParaNorman," the second animated production by Laika Studios in Oregon, ought to have Tim Burton looking over Johnny Depp's shoulder and Pixar re-examining its storytelling division.
By adding "ParaNorman" to its debut production "Coraline," Laika has established itself as the premier studio in animated horror for the whole family.
The stop-motion production is made more complicated by filming in 3D. Hundreds of miniatures were required to construct the film's sets, along with fully articulated metal armatures to bring the film's plastic characters to life. To speed up the process, thousands of snap-on faces were rendered on a 3D color printer, then placed in trays in the order necessary to exhibit happy, sad and a variety of other expressions. Speed is a relative term, however, since up to 250 versions of each character's face are required to display one emotion.
Norman Babcock, voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee, is a pubescent boy able to communicate with ghosts. Chief among these is his ectoplasmic granny, whose see-through visage hangs about, knitting on the couch, and encouraging Norman to keep his chin up. Norman's hunched shoulders and melancholy expressions increase in the presence of classmates who have pigeonholed him as a freak and in the disappointed looks of his elder sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick), and his parents (Leslie Mann and Jeff Garlin).
Though feeling personally defeated, Norman is nevertheless sympathetic to the ghosts that haunt his hometown of Blithe Hollow. The town, famous for its witch trials 300 years earlier, is under a curse that is poised to resurrect the pioneers responsible for sending the sorceress to her death.
When seven zombies appear (depicted in shades of aqua and sea foam green), they are the first supernatural phenomena visible to Norman's fellow townies. No longer considered a freak, Norman is the only one able to set things right, thanks to his skill in deciphering the troubles that plague otherworldly entities.
During its first hour, "ParaNorman" is a treat for the eyes, thanks to computer imagery that enhances the ghosts with swirling wisps of green and bubbling accompaniments that make it impossible to look away.
Unfortunately, the thin story line attempts to hold our interest by fleshing out other characters in Norman's life. With the notable exceptions of drama teacher Mrs. Henscher (Alex Borstein), and Norman's Uncle Mr. Prenderghast (John Goodman), the film's dull characters blunt this scheme.
Long on talking and short on action, "ParaNorman" misses being a great movie, but it's a movie that shows us why Laika Studios, given a bit more focus, is positioned to become great.