MOVIE REVIEW: Animation quality a fright to ‘ParaNorman’ audiences


This film image released by Focus Features shows characters, from left, Grandma Babcock, voiced by Elaine Stritch, Sandra Babcock, voiced by Leslie Mann, Perry Babcock, voiced by Jeff Garlin, Norman, voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee, and Courtney, voiced by Anna Kendrick, in the 3D stop-motion film, "ParaNorman." (AP Photo/Focus Features)



2 stars

If there was any more proof needed as to why art-house/independent/boutique studios don't fare well with animation, just take a look (actually, don't) at "ParaNorman." Deemed not good enough for early summer or the fall, "ParaNorman" still might do marginal business with adults who dig Tim Burton's animated stuff or children (all three of them) who like horror movies.

With its crude, stop-motion photography, truly hideous artwork and macabre theme, "ParaNorman" is more akin to "The Sixth Sense" by way of "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" than anything the majority of parents or their kids look for in breezy animated features.

Appearing to be about 8 or so, Norman is a friendless boy with clueless parents whose only social interaction is with the pudgy, nerdy Neil and conversations he has with ghosts -- one of whom is his recently departed grandmother. Norman's bedroom is adorned with horror flick posters (mostly zombies) and similarly themed knick knacks, clothing and accessories.

Unlike in "The Sixth Sense," everyone in Norman's small town is aware of his otherworldly abilities but no one actually believes him, effectively making him an outcast and a pariah. The backwards burg where he lives is overrun with mental midgets who seem to be stuck in the 1950s and whose community mascot is a witch. Every year they "celebrate" the execution by fire of the witch who wreaked havoc centuries earlier and left behind a dreaded curse. It should be mentioned that at the time of her demise, the witch was about Norman's age or slightly younger.

When his crazy, wigged-out (but equally gifted) uncle tells Norman there's a chance he can do something to lift the curse, Norman sees it as a chance not only to prove everybody wrong but to maybe also excise his own demons in the process. Cool as it sometimes might be, talking to dead people comes with considerable drawbacks and Norman desperately wants to change his public image.

If you saw "Coraline," the similarly looking kid-Goth flick featuring Georgia native Dakota Fanning from a few years back, you'll have an idea of what's going on in "ParaNorman." Sam Fell ("Flushed Away") co-directs with writer Chris Butler, who was also the storyboard supervisor for "Coraline" and has previously worked with Burton.

At about the halfway point, the filmmakers lighten up just a bit by ditching some of the mope and gloom in favor of something along the lines of a TV episode of "Scooby-Doo." Norman and Neil are joined by the former's affected, valley girl older sister and the latter's clueless, muscle-bound, gearhead older brother. Instead of a dog, the quintet of inept sleuths is rounded out by a mouth-breathing, heavily pierced bully forever tormenting Norman.

The last 15 minutes is very serious, scary and bittersweet and will probably be too much for most of the under-10 crowd to fathom and among the few that might get it, it will seriously bum them out. Of course it ends with faux-uplift and the possibility of a sequel and if Focus Features decides to make one, it should be a direct-to-video affair. Little more than a scant few are going to want to line up for a second serving of "ParaNorman." (Focus Features)