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— Michelle Yeoh, Tomorrow Never Dies

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The primary animation in ParaNorman is genuine stop-motion photography. Characters, costumes, sets, and props are real-world items, photographed. The noticeable texture in the clothing and sets reveals the playfulness and fun of old-fashioned animation.

He Sees Dead People

Norman and Neil and their older siblings see a ghost
Norman and Neil and their older siblings see a ghost

Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) sees dead people. The first example: his dead grandmother still lives with the family, knitting on the couch and watching TV. When he forgets to keep his “gift” to himself, he’s derided and scolded for his runaway imagination. He’s the “freak” at the bottom of the schoolyard pecking order. His only friend is the fat kid, Neil (Tucker Albrizzi); he’s also the only person who believes that Norman can speak with the dead.

There is one other citizen with the same gift as Norman: “that weird guy who lives up the hill” (John Goodman) — Norman’s uncle. He tries to recruit Norman into an occult ceremony involving an ancient tome. He only convinces Norman to perform the ritual after he dies and comes back as a ghost, haunting Norman in a bathroom stall at school.

The ritual must be performed tonight, the anniversary of the execution of that witch, back when Massachusetts was a colony. The Puritan dead are already beginning to rise. If Norman fails, the witch will come and wreak havoc on the town.

All Shapes and Sizes

The screenplay is carefully layered. The bullying Norman faces is made parallel to the havoc threatened by the witch, who was herself a victim of an unthinking mob. I’m not sure it’s a perfect comparison, but I appreciate that the screenplay tries for some depth, rather than just going for a plot and some jokes.

Hindering Norman and Neil is the local bully Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) and his crew. Norman’s older sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick) lives in her own world, which overlaps Norman’s as little as possible. She melts for Neil’s narcissistic older brother Mitch (Casey Affleck), a bodybuilder.

The stop-motion animation studio Laika throws together an interesting menagerie of characters. Norman and Neil are homely lumps. Luckily, their bullies don’t come off looking very good either. Alvin looks like a clown punching bag — round on the bottom tapering to a thick cylinder on top. The bodybuilder’s head is all eyes and jaw — no place for a brain. The vain teenager has awkward hips — she doesn’t have an hourglass figure, so much as a space needle figure. We are introduced to Norman’s parents through their bulging bellies, which are at Norman’s eye level.

The charmingly ugly lumps got me thinking about obesity in this country. I live in the fittest city in the fittest state in the United States (no thanks to me, with a BMI admittedly over 30). Maybe that’s why I find trips to the multiplex so eye-opening: that’s where I see America’s most expansive waistlines... that is, until the lights dim and perfect-weight actors start trying to sell me empty calories and fast food. If what we saw on the silver screen reflected “us” better, I think America would take the problem more seriously. Ironically the lumpy caricatures in ParaNorman look more like “us” than the actors in all the live-action trailers I’ve seen this month.

Playing it Safe

You may have noticed that all of this sounds more like appreciation than enjoyment. As much as I admired the craft that went into the screenplay, the character design, and the casting, I got more chuckles than belly laughs. ParaNorman isn’t going for pure comedy. There’s an earnest message at its core, and maybe that earnestness makes the movie a little less fun. It’s not schmaltzy; it’s just not very edgy. For a movie with a PG-13 rating, I might have hoped for something a little less safe.

Then again, there is the scene with that corpse....