Chris Butler and Sam Fell's charming, reference-packed horror-comedy beats Tim Burton's Frankenweenie to the irono-goth punch.
If the rumours are true and stop-motion feature animation truly is dead and buried, then someone forgot to tell Laika, the studio behind 2010's delightfully macabre adaptation of the Neil Gaiman fairy tale Coraline. A bewitching snowflake of a film, it was among that year's very best, and even managed to score the company an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Film.
But Coraline had an ace up its sleeve, namely stop-motion legend Henry Selick, the master craftsman behind The Nightmare Before Christmas and the big-screen adaptation of Roald Dahl's classic 'James and the Giant Peach'.
Selick's out of the picture and working on his own projects these days, but Laika's first film without him, a supernatural adventure called ParaNorman, proves the company is still in rude and ghoulish health. Part Goonies, part Scooby Doo, it's a morbid concoction that plays like a PG version of The Monster Squad. The result is a spine-chilling if slight charmer from directors Chris Butler and Sam Fell.
Set in the ramshackle, Amblin-ish New England town of – yes – Blithe Hollow, ParaNorman tells the story of Norman Babcock (voiced by Let Me In's vampire bait, Kody Smit-McPhee) an oddball kid with an addiction to Z-grade horror and the uncanny yet convenient ability to converse with the dead. So far, so Shyamalan.
But when the ghost of his dead uncle (the fortuitously named Mr Prenderghast, played here by the always welcome John Goodman) shows up with a Very Important Task, namely to save the town from an ancient zombie curse and defeat an evil witch hell-bent on spectral vengeance, Norman has no option but to overcome his personal demons and work alongside a motley band of teenage misfits in order to break the spell. He even – thank goodness! – learns a few life lessons along the way.
The opening shot sets the tone: a human brain, squelched to mush in eye-gouging 3D. From there on, the film offers a cavalcade of references and winks to camera that will no doubt be Catnip to hardened genre fans. To wit, Norman's ringtone is the theme from Halloween, and there’s a big laugh when his rotund friend Neil shows up wearing a Jason Vorhees hockey mask.
Later on, as the witch’s hex tightens its deathly grip, ghostly hands writhe around the trees of the local forest like demons from The Evil Dead. The film's frenetic finale even features a sequence that's lifted wholesale from I Know What You Did Last Summer.
There is all kinds of nerdery at work here, and the devil is in the detail. In one particularly droll scene, a troupe of somnolent schoolchildren perform a morose rendition of Donovan's Season of the Witch for a school play inspired by the Salem Witch Trials.
Production values are all top drawer, in particular some exquisite model work and character design. Stop-motion lends itself perfectly to this style of gothic, bump-in-the-night storytelling, delivering a sense of otherworldliness and abrasive physicality that can't be achieved with CG alone. There's also a lovely soundtrack from Jon Brion that blends lilting contemporary cues with subtle nods to classic Universal scores and the occasional John Carpenter-style flourish on the synthesizer.
Whether the film works beyond the dimensions of its gags and riffs is debatable. The plot is paper-thin, a vehicle for spooky zombie action and mysterious, Joe Dante-style shenanigans. Not surprisingly, the relationships in the film very much conform to expectations – Norman is the stereotypical outsider, shy, geeky and out on his own, someone who struggles to form friendships and communicate with his family. It's not hard to see where Norman's arc will take him as the story's events escalate to a loud and sentimental conclusion.
In this regard, ParaNorman is a much more conventional work than, for instance, Coraline. Any pretence of genuine eccentricity gets buried six feet under a sedimentary layer of allusions to other, more iconic films.
No Henry Selick means lower expectations and stop-motion always a tough sell.
A constant stream of gags and horror references bring the funny.
There's no meat on the bone of this skeleton. Witty and fast-paced, sure, but the film lacks substance.