The stop-motion animated "ParaNorman" unfolds tragically: So much drawing for such an unworthy script.
The labor necessary to create a film like "ParaNorman" is colossal. Tens of thousands of facial expressions were drawn. 3-D printers (a new advancement in stop motion pioneered here) ran through 3.8 metric tons of printer powder. One scene alone took a year to shoot.
So it's tempting to applaud the 3-D "ParaNorman" politely, sympathetically simply because of the admirable work. No one wants to tell 60 puppet makers that their months of toil were ill spent.
But though "ParaNorman" is impressively crafted, the frequently wondrous and whimsical visuals far surpass the disappointingly slipshod story of an 11-year-old boy named Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) who can see and speak to the dead.
While stop-motion animation has largely gone out of favor with the rise of computer animation, the Portland-based studio LAIKA has carried the flame. The studio, which is owned by Nike founder Phil Knight and run by his son, Travis Knight (a producer on "ParaNorman"), previously made 2009's "Coraline."
"ParaNorman" bears some of the same fantasy-horror spirit of "Coraline," which was based on Neil Gaiman's novella. It also has some of the elements of the British studio Aardman Animations ("Wallace and Gromit"); "ParaNorman" is directed by Sam Fell (who co-directed Aardman's "Flushed Away") and Chris Butler, who also wrote it.
With a thick forest of rigidly spiked brown hair, Norman appears as if in perpetual fright. But he greets the paranormal with casual familiarity, talking to his grandmother (Elaine Stritch) while they watch TV and greeting invisible passersby while he walks down a seemingly empty street.
He's an avid horror film watcher with zombie posters in his bedroom and a cell phone ringtone of the "Friday the 13th" theme. His parents (Jeff Garlin, Leslie Mann) and older sister (Anna Kendrick) have little patience for Norman's eccentricities and the kids in school call him "Abnorman" and worse.
Norman is contacted by his uncle Prenderghast (John Goodman) who shares Norman's gift. He tells him that the myth of their town, Blithe Hollow - that it was cursed by a witch 300 years ago - is true, and that it's now Norman's duty to keep her at bay with a ritual.
Prederghast, who promptly croaks, also appears to Norman from the bowels of a school toilet. It's the scene that took a year to shoot, and it's when "ParaNorman" is at its best: brilliantly textured, comical and bizarre.
After Norman fails in the ritual, he and an improvised gang - his round redhead friend Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), Neil's hunky and dimwitted older brother (Casey Affleck), a bully who resembles the one that preyed on Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes (Alex Borstein), and Norman's sister - flee from a septet of zombies, with much shrieking and plan making.
The running around town takes up what feels like two thirds of the film, robbing "ParaNorman" of pace and setting it on a tiresome and frantic trajectory before enough character development has taken place. Some awkward rhythm and poor sound design (outside of the score by Jon Brion) also prevent "ParaNorman" from the smoothness of a major studio animated film.
The setup is promising and film has its charms - Norman responds to a demand to "swear!" with hesitance: "Like, the F-word?" - but it never quite finds its tone, and sometimes seems lucky to have avoided a PG-13 rating.
"ParaNorman," blessed with otherworldly animation, can't escape the demons of story.
"ParaNorman," a Focus Features release, is rated PG for scary action and images, thematic elements, some rude humor and language. Running time: 92 minutes. Two stars out of four.