Like the undead, animated movies are best when they're under control. "ParaNorman,"a dark and slightly dotty 3-D fable about a boy who communes with the dearly and not so dearly departed, sometimes gets a little out of hand, especially at the end. Even so, it may be the most fun you'll have with ghosts and zombies all year.
It's a spooky twist on the typical outsider kid's tale of woe. Directed by Sam Fell and Chris Butler from Butler's scattershot script, the stop-motion film centers on Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a bookish 11-year-old and one of the main targets for the school's nose-picking bully Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). At home Norman is loved but misunderstood. His bombastic dad (Jeff Garlin) is forever booming about his conversations with "ghosts." His loopy mom (Leslie Mann) is certain it's only a phase. And his teenage sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick) basically can't be bothered with her irritating little brother. Norman's solace is watching scary movies on TV with his grandmother (Elaine Stritch). The problem, at least for Dad, is that Grandma passed away last year.
It's not all that surprising that no one believes Norman can really talk to the dead, except for his weird Uncle Prenderghast (John Goodman) — and, of course, the dead, who turn up everywhere in Blithe Hollow, a tourist trap whose claim to fame is a legendary witch hunt that happened 300 years ago. A giant statue of the captured old crone, complete with pointed hat and warted nose, graces the town square. Main street shops specialize in black-arts tchotchkes. Even the annual school play is a reenactment of the trial and hanging of the witch.
Uncle Prenderghast tracks down Norman to tell him a crazy story about a curse cast by the old witch and an army of local zombies about to be on the loose. Then he promptly keels over, leaving the grisly problem in Norman's lap. Much running amok ensues.
A great benefit of using stop-motion animation in a story like this is not only the way lines between the various realities can be blurred but how the style of film itself evokes a kind of pop-up book fairy tale quality that beckons you inside. In this strange world, all the creatures come to life in inventive ways, with the modeling allowing for a level of sculpted detail that is harder to achieve in more traditional animation styles. The ghosts are a bit wispier than the town folks and frankly, for the most part, a friendlier bunch.
There are a series of stunning sequences as Norman falls into occasional trances in which scary end-of-Blithe Hollow premonitions play out in his mind. The zombies themselves are more fun than fearful, especially the judges who condemned the witch to death, truly a bunch of breakout boogeymen. The animators are clearly having a good time as the undead lose and retrieve bits of their decaying bodies along the way, and that mood is infectious. There are some zombie rampages that might be scary for little ones and go on too long for kids of all ages, but all in all it's family-friendly.
Fell is an animation veteran, having co-directed the delightful "Flushed Away" in 2006 and the somewhat less delightful "The Tale of Despereaux" in 2008. Butler is making his directing and writing debut after time in the artistic trenches, including work on "Coraline,"filmmaker Henry Selick's stop-motion adaptation of the children's story (it was nominated for an Oscar in 2010). That experience keeps the animation top notch.
Things derail a bit near the end when the filmmakers start throwing in a few too many "morals to this story." And the final showdown between the town folk and the zombie rampage is a little too graphic for comfort.
The story is at its best when it relaxes into quirky riffs on kids' problems and zany zombies. There are amusing jabs at familiar stereotypes, the best found among Norman's band of unlikely allies: A new friend named Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), a sweet fat kid who is another favorite target for bullying. And Neil's buff but not too bright brother Mitch (Casey Affleck) is a hoot.