Co-directed by Sam Fell (“Flushed Away”) and Chris Butler (storyboard supervisor on the stop-motion “Coraline”), the film edges into Tim Burton territory with creepy things and dark themes. But at every opportunity to explore these darker, more adult issues, the film rushes back to kiddie cartoon-land.
The problem facing studio animation, of course, is that they come at such high costs, both to make and market, that the makers must appeal to as broad a base as possible, meaning family audiences. Pixar and on occasion DreamWorks Animation have managed the difficult trick of sneaking sophisticated, adult humor into family fare.
Certainly animators in Europe and Asia make totally adult cartoons containing content that would never appear in a studio film. However, these come at lower costs and serve a market already developed for such films. No such market exists in the U.S.
So when a studio cartoon tries to get a bit edgy, as “ParaNorman” does, it falls between the cracks. The themes of this film — about mob mentality and people’s fear of those who are different — flies over the head of youngsters but is never satisfactorily developed for adults.
The film concerns a youngster, Norman (voiced by Kodi Smith-McPhee), who must be a second cousin to the young boy in “The Sixth Sense”: He not only sees dead people but engages them in daily conversations. This includes watching TV with his recently departed grandmother (Elaine Stritch).
This makes Norman the town freak but he gets no sympathy from either his frustrated dad (Jeff Garlin) or big sister (Anna Kendrick, having a ball with shallow sis), who can’t believe she’s related to such a dork.
The town’s claim to touristic fame is a 300-year-old witch hunt, which bagged one poor girl who was hanged after a kangaroo court trial. Now the young woman’s curse on the town, uttered moments before her execution, is about to come to fruition: Her so-called “victims” will rise from their graves to wreck havoc on the citizenry.
Only Norman can stop this with a beyond-the-grave assistance from his uncle Prenderghast (John Goodman).
Butler’s script makes a half-hearted attempt to equate the mob mentality of Blithe Hollow’s founding fathers and their witch hunts with angry contemporary citizens who blame Norman for causing the ghouls to rise from their graves.
The case is only briefly made, however, before the movie scampers on to hijinks involving the Undead and their detachable body parts. Indeed most of the comic action is tame — gags and situations that show little imagination and certainly under exploit the real possibilities here.
While the zombie founding fathers wander about in a menacing manner at times, it’s never clear what their intent is — what the curse requires them to do, in other words. You can do only so many gags about detectable body parts before laughs dry up.
The stop-motion animation by Fell and Butler is superior to any of its predecessors although there is one odd thing about the human figures: The animators have chosen to use extreme body shapes and often oversized heads for models. Thus most of the citizens of Blithe Hollow look more horrifying than either freaky Norman or the zombies themselves!
No matter, the animation is brilliant and the movie makes for a mild diversion in air-conditioned serenity on a hot summer’s day or night. One just wishes the animators had pushed a little harder.
Opens: Friday, Aug. 17, 2012 (Focus Features)
Production companies: Laika
Voice cast: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Tucker Albrizzi, Anna Kendrick, Casey Affleck, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Leslie Mann, Jeff Garlin, Elaine Stritch, Bernard Hill, John Goodman
Directors: Sam Fell, Chris Butler
Screenwriter: Chris Butler
Producers: Arianne Sutner, Travis Knight
Director of photography: Tristan Oliver
Production designer: Nelson Lowry
Music: Jon Brion
Costume designer: Deborah Cook
Editor: Christopher Murrie
PG rating, 93 minutes