STOP ME if you've heard this one before: There's this little kid, and he can see dead people. Now, I know what you're thinking: "This kid, he's probably well adjusted and super popular with his peers, am I right? A hit with all the ladies?"
No! Believe it or not, he's kind of an outcast! A social pariah, even! Okay, now I don't want to spoil anything, but the twist? This social handicap of his might turn out to save the day. Sounds crazy, right? I know, but it's true!
That, unfortunately, is the recycling-bin plot the talented animators at LAIKA have saddled themselves with on ParaNorman. It doesn't get any better in the telling, and probably gets worse, with a story involving a town cursed by a little girl who was burned as a witch (yeesh, dark much?) and a climax so drawn out and touchy-feely-talky that it plays like Chopra for kids. It's a shame, because the animation is so finely crafted and obviously painstaking that not loving it makes you feel like a real poopface.
Certainly this kind of animation is one of the best uses of 3D. The stop-motion practical effects (kind of like Fantastic Mr. Fox) are so texturally varied—compared to the condom sculptures you get with CG—that the depth gives you a fuller tactile appreciation for the homemade-ness of it all. "Whoa, how'd they do that? How'd they do THAT?!" you'll say. But once that wears off, there isn't much else. A couple characters, like Neil (voiced by Tucker Albrizzi), the chubby best friend of main character Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee), and the burnout Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), are endearing and nicely rendered, but the main difference between this and LAIKA's Coraline is that ParaNorman's character design is ugly in a way that almost feels disdainful. The characters all look like if you took an ugly friend to the fair and had a caricaturist play up his worst features as a cruel prank. They're like a tragic take on the seven dwarves—Lumpy, Gap Tooth, Chicken Neck, Shovel Face, Lardass, Acne, and Hook Nose. It's meant to be funny, but it just comes off as mean and unpleasant. ParaNorman's level of craftsmanship is incredible—and a thing to behold, at least for a little while—but between a dull story, unpleasant characters, and jokes that don't work, you're better off just watching a behind-the-scenes featurette.