09-05-12-paranorman.jpgYou would do well to consider Paranorman (93 minutes) as a gateway movie, the first step a child takes on a long road filled with the living dead and other creepy crawlies. As a family movie it works very well and is a good example of the right way to do a children’s film. As a horror film, especially one designed to appeal to children, it is surprisingly sophisticated. Having said that, this is exactly the sort of film that gets social conservatives in a twist. Not only are there casual references to everything they hate clearly placed in the no big-deal zone, there are also real moral issues filled with shades of grey as opposed to neatly delineated categories of good and evil.

The film is set in New England, so right away you have all that rich history of women who stepped outside the norms of their gender and were hanged as witches. The opening scenes establish that a boy named Norman Babcock (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is able to both see and speak with the dead. His family (Jeff Garlin, Leslie Mann, and Anna Kendrick) are not as supportive as they might be, which leads to Norman feeling isolated at home and in school.

The determined efforts of Neil Downe (Tucker Albrizzi, who is really reminding me of Gordon Crisp from Freaks and Geeks) to become friends with Norman remind him that there are good people out there even though I question if pre-adolescents are ever really that poised. Their friendship grows in part because they are both tormented by the same bully (Christopher Mintz-Platz).

While walking home with Neil one afternoon, his Uncle Prenderghast (John Goodman) stops him to spout crazy nonsense about visions and rituals. During a rehearsal of the school play commemorating the 300-year anniversary of the execution of the town witch, Norman has a vision that is part ghostly daydream and part history lesson, revealing that his Uncle might not be as crazy as everyone thinks.

After a bit of consideration, Norman decides that it is his duty to carry out the ritual as instructed by his Uncle. Unfortunately, as so often happens, the instructions turn out to be a bit on the sketchy side and lacking all sorts of important details. He puts his best foot forward and makes it as far as the graveyard before the bully throws a wrench in the works. As it turns out, when the ritual isn’t properly completed, the dead rise from the grave and chase after the one person who might be able to put them back to bed.

Meanwhile, back on the other side of town, Norman’s sister (Kendrick) enlists the aid of Neil and his brother Mitch (Casey Affleck) to track down Norman. At this point the plot slows down a bit, and the movie wanders offplot and onto a variety of increasingly boring chase scenes. The citizenry forms into an angry mob complete with torches and egg beaters, but all is not as it seems.

Finally, it has a very distinctive look, and almost all the backgrounds highlight an incredible use of color and movement. I can’t claim to be a huge fan of the way they conceptualized the human form but production company Laika did one heck of a job of creating a real sense of humanity in the stop motion figures. Their ability to inject real human emotion into what are essentially clay figures is refined to an incredible degree by two of the best child actors working today, Smit-McPhee and Ferland. And anyone who wants to challenge that statement should go see The Road and Tideland immediately.

Now showing at Wynnsong 7, Carmike 12 and Carmike Market Fair 15.

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