For about an hour, ParaNorman is just about what one might expect and hope for from animation studio Laika: a gorgeous-looking stop-motion cartoon that operates somewhere at the intersection of Monster House and The Monster Squad, slyly harkening back to '80s Amblin adventures and B-grade creature features.
Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) is the eponymous teen, burdened with the ability to communicate with the dead at the expense of fitting in with the living. He's picked on at school by illiterate bully Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse, in a nice reversal) and is forcefully befriended by fellow loser, Neil (Tucker Albrizzi); at home, cheerleader sis Courtney (Anna Kendrick) can't stand him, while Mom (Leslie Mann) tries her best to insist that Dad (Jeff Garlin) doesn't mean his every admission of embarrassment toward his son.
Norman's about as likely an unlikely hero as they come, and once his nutty uncle (John Goodman) warns him of the curse placed on the town of Blithe Hollow – imagine a more touristy Salem – it's up to the pint-sized pariah to save his neighbors and loved ones from an age-old witch's curse that brings forth zombies from their graves.
That's right: zombies, ghosts and witches, all in one movie. Co-directors Chris Butler (a Burton acolyte who wrote the screenplay) and Sam Fell (one of the brains behind the underappreciated Aardman effort Flushed Away) try to remove some of the bite from the casually macabre material; for example, these slack-jawed Puritan undead never actually crave flesh. Despite the pervasive presence of death, ParaNorman feels no more or less frightening for suitably aged children than Laika's previous project, 2009's Coraline.
As for grown-up enjoyment, countless, priceless sight gags abound (a billboard touting a witch smiling from a noose calls Blithe Hollow "a fun place to hang!"), Jon Brion's synth-tinged score is a genre-blending delight, and the voice cast (including Casey Affleck as Neil's buff older brother) is generally spot-on. The plot is propelled by a familiar sundown deadline and often colored in with horror-movie winks and well-honed wisecracks.
And then, in the third act, Butler and Fell follow in Norman's footsteps, breaking from beat-the-baddie formula to give compassion a shot at defeating the evils of nothing less than mob mentality. Our sympathies toward certain characters shift rather nimbly while the film takes a token message of acceptance and uses it to decry bullies of any age. The story builds to a visually striking showdown and a surprisingly potent emotional climax the likes of which Pixar used to nail in their own films not so long ago.
Given this especially contentious election season, ParaNorman's lessons feel oddly prescient, even as a town history defined by literal witch hunts reminds us that the dangers of fear-driven groupthink are nothing new. In any given year, it would stand as a lovingly crafted animated endeavor made up of equal parts creepiness and caring, mercifully spare in its use of potty humor and pop-culture references. In 2012, it ranks as one of the year's best.