Stop-motion animation is one of my very favorite ways in which a film can be shot. Because of the painstaking work that goes into each frame, it always seems like every single minute is more thought out than your average cineplex fare. The script, the way the shots are framed, everything -- it all has to work within the limits of the filming method.
As such, I have this theory that movies shot in stop-motion animation will always have a leg up. If you're going to go through the trouble to get the details that the medium demands right, you're probably going to have an eye for the other important stuff that goes into making a good movie too. ParaNorman has these characteristics. There is a deliberate excellence in the craftsmanship that I, at least, have come to expect from stop-motion animation. But there is also a truly terrific story to be had. It is a relatively simple one, but it has deep soul, which is a breath of mountain-fresh air in a world where the inverse is usually true of the family fare on offer at the local cineplex.
The title character, Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee), is a pre-adolescent outcast who also happens to be a medium. If you're thinking of Haley Joel Osment's character in The Sixth Sense, you're halfway right; Norman has the same unwanted gift, only he's not such an emo mess because of it. That's not to diminish his overall alienation. He has one pseudo-friend, the pudgy and irrepressible Neil (voiced by Tucker Albrizzi). He is bullied by classmates, principally the dimwitted Alvin (voiced by Christopher Mintz-Plasse), and his sister Courtney (voiced by Anna Kendrick), all of whom see him as a freak. Even his parents (voiced by Leslie Mann and Jeff Garlin) are losing their patience with his talk of talking to the dead. No one believes he actually can, of course.
They will soon enough. His town's resident crazy old guy also happens to be his uncle, Mr. Prenderghast (voiced by John Goodman), and though Norman has been directed to stay away from his estranged relative, he is sucked in by Mr. Prenderghast's claims that he too can see and converse with spirits and that he is single-handedly preventing a witch executed long ago in Blithe Hollow from haunting the village and all of its residents. When his uncle dies suddenly, that mostly unexplained responsibility falls on Norman's shoulders, setting the meat of the plot in motion.
There are some odd inspirations mashed up here -- Scooby Doo and the forgettable Hocus Pocus immediately jump to mind -- but the end product is terrific as is the message, an It-Gets-Better-style lesson that might convince bullies to change their ways and the bullied to turn the other cheek and persevere.
ParaNorman is the second feature-length release from Laika Studios, following on the heels of 2009's critically acclaimed Coraline. I can't say I think they'll ever rival a behemoth like Pixar Studios and unless they branch out from stop-motion animation it seems unlikely that they'll be able to match the prolificness of Dreamworks Animation. But if all three studios had a release out on the same weekend, I'm not sure I'd pick the two animation giants over Laika at this point.