‘ParaNorman’ review: It’s all about facing your fears

Kodi Smit-McPhee faces off with Norman, the character to whom he gives voice in “ParaNorman.” Credit: AllianceFilms

For Australian actor Kodi Smit-McPhee, recording the voice for the lead in the 3D animated comedy “ParaNorman” may have been a bit scary. That’s because during the course of production for the movie it became increasingly obvious that the young actor’s voice was starting to change, and as any teenage boy can tell you, once that begins, there’s no going back.

Smit-McPhee (“Let Me In”) himself described how his voice began to drop in the midst of recording sessions for the film. “That was one of the things we noticed and was probably the biggest challenge,” the now 16-year-old actor said, “Because there’s nothing you can really do about that.”

Kodi Smit-McPhee voices “Norman” in “ParaNorman.” Credit: AllianceFilms

“It was dropping halfway through [recording], and by the very last session it was completely gone. If you watch the movie again and kind of pay attention to that, it does drop. I think it makes sense because [Norman] gets more brave, and he gets confident and he becomes this bigger person.”

Although Smit-McPhee may be able to spot a difference, the only thing viewers will notice is the totally natural and engaging vocal performance he gives as Norman, the 11-year-old horror movie-loving misfit with a special paranormal gift. Norman can communicate with ghosts, a unique ability that proves to be the key to solving his town’s sudden shocking supernatural problems.

Blithe Hollow may look like just another sleepy little New England village, but there’s an ugly truth hidden in its history. When a 300-year-old witch’s curse calls seven zombies from their graves, young Norman finds himself caught between the restless undead and a rampaging mob of terrified townspeople toting torches.

Norman is joined on his quest by Neil, Mitch, Courtney and Alvin in “ParaNorman.” Credit: AllianceFilms

With a little help from his cheerleader sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick), best friend Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), Neil’s older brother Mitch (Casey Affleck), and school bully Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), Norman must figure out how to face his own fears, end the terrible curse and save the town.

Despite the supernatural hullabaloo, at its heart “ParaNorman” carries a thoughtful moral message about not letting fear dictate how you act. Or, as his dead Grandma’s ghost (Elaine Stritch) tells the boy, “There’s nothing wrong with being scared, Norman, as long as it doesn’t change who you are.”

Created by Oregon-based stop-motion studio Laika, the same animation house that made “Coraline,” “ParaNorman” is a beautifully realized meld of old-fashioned stop motion animation and cutting-edge 3D technology. Here, unlike a great many of the films released in the wake of “Avatar,” the 3D effects are never distracting or inserted solely for their own sake, but truly complement the story and enhance the textural quality of the animation.

With plenty of strong characters, a vivid animation style, and several genuinely scary moments, “ParaNorman” is a winner for kids of all ages. It’s also chock full of wonderful little tributes to several classic (and some not-so-classic) horror films that adults will be especially amused to see.

Animation fans will surely want to sit through the end credits for a brief demo of Norman’s creation. For a more involved look at the animation process, take a peek at the stop-motion zombie lab video on the “ParaNorman” website. As producer/lead animator Travis Knight says, “It’s the closest thing to magic that I can imagine.”

“ParaNorman,” is directed by Aardman Animation veteran Sam Fell (“The Tale of Despereaux”) and writer/director Chris Butler (“Corpse Bride”). The film score is by composer/songwriter Jon Brion (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”).


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