In 1993, Henry Selick and Tim Burton set a benchmark for creepy animation with "The Nightmare Before Christmas."
The film was too scary for younger kids, but its clever story and stellar visuals have made "Nightmare" a cult favorite to this day.
"ParaNorman" isn't quite that good, but it should drop firmly into the same niche.
This film image released by Focus Features shows characters, from left, Grandma Babcock, voiced by Elaine Stritch, Sandra Babcock, voiced by Leslie Mann, Perry Babcock, voiced by Jeff Garlin, Norman, voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee, and Courtney, voiced by Anna Kendrick, in the 3D stop-motion film, “ParaNorman.”
Visually, this stop-motion-animation tale is a match for "Nightmare" in every way; but its storyline is a trifle tame, and it badly overdoes the ghoulishness.
The title character is 11-year-old Norman Babcock, whose ability to converse with the dead has made him an outcast in his town.
That would be Blithe Hollow, a hamlet still haunted by a 300-year-old witch hunt that yielded a legendary curse on its inhabitants.
When this curse unfolds in the form of zombies and a vengeful ghost, only Norman can save the day.
This plot sets up some effective reflections on bullying, with the somewhat new angle that assaults on those who are different often stem from fear, rather than hatred.
Norman makes a likable protagonist, and he gathers to himself an appealingly diverse band of accomplices:
The overweight Neil, whose common sense helps him stand firm when getting picked on; Norman's snotty teen sister, Courtney; Neil's buff older brother, on whom Courtney has a crush; and the school's chief bully, who - as Norman points out - has little to fear if zombies start eating everyone's brains.
The chases aren't quite as suspenseful as the filmmakers seem to think - nor are the laughs quite as funny; and there's too much emphasis on lurching ghouls, decomposing bodies and other grossouts - exemplified by Norman's wrestling match with the corpse of his uncle, whose tongue flops out and repeatedly licks Norman's face.
My own kids are out of the house, and I sometimes borrow a few young family friends when I see films rated G or PG. In this case, I'm glad I didn't; I'm sure I'd have had to take them out of the theater.
"ParaNorman" sure pushes the PG envelope; yet for fans of "Coraline" and "Corpse Bride," it's a must.
I can't speak highly enough of the detailed production design, which gives us a gritty and bedraggled community that is falling apart at the seams.
The broken-down cars, faded siding, scarred alleyways, warped fences, bulging bellies, sagging figures and chapped, reddened hands create a grim, idiosyncratic world rarely seen in animated movies.
(And check out that battered middle-school bathroom!)
Directors Chris Butler and Sam Fell, with a talented effects team headed by designer Nelson Lowry, seem to be saying that these people have nothing that makes them superior to Norman - or to the long-ago witch they persecuted; everyone's a weirdo!
The way this visual scheme meshes with the message is "ParaNorman's" strongest feature; many animation fans will want to see it more than once.