I don't know why Paranorman was dumped in the middle of the August movie dead zone and not at the beginning of October—maybe fear of a head-on collision with Tim Burton's Frankenweenie?—but it deserved better. It's a movie that you really ought to see if you enjoy stop-motion animation or horror movies. While it's true the movie is propelled by a standard kid's movie plot—an outcast kid can see ghosts, and only he can save his town from a witch's curse—it has aspirations beyond the usual kid-flick drivel.
For one thing, Paranorman doesn't short you on the horror-movie trappings. One of the first things you see is a screaming woman staggering around an apparently haunted house because her stiletto heel is impaled on a brain. We see corpses, zombies, and some pretty spooky special effects. For another thing, the movie is packed with references to horror movie classics: Halloween, Friday the 13th, George Romero, and more. Much, much more. This is the kind of movie that people on the internet are going to dissect for months, frame-by-frame, when the movie is available for rental. The settings, characters, and business names all appear to be thick with homages to cinematic horror history.
But the most surprising thing about Paranorman is that it's stone-cold beautiful. I was expecting it to be pretty—it's produced by Laika, also known as the people behind Coraline, after all—but this is something else again. The villain appears as an apparition of fabric in the sky, the set design is intricate and gloomy and lived-in, the camera doesn't stop moving into surprising places. This is the first movie I regretted not seeing in 3D; after seeing Coraline in both 3D and in 2D, I think Laika has a handle on how to make 3D work as a complement to the film, and not a gimmick.
There are problems. The fat sidekick whose personality is that he's fat feels played-out. Norman's family is pretty stereotypical. (But thankfully, Norman isn't soaked in self-pity the way most movie nerds are.) The plot necessities occasionally detract from the fun. But there are some incredible slapstick sequences sprinkled throughout, and if you ever get momentarily bored, you can just sit back and take in the beauty of it all. I know it's a little early to be getting in the mood for Halloween, but Paranorman makes the encroaching autumn chill feel a little more welcoming.