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I live in Portland, so I like to keep up on what the locals are up to. ParaNorman is the second feature from Laika Studios, the stop-motion animation outfit from neighboring Hillsboro that was responsible for the Neil Gaiman adaptation Coraline from a few years back. I dug that one, and I also quite liked ParaNorman, though it was less visually stimulating than its predecessor. Still, for a piece of family entertainment, it was surprisingly entertaining.

Norman Babcock is a young man with the uncanny Sixth Sense ability to see ghosts as easily as he sees the living bullies who torment him on a daily basis. He’s a friendless outcast—except for happy-go-lucky imbecile Neil—and even his mom, dad, and ditzy blond sister Courtney don’t understand him. He lives in Blithe Hollow, a community cursed by a witch who was hanged 300 years before by the superstitious citizenry. Every year the witch threatens to come back, raise the dead, and exact her revenge on the town. And this year, she’s going to succeed, unless weirdo Norman can save the day.

Writer/director Chris Butler creates a vivid array of characters that manage to transcend cliche by imbuing them with the ability to learn from their mistakes and grow. The parents, the bully, the dumb jock, the paranoid townspeople, the zombies, even the witch herself—a raging ghost with a grudge—are given the chance to redeem themselves and move on as better people (or monsters or whatever). There are thoughtful and delicate layers to the story that prove hugely rewarding. It’s also a damn funny film (a rarity in the “family friendly” department), and I thoroughly enjoyed the scenes where Norman watches zombie movies while his dead grandmother sits knitting on the couch nearby, or when his friend Neil gets to play fetch with the ghost of his pug, who’s now in two pieces after getting run over by a car. Cute for sure, but also genuinely affecting.

My only real beef is with the art direction, as the movie’s color palette is a relentless combination of brown, black, and purple, and my eyes got a little bored. It’s also rough and unpolished looking, but I believe this is deliberate, since ParaNorman is at heart a homage to the title character’s beloved Grade-Z, cheap-o horror movies.

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