But when Blithe Hollow is threatened by zombies, ghosts and assorted goblins, who they gonna call? ParaNorman.
Impressively designed with Laika Entertainment's stop-motion animation, ParaNorman offers mild frights and moderate fun for the Goosebumps crowd. It's an easier movie for children to relate to than the skeletal charm of The Nightmare Before Christmas, or Laika's earlier works Coraline (and her terrifying mother) and Corpse Bride, which was just plain morbid.
ParaNorman is funnier than any of those works, mixing the macabre material with juvenile angst John Hughes might have dreamed up. Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) has typically befuddled parents and a belligerent teacher. He also deals with a bully (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), a pesky big sister (Anna Kendrick) and her dumb-jock boyfriend (Casey Affleck), and a devoted geek pal named Neil (Tucker Albrizzi). It's formulaic, yet it works.
The undead in ParaNorman register more as ghoulish apparitions than comedians, with the exceptions of Grandma, voiced with vinegar tartness by Elaine Stritch, and John Goodman as a growling hermit sharing paranormal abilities with Norman. The old man is dying, and must pass along three centuries of responsibility to a boy who doesn't want it.
It turns out that Blithe Hollow's legends are true, and a curse was placed on the town by a young victim of witch hunt hysteria. Norman must quell her spirit and the ghosts of her accusers, poised to rise from their graves, possibly with vengeance in mind. There's a lot going on in ParaNorman. Perhaps too much.
Directors Chris Butler (who also penned the script) and Sam Fell have so many characters to juggle and animated wonders to express that the movie's midsection stalls. They're so interested in maintaining the contrast between sepulchral vibe and silliness that everyday kid issues making the story emotional don't gain traction until the final reel. ParaNorman is never dull — there's always amusement somewhere — yet doesn't feel completely realized.
We're left enjoying cleverly constructed set pieces: a possessed bathroom stall where toilet paper zombies roam, a school play based on Blithe Hollow history with costumed kids half-heartedly singing Season of the Witch. Laika's stop-motion animation tricks are worth the 3-D surcharge. The truth behind the town's legend raises mature themes of guilt and innocence, yet they emerge after we're convinced that ParaNorman is little more than frivolous. The movie's erratic pleasures are like its ghosts; now you see them, now you don't.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365.