The movie begins in a kind of faux grindhouse style, with a credits sequence that gleefully apes schlocky fare from the late '70s and early '80s (complete with strained synth sounds). It's very clear that we're watching a movie-within-a-movie, but it smartly provides a quick shorthand to what we're about to see – it's knowing without ever being winky, reverential without ever falling into tired pastiche. Shortly it's revealed that the movie is some scratchy VHS zombie flick being viewed by our hero, Norman Babcock (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a funny little kid who has the ability to talk to ghosts (mostly his grandmother, voiced by Elaine Stritch) but not to actual people (like his parents, played by Leslie Mann and Jeff Garlin).
While Norman loves horror movies and frequently communicates with the deceased, this is something that's beyond his pay grade, and when a nutty relative blessed (or is it cursed?) with similar extra-sensory powers (played with brio by John Goodman) comes to him with a similar warning, he becomes genuinely freaked. What if the witch does return? Will she unleash an army of the dead? And will Norman be up to the challenge and manage to avoid getting beaten up by the school bully (Christopher Mintz-Plasse)?
By the time the really freaky stuff starts to happen, involving the zombified versions of the town elders and a very upset and very witchy ghost, you're fully invested in this world. As the horror escalates, more characters join the fray, including Neil's older brother Mitch (Casey Affleck) and Norman's sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick), giving the movie a rollicking "Goonies"/"Monster Squad" feel, and while things get crazier and more otherworldly, the emotional content deepens, too. We can't talk about it without giving away some key things, but it's really surprising how emotionally resonant the movie becomes, and deeply satisfying too. (There's also an amazing joke towards the end that will certainly negate any chance of "ParaNorman" kids toys being stuck in kiddie meals at Chick-fil-A.)
Even the 3D utilized for "ParaNorman" seems like a cut above. The technology has always served stop-motion animation well, emphasizing the tactile nature of the animation through truly spectacular dimensionality. That's also the case with "ParaNorman" – "Fantastic Mr. Fox" vet Nelson Lowry's eye-popping production design and Oliver's cinematography seem that much more impressive through the wondrous 3D effects, a perfect blending of ancient animation techniques with cutting-edge technology. In most cases 3D seems worse than superfluous; it's downright detrimental. With "ParaNorman," 3D glasses should be a requirement; the effect is essential.
It's the combination of the film's visual prowess and the genuine emotional content that makes "ParaNorman" such a singularly powerful experience. It would be one thing to just watch the movie, alight at all that you're seeing. But there's something deep and truthful that elevates it to another plateau. You'll wipe away tears while you're screaming for more. It's not only the best and brightest surprise of this long and dreary summer, but it's easily one of the best movies of the year, a complex and multifaceted blast. "ParaNorman" is a micro-sized masterpiece that wears its heart (and its half-eaten brains) on its sleeve. [A]