The first of three paranormal animations to be released in quick succession as the calendar creeps towards October 31st, Chris Butler and Sam Fell's Paranorman is wonderfully drenched in nostalgia, both for B-Movie horrors and the best family films: it's an Amblin film made for that slightly weird kid with the Nightmare Before Christmas lunch-box and the disconnected snark. The usual suspects are here, pulled in from The Goonies and Stand By Me, played through a Tim Burton-tinged filter with some broad comic strokes and an irresistible story that throws up some pleasant twists and plays on the usual cursed community model. Like the best family films, ParaNorman never panders to the audience who will probably stream in thanks to the medium used and the PG rating, but the story actually packs some scares in that will make it a bad choice for younger audience members even despite desensitisation and deals with some fairly grown-up issues with a frank openness. The narrative leans as strongly on the underlying issues of bullying and alienation as it does on the very funny prat-falls and supernatural elements, and it's a decision that really pays off, particularly where the key elements converge in the final sequence. The story follows teenage outsider Norman, who can see and speak to ghosts through the revelation that he is something of a Chosen One, and the only person who can stop the annual Witch's Curse from letting the dead walk the earth and terrorise his local community. Along the way, naturally he assembles that Amblin-like gang to help him, including his bully and his awkward but big-hearted new best friend and together they tackle both Norman's problems and the Curse through some exquisite looking, and smart set-pieces.
It's all helped along nicely by some sterling voice acting, from talents as diverse and as eye-catching as Jeff Carlin, John Goodman, Anna Kendrick, Casey Affleck and Christopher Mintz-Plasse who threatens to steal every scene he's in as forcefully reformed bully Alvin. And it's uplifting to note that it is two of the youngest cast members - Kodi Smit-McPhee as Norman and Tucker Albrizzi as Neil - who shine the brightest, with their stumbling, bumbling friendship forming the emotional heart of the film. There is something of a sag in the story in the middle, and the nit-pickers out there might take some issues with what could be perceived as a preachiness to the narrative, but the first half and the closing act are so good that we can forgive some issues. And when the storyline, with its inherent sensibilities can lead to such an impressive and engaging final sequence - both in terms of emotional connection and pure entertainment - the issues completely evaporate. Yes it could have done with some trimming, but overall, the film is a beautiful achievement.
The stop-motion involved is incredibly complex, and on a grander scale than anything that has come before it, and the supplemented CGI doesn't distract from the primary medium at all. It also comes with a keen eye for direction that makes a mockery of the work of most modern live-action films - more than anything ParaNorman feels like it was lovingly crafted by fans of not only animated film-making, but of horror films, of the type of family films that were made before that genre was fatally broadened, and of cinema in general. Following the death of the horror genre, by the ice-sharp blades of self-awareness, parody and reductive film-making (I blame Scream and Saw), it never seemed possible that a horror film with such self-referential notes could ever be so entertaining, but ParaNorman disproved that assumption with flying colours. Perhaps it is because the touches of homage never sought to deconstruct, but at times the film really feels like a celebration of the horror genre in its purest form, and neither the tween-friendly snark nor the flat-out comedy did anything to dilute that effect. The simplest testament to its success was that I came out of the screening wishing it was Halloween already. Do yourselves a favour, go and see it. Just be aware that nightmares might follow for the younger kids. Paranorman is in cinemas now.