Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) is watching a scary movie on television, because he loves to watch horror films. His grandmother (Elaine Stritch) is knitting away on the sofa and observes that there has to be a better way of sorting things out than in the movie, but then Norman has to perform his chores though as he leaves for the kitchen grandmother tells him to ask his father (Jeff Garlin) to turn up the heating. He lives with his parents and teenage sister in this smalltown, but is a kid with a difference, as made plain when he passes on his gran's request: she died a while ago, as his father is tired of explaining.
In the glut of zombie movies which might as well have all used exactly the same script for all the variation you had on offer, there nevertheless were a few which stood out because they found something new to do with the concept. ParaNorman was one such example, adopting the walking dead theme to stop motion animation which had made an impressive comeback at the turn of the twenty-first century thanks to the endeavours of Aardman illustrating just what a visually satisfying method of moviemaking it was. This was still a work for family audiences, but spoke not only to the budding horror fans but those who had grown up with the genre and could get the references here.
You probably had to be of a certain age to twig that yes, that was a Friday the 13th nod and know what Suspiria was, not to mention see how zombies of the cinema were being appropriated not only for thrills but humour as well, and it appeared British directors Sam Fell and Chris Butler (whose script this was) were putting out an appeal to all chiller fanatics to appreciate their endeavours. This met with a mixed response, but if you understood the trappings of horror movies and wanted to see them developed in novel ways, or even didn't know you did and were prepared to take a chance on this, odds were you would be rewarded with a film that was meticulously fashioned, knew when to deliver the big laughs, and by the end had sneaked in a message to the outsiders of the world.
Should you be an insider, this might not have the same cachet with you, but this made efforts to be an inclusive watch and the bright, inventive look and genuinely engaging humour and personality would be winners among those receptive to its wavelength. Norman was one of those outsiders, not an original character for this type of story, but his ability to see dead people offered him a "specialness" that would give him and those who sympathised with him a sense of self-worth. However, nobody else understands him, not his family and not his fellow schoolkids, so the last thing he needs is an estranged uncle (John Goodman) showing up with the same power he has and telling him he has the talents necessary to save the town from the wrath of the witch's curse that has passed into local legend.
In ingenious scenes Norman takes possession of his uncle's book which must be read out at the witch's grave. Big problem, there: she was persecuted by the town's ancestors and buried in an unmarked plot, and now those ancestors who condemned her are back to shake things up in, you guessed it, zombie form. Norman somehow gathers around him a coterie of allies, from his sister (Anna Kendrick) to the school bully (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) who fall into assisting him with working out what the hell is going on, and there's a twist to that which is unexpectedly dark for a movie aimed at all ages. But it does underline the message, spelled out at the end but not laboured, that no matter how isolated you feel not everyone is going to persecute you for being different, and if you think about it there might have been a few who will treat you with respect, even kindness. A sugary sweet conclusion then, but taking a grim path to get there and enough of ParaNorman was tart and macabre for balance to make it a rare old time for horror buffs of any generation. Jon Brion's eighties slasher-echoing score was a bonus, too.