Humor depends on character, context and continuity, none of which is in abundant supply in "ParaNorman."
The item in question is an occult-themed kiddie movie that aims for a Tim Burtonesque blend of giggles and chills, missing both by a long shot. It has some elements of graphic interest. The opening and end titles are treasure troves of retro-spooky typefaces, and the action in between is filmed in funky stop-motion. What is missing are the plot and personalities that would make us care. Also, jokes.
OK, heavy sigh, the setup: Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a regular kid with extrasensory powers. He can see and hear the spirits who inhabit his old New England town. The dead people range from his kindly grandma (Elaine Stritch) to a flock of zombies raised by a vengeful child witch who is still steamed about that whole burning-at-the-stake thing Blithe Hollow's settlers used to do. Norman doesn't do so well at making living, breathing friends, but his connection to the other side is the town's only hope as a curse settles in.
The humor is as subtle as a skeleton's elbow in the ribs. Grade-school wordplay, dog-butt silliness, ridiculously extended death scenes played for laughs (Norman's oddball uncle, voiced by John Goodman, takes forever and a day to expire). The mind of a kid who would laugh at the Blithe Hollow tourist billboard, featuring a witch in a noose and the motto "A great place to hang," is beyond contemplation.
There is a smattering of cleverness. Grandma remains addicted to TV even in death. The ultra-hunky teen love interest for Norman's older sister is not the stereotypical jock he appears to be. The finale is a lollapalooza of kinetic animated mayhem. But the story lacks a consistent sense of tension and the characterizations are tapioca-bland (ditzy cheerleader, clueless dad, pushy police chief, stock bully). The whole thing lumbers worse than the zombies.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186