Odds are that unless you have kids, you didn't give "ParaNorman" more than a second glance. Another 3-D animated kids movie featuring cutesy monsters, all aimed at teaching us to embrace the outsiders in our lives? Who needs another one of those? It's perhaps a fair assessment, but in this case it's the incorrect one. "Norman" is a stunning marvel from the Laika animation team (last responsible for Henry Selick's "Coraline";) an action-adventure yarn that has more in common with films like "Poltergeist" than it does with your average yearly spat of animated mish-mash.
The title character has a bit of a "Sixth Sense" problem - Norman sees dead people, and more alarmingly, he sees visions of dead people rising from their graves to fulfill the curse levied on the town by an executed witch (the humble neighborhood is a thinly veiled Salem, NH knockoff.) What follows is a slyly subversive horror fable - the film is littered with references to classics like "Halloween" and "Blow Out" - that refuses to follow genre expectations. The biggest showdowns turn into comic set pieces, the characters gleefully veer into decidedly non-Disney territory, the villains end up less a menacing foe than a forlorn embodiment of American ignorance, and through all that the scares somehow remain.
A movie this well crafted deserves a peak behind the scenes, it seems, as the disc is packed full of extras. You get an audio commentary with the directing team, Sam Fell and Chris Butler, who riff throughout on subjects like voice casting (the film features stars like Casey Affleck, Anna Kendrick, John Goodman, and many others,) as well as the hands-on animation style (look out for broken CD's and lint serving as side-effects of a storm on screen for some of their more ingenious inventions.)
Past that, you've got a good hour's worth of behind-the-scenes featurettes detailing the making of the film at Laika studios. Any animation fan is going to want to get their hands on this - it details the process not scattershot, but step-by-step. You get sections detailing the design and physical creation of Norman, how they found his voice, even the process by which the animators manipulated and moved their zombie characters. These are just a few examples - as mentioned, there's almost a feature-length inquery into Laika's process here, so those with a taste for the behind-the-scenes aspect of top-shelf stop-motion animation will find themselves blissful.
To top that all off, you get a few of the film's scenes rendered as preliminary animatics, so you can get a feel for how the film would look before it was even animated (one of the scenes, an introduction to Norman's 'sixth sense', is a stunner even on the page.) Yet again, sure to serve as catnip for those obsessed with the animation process.
But still, the real treat here is the film itself, which may well play better to adults than to children. This is a consistently surprising gem; one that feels more at home with the films of Burton and Spielberg than it does with the recent animated output of Disney or DreamWorks (Burton's own "Frankenweenie" aside, of course.) I'm glad they waited till after Halloween to release it. This isn't a holiday gimmick release; it's one of the best genre pictures of the year.
Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack