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I’m sure that if you explained what stop motion animation is to a typical adolescent, that it involves making small puppet characters and sets and photographing them a frame at a time while moving them minutely, the child would at some point say, “But why not just use computer animation?” I wouldn’t know how to answer that, and a lot of people who see stop motion features like The Nightmare Before Christmas and Coraline do assume that they’ve been computer animated: the results are pretty similar.

But animation fans with more discerning eyes than mine insist there are real benefits to the more hands-on approach, and when it leads to a film as likeable as ParaNorman I see no reason to argue. Described by one of its producers as “John Carpenter meets John Hughes,” it is the story of Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee), who has jug ears, Groucho Marx eyebrows and hair like a chia pet. He lives with his parents and older sister in the New England town of Blithe Hollow, which does tourist business on the story of a witch that cursed the place 300 years ago.

Thing is the curse is true, and about to come due on its anniversary, unleashing the denizens of the local graveyards to wreak havoc on the place. This can only be stopped by Norman, who is not only the world’s biggest fan of zombie movies but in fact can see dead people.

Like many animated films, the story is adequate but the movie is worth seeing for its numerous incidental pleasures. The character designs are fun to look at, with women who seem inspired by the old SNL skit about the Widette family and men their geometric opposites. The backdrops are intricately asymmetrical, as if the filmmakers gave the staff an edict outlawing any parallel lines. Jon Brion’s musical score is playfully melancholy, if that’s not an oxymoron (and even if it is), and includes a snatch of Donovan’s “Season of the Witch” at a school pageant.

If you want to know how this kind of thing is done, stick around after the end credits (which include one I’ve never seen before, for “face wranglers”) for a sequence of the Norman model being built a frame at a time.

As someone whose middle name is Norman, I give the title an unqualified 10/10.

Watch the trailer for ParaNorman

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