"Your grandma is in a better place now," says a concerned mother in "ParaNorman," hoping to ease the grieving process for her son. "No, she's not," Norman replies. "She's in the living room."
Such is life, and the afterlife, for Norman Babcock, the young medium at the center of this stop-motion feature about ghosts, ghouls and zombies. It's clever and creative, impressively animated and filled with macabre humor that horror fans will appreciate. But that brings up a question: Who is the audience, exactly, for a work of 3-D animation about a boy trying to save his town from spiraling into hell?
"ParaNorman" has all the ingredients of a children's film, albeit a spooky one: Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee, "The Road") is the laughingstock of Blithe Hollow, a tourist trap with a Salem-like past. He's taunted by the school bully, Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), and even his parents (Leslie Mann and Jeff Garlin) seem embarrassed by his behavior. In the middle of the school play, Norman begins screaming, "The dead are coming!"
When that warning comes true, "Para-Norman" starts having fun with horror-movie conventions: Norman's motley group of survivors includes his teenage sister, Courtney (Anna Kendrick); dumb, hunky Mitch (Casey Affleck); and chubby Neil (Tucker Albrizzi). But "ParaNorman" also becomes something close to an actual horror movie. Its central mystery involves a centuries-old killing with harrowing implications, and the climactic sequence has a visual and emotional intensity that even adults might find overwhelming.
A lighter comedic touch might have helped, as would more appealing characters: The townsfolk are so uniformly misshapen (Mitch's flat-top cuts off most of his skull) that they don't look much better than the zombies. "ParaNorman" is never less than entertaining, but you'll have to follow it into a strange purgatory between two opposing genres.
PLOT A young boy who communes with the dead must save his town from a centuries-old curse. RATING PG (some scary scenes)
PLAYING AT Area theaters, some in 3-D
BOTTOM LINE Impressive stop-motion animation and an inventive story, but the gruesome humor and harrowing climax may rule out younger viewers.