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‘ParaNorman’ Review: Sweet and Freaky Fun for Kids (Who Aren’t Too Easily Spooked)

This weird and wonderful 3-D cartoon hides a moral about fear itself in a delightfully diabolical tale of witches, ghosts and the walking dead

There’s a fine line between scaring children and traumatizing them, and it’s up to each parent to know how their own kids will react. I know of nine-year-olds who love “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” but I also recall my sister-in-law relating the tale of removing her screaming, horrified toddler from the big-screen “Thomas the Tank Engine” movie.

So while the chills and thrills of  “ParaNorman” might be enough to send some youngsters racing for the lobby, tykes of the proper age and the right scare-minded sensibility will have a great time. So will adults with a taste for freaky fun, whether they’re accompanying a kid or going on their own. Beautifully rendered in 3-D stop-motion animation, the film combines ghoulishness and hilarity in a way that suggests “Evil Dead 2” for the Nickelodeon set.

Young Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee of “The Road” and “Let Me In”) lives in the town of Blithe Hollow, whose main claim to fame is the trial and execution of a witch three centuries earlier. As reenacted by Norman’s school class, the hideous hag cursed the judge and jurors to rise from their graves as punishment for killing her, although that’s become the sort of local legend that gets bandied about as an excuse for witch-themed casinos and burger joints.

Even in this supernaturally-minded town, Norman is an outsider because no one believes his claim that he can speak with the dead, even though that ability provides him with plenty of conversational partners, from Civil War vets to his grandmother (Elaine Stritch) to the run-over dog of Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), the chubby kid who, as a fellow victim of school bully Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), becomes Norman’s only friend.

Norman starts to have visions of the cursed Puritans returning as the walking dead, and his somewhat deranged uncle Mr. Prenderghast (John Goodman) leaves him a book that’s supposed to keep the Blithe Hollow witch at rest. So whether he wants to or not, it’s up to Norman — with the help of Neil, Alvin, Norman’s exasperated teen sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick) and Neil’s muscle-headed brother Mitch (Casey Affleck, with impeccable comic timing) — to save the town. And along the way, they may all discover that legends have a way of hiding historical truth.

“ParaNorman” generates both laughs and yelps, with its green-faced pilgrims staggering around Blithe Hollow and the local rubes forming unwieldy and violent mobs to deal with the situation. (There’s a bit involving a scared townie, a shuffling zombie and a vending machine that’s absolutely priceless.) The movie knows how to push kids’ gross-out buttons, particularly in one scene of corpse slapstick in which Norman must wrest a volume from the hands of the rigor mortis–inflicted Mr. Prenderghast.

But this is horror done right, with suspense and surprise rather than gore and viscera. And speaking of surprises, “ParaNorman” effectively works in a moral about how fear causes us to lash out at others, putting the witch’s tormentors in the same boat with Alvin and the trigger-happy townsfolk. It doesn’t bludgeon you with its anti-bullying sentiment, but the point is made all the same.

Directors Sam Fell (the greatly underrated “Flushed Away”) and Chris Butler create a look that’s part eerie and autumnal and part children’s book, and the character detail on the stop-motion models is nothing short of exquisite. (Stay through the credits for a peek at the work involved in creating just one of the characters.)

As someone who grew up on endless matinee screenings of “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein” and “The Ghost and Mr. Chicken,” I’m a big fan of family-friendly horror that knows how to go just far enough on the spooky scale. The joyous, goosebump-inducing “ParaNorman” will give your spine the best kind of tingle.