|Don't use the Z-word!|
This setup for the story is kinda basic, which undermines the genius of the film. The beginning is rife with really funny and clever gags with the ghost-speaking stuff, the movie knows exactly how to pace itself so the wackiness fades away slowly to make room for the plot, and the eventual story with the witch is really well-written and, dare I say, moving. By far my favourite thing about the movie is its tone; the premise and the characters are treated with a lot more weight and seriousness than what kids' films nowadays tend to. It's not a happy-go-lucky comedy movie with a dark third act, but feels thematically uniform. There's more laughs early on than in the end, but the drama and the humour are balanced and their mixture feels natural.
There is one big story misstep about the movie, a kind of "wait a minute, what was up with that" element that I only realised two minutes after leaving the cinema. If I had come to think of it in the middle of the movie instead, my opinion would surely be considerably lower, so I have to point it out, just to be fair and make clear that ParaNorman's plot is not without error. Highlight here if you don't care about spoilers: The ghosts that seem to be everywhere around Norman during the early parts of the movie are nowhere to be seen during the climax of the plot. He doesn't run into any random ghosts during late parts of the movie that he could ask for help. Spoilers end.
The animation is fantastic. There's just some things that work so well in this form of stop-motion, and Laika went out of their way to put in things that are normally really hard as well, and it all blends together perfectly. It's a shame this stuff takes forever to film, though on the other hand, that means the directors (Sam Fell, Chris Butler) have to take their sweet time planning everything out. They can't half-ass anything, and they have all the time in the world to plan every shot out perfectly while the others are being filmed. Maybe that's why pretty much every camera angle and every shot fits together in a harmonious, beautiful cinematography.
In addition to how it looks, ParaNorman has a surprising strength in characters. Norman is a surprisingly flexible kid whose social issues ring very true to me at points, and the four elements of his appearance, animation, vocal performance (by Kodi Smit-McPhee) and writing fit together perfectly. He's a good kid, and even when he's doing something dumb or inconsiderate, you cheer for him, because you can totally see how the situation he lives in has given him the flaws he possesses. The supporting cast are great as well. I'd give short descriptions, except that I think it would do a disservice to the movie to try to sum up the characters with a few adjectives. Besides, some of the character traits are really surprising, and played laughs, so I don't wanna spoil anything. The standout vocal performance (standout as in it stands out - not necessarily in a bad way - while Smit-McPhee's blends in) comes from John Goodman as the town bum.
Aside from the afore-mentioned story hiccup, the movie works damn well overall. Its gags are really good, and there are some really funny background jokes as well. It's a treat to watch, and a definite must-see for animation fans. I don't think it's quite as good as Coraline, but I liked it more than Brave, if that's any kind of measurement.