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ParaNorman is the kind of pleasant summer surprise that makes up for suffering through a season packed with explosions. From Laika, a production company based in Portland, comes a small town story that doesn't talk down to its audience, but nudges them knowingly. Norman, named in the film's title, is a young horror movie buff cursed by his ability to see dead people.

Green and ghoulish, the ghosts of those who won't move on clutter up his day, making his walk to school an obstacle course invisible to others. His ability has also made Norman -- with his brown, Bart Simpson hair -- an outcast at school, so at every available opportunity, he escapes into B-movie madness.

Of course, there's evil afoot, bubbling under the pleasantly rustic town of Blithe Hollow. The tiny tourist trap is a site famed for having once hanged a witch. As the resident Ghost Whisperer, Norman learns that witch is on her way back. Only he can stop her and end the zombie plague she brings along with her.

ParaNormanParaNorman's counterintuitive casting includes Oscar-nominee Anna Kendrick voicing Courtney, Norman's ditzy sister. (Alliance Films)

What's refreshing about ParaNorman is how the script takes so little for granted. Easily recognizable archetypes -- the bully, the jock, the airhead -- constantly surprise. In particular, Norman's chubby friend Neil steals many a moment. He's a plucky little motor mouth who refuses to play the victim.

Some counterintuitive casting decisions help bring these characters to life, including Casey Affleck voicing Neil's lunkhead brother, Anna Kendrick as Norman's ditzy sister and Christopher Mintz-Plasse (aka McLovin) as Alvin the dimwit bully.

There's also innovation in the way Laika brought ParaNorman to the screen. Using a technique they pioneered in Coraline, the company's wizards blend handmade with high-tech in ParaNorman. This is a stop-motion animated film, meaning it is peopled by tiny puppets moved a fraction of an inch at a time. However, by using colour 3D printers, the artists were able to create thousands of expressions for each character -- over a million in total, actually.

The result is surprisingly emotive faces that are perfect for this zany misadventure. Although ParaNorman veers a little off the rails in its admittedly mind-blowing conclusion, there's tons of heart and smarts in this ghoulish adventure. It's definitely recommended, although parents be warned: kids under six might find some of the horror movie homages unsettling.

RATING: 4 out of 5

ParaNormanIn the new 3D stop-motion comedy thriller ParaNorman, the young hero is surrounded by friendly ghosts, including his grandmother, voiced by Elaine Stritch. (Alliance Films)

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