Norman Babcock (Kodi Smit-McPhee) isn’t your typical moody preteen. Obsessed with horror films to a degree that would have the local asylum readying a padded cell, this introverted outsider is also able to communicate with the dead. Not that Norman can convince anyone around him of his “talent.” It’s clear as he shuffles his way through another day of disbelieving family members, elementary-school bullying and casual spirit sightings that he’s long accepted his outcast lot in life. But after his black-sheep uncle (John Goodman) keels over, Norman learns that he’s next in line for a centuries-old task: protecting his 300-year-old town from a destructive witch’s curse.
The second 3-D stop-motion feature produced by LAIKA Studios, which was also behind Henry Selick’s Coraline, is a visual marvel, from the littlest details, like Norman’s uncombable Calvin and Hobbes–esque coif, to rip-roaring set pieces such as our hero’s climactic, which-way-is-up confrontation with the tragic enchantress. Yet the arresting, sometimes-graphic sturm und drang (there’s a black-comic sequence involving a rigor-mortised body that’s a bit too cadaverously calculated) rarely overshadows the story’s pronounced sense of melancholy. Despite being made of sticks and clay, Norman’s pain is all too human: Anyone who’s ever walked to school dreading what lies in wait will recognize the Atlas-sized burden that weighs on his shoulders and makes him immediately suspect any seeming act of kindness. Fear continually trumps Norman’s innate empathy, and he has to learn how to bridge the gap—pretty heavy stuff for a movie ostensibly targeted at kids. But sensitive parents shouldn’t fret; this is the kind of grim fairy tale, equal parts midnight-movie macabre and family-round-the-hearth compassionate, that scars in all the right ways.
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