(PG, 92 minutes.)
When 11-year-old Norman Babcock walks to school each morning in Blithe Hollow, a Massachusetts town, he exchanges greetings with everyone he passes, even though they're green-tinged ghosts. However, once he sets foot on campus, he's ignored by his peers, who treat him as though he's dead. That's just one of the rueful contradictions that underpin this pleasing stop-motion animated horror-comedy.
ParaNorman plays to the older audiences of other recent animated releases such as Rise of the Guardians and Wreck-It Ralph and, if anything, it appeals to the nostalgia of adult horror film fans, who might wish they could call Norman's childhood their own.
The craftmanship of the painstaking stop-motion process extends to the movie's outlook, which is modestly eccentric and recalls Peter Jackson's spook-laden pre-Tolkien feature The Frighteners. Like Haley Joel Osment's little boy in The Sixth Sense, Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee) sees dead people, but he's as matter-of-fact about his gift as the movie is about mortality.
But before he dies, the family outcast gives Norman a task to save the town, and afterwards his body provides an unlikely source of physical comedy as rigor mortis sets in. Norman must prevent a curse to destroy the town, placed by a young girl whom Blithe Hollow's founders believed to be a witch. It is hardly his due since his parents (Leslie Mann and Jeff Garlin) think he's imagining his otherworldly acquaintances, while his older sister (Anna Kendrick) and the school bully (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) are more contemptuous.
It's not surprising that Norman changes their opinion - zombies rising from the grave validate his previously mocked claims - but the path there isn't so predictable, beginning with 3D that picks out weeds in a shot that otherwise features bulbous noses and elongated faces. Unfortunately, 3D glasses darken the image, which is noticeable given ParaNorman already has a distinctly sombre palette.
The soundtrack has winsome, baroque pop melodies alongside the horror-film strings, and the lesson is that no one is as simple or defined as they appear. That applies to Norman as well as the lurching undead, who are more scared of the townsfolk than the other way around. The story meanders at times, but even the dead need time to breathe.