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Like that weird kid played by Haley Joel Osment in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense, an 11-year-old outcast also sees–and hears–dead people in ParaNorman.

In fact, for the kid who’s admittedly obsessed with zombies and misunderstood by, well, everyone including his own parents, the dearly departed are sure a whole lot friendlier than his living, breathing peers. In the absence of any real friends, Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee, Let Me In) regularly keeps after-school company with his Granny who died long, long ago.

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And since the souls aimlessly floating around Norman’s hometown can’t communicate with anyone but him, his chats with the dead are basically the only time he feels remotely close to popular.

Trouble is, when Norman interacts with them, it just looks to others like he’s talking to himself, which means he’s a constant target for teasing and bullying. Incidentally, that timely theme runs throughout the entirety of the movie as another key character emerges who doesn’t accept persecution as well as Norman does.

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While Norman and a chubby kindred spirit named Neil (Tucker Albrizzi, Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked), are simply resigned to the fact that people will always treat you badly when you’re different, Aggie (Jodelle Ferland, The Cabin in the Woods) believes revenge is the best medicine for decades of hurt feelings.

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As it turns out, Aggie was subjected to some serious verbal barbs–and more–back in the 18th century. Branded a witch and eventually set on fire by a group of fearful people who didn’t understand her and her refusal to conform, she remerges from the dead feeling just as raw, confused and blazing mad as ever. Determined to set things right, she unleashes an anger-fueled curse that ensures those who hurt her will finally understand what it’s like to be labeled a “freak.” She transforms them into Norman’s favorite creatures: zombies… with their extremities falling off, naturally.

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In the best kids’ movies, it’s often the outcast who gets a shot at being the hero, and that’s precisely what goes down in ParaNorman as the titular character is tasked with an important mission involving his late uncle and the secrets of that aforementioned curse which needs to be lifted, pronto.

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That said, while ParaNorman is entertaining and may look like your average kids’ movie on the surface, it’s really dark, more along the lines of 2009′s Coraline, even employing the same visually arresting stop-motion techniques. The animation draws viewers in, but the storytelling is intentionally unsettling. Unlike some of the Disney classics where magic makes a cameo but is only scary from time to time, ParaNorman is definitely not for the faint of heart.

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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.

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.

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