Most people are frightened of what they don't understand. If they weren't then there'd be no bullying, discrimination or wars and we'd all be scientists, employing our natural curiosity to explore the unknown. Of course, stripping that rotten strand of human nature from rotten humans would also mean classic misunderstood-monster movies like Frankenstein or King Kong wouldn't exist. So, you know, kind of a trade-off there.
Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is misunderstood, too. He sees and talks to the ghosts of recently run-over dogs, leather jacket-wearing teen rebels from the '50s, war heroes, at least one lost aviatrix (sadly impaled on a tree branch) and, most importantly, his long-suffering grandmother (Elaine Stritch) who sits on the couch and joins Norman in watching vintage horror films. Thanks to this unwanted gift, one he refuses to keep to himself, he is widely unpopular both at school and at home. Bullies bother him, his fathers screams, his sister is cruel and his mother is worried. Worse, he lives in a town built on a legacy of witch-burning and its inhabitants are the grotesque, know-nothing-and-proud descendants of that practice. They've turned the town into an ugly tourist trap but never learned any lessons from their uglier history. Naturally, they all hate Norman, too. There hasn't been a tween protagonist this roundly despised since Welcome to the Dollhouse (and you'll notice I haven't yet called this a children's film; I'm not sure it is, unless you've got an 7-year-old who loves to watch Halloween over and over).
When a long-dead witch's curse threatens the community with destruction, Norman is the sole person with the skills necessary to listen to the reasons for her vengeance and possibly save the town before night's end, if only everyone would get out of his way and/or stop chasing him with guns, pitchforks and bowling balls. Imagine a creepier, crueler Simpsons crossed with a cuteness-free Nightmare Before Christmas and you get the picture. This is the second feature entirely credited to Oregon-based upstarts LAIKA, who gave us the astoundingly strange and even more uncompromising Coraline and they don't care if they frighten your little ones.
The next-level, 3D stop-motion animation is mind blowing. It's the kind of advanced practice that makes contemporary classics like Nightmare seem almost as herky-jerky as (the still entirely lovable) Mad Monster Party, a swirl of intricate detail and fluid movement that envelops you and will make you forget how much work something like this must take. Stay until the final credits are over for a jaw-dropping look at the painstaking process of building even one model for a project like this -- much less the weeds on the ground and the churning storm clouds above -- and you'll want to sit through it a second time just to marvel at the technical magic.
As the action moves toward its Norman-as-unwilling-hero climax, the witty, funny, deadly accurate satire about boxed-in small town life, even smaller-minded bigotry and the refusal to remember history's tragic lessons can get a little long-winded in its determination to teach and preach. But being too-right is an easy sin to forgive when it comes in a package as visually impressive as this.