It’s a great Halloween season for kids this year with three major theatrical releases geared toward the budding horror fan. As wise filmmakers have learned, for animated features to be successful, there must be something in them that also appeals to the adults accompanying their little ones to the theater. That’s one reason I’m not ashamed to admit interest in seeing most of them. Add the visual look and style of a good animated feature and many are better than their live action alternatives.
Of the three recent releases, Paranorman, Hotel Transylvania and Frankenweenie, I liked two. I guess two out of three ain’t bad; however, my reactions to none of them were what I anticipated. Marketing for Paranorman and Hotel Transylvania began about the same time. Based on what I saw, I had little desire to see Paranorman but was quite eager to see Hotel Transylvania. My expectations should have been reversed: I really liked Paranorman but found Hotel Transylvania to be excruciating.
My colleague at Downright Creepy has already reviewed Paranorman, so I’m not going to spend much time on it here. I do want to say that I found it much more clever than he did. Characters that he found “exaggerated stereotypes”, I found delightfully appropriate for the story that was being told. I didn’t think the story was plodding at all; in fact, I thought the combination of characters and story made for an emotionally engaging movie. Finally, while he thought there was little in Paranorman specifically for adults, I actually wondered if it was too adult for kids.
I left Hotel Transylvania feeling the way my colleague felt when he left Paranorman, only worse. Nothing in it appealed to the adult in me, much less the child. I guess I thought animated versions of the Universal Monster archetypes would provide some winking laughs at the classics, but that simply wasn’t the case. Hotel Transylvania was not clever enough to add that subtext. In fact, the characters could just as well have been any anthropomorphic group dealing with any routine problem.
In this case, the problem is Dracula’s daughter, Mavis, growing up and wanting to leave home on her 118th birthday. Since Drac and his cronies view humans as the monsters that we view them, he goes to elaborate measures to keep her close. But when a clueless teenager stumbles upon the horrific hideaway designed to be a safe haven for vampires, werewolves, mummies, etc., sparks fly between him and Mavis and the truth threatens to be revealed.
There actually may be a good idea buried somewhere in the story. It certainly has moments intended to be sweet. But there is nothing we haven’t seen in many better movies. Hotel Transylvania is non-stop mayhem; it’s franticness wore me out. And any movie that concludes with a musical number performed by its characters is not a movie for me. It’s like cheating; can you not think of an ending so you have to slap together a pop song with goofy dancing?!? I hate it.
The true revelation of the season is Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie. As a perfect example of how it compares to Hotel Transylvania, let me describe my experience seeing both of them at afternoon matinees packed with rambunctious children. During Hotel Transylvania, these children were as hyperactive as the movie, talking throughout and literally running up and down the aisles of the theater. But during Frankenweenie, they sat mesmerized by what they were watching.
Frankenweenie is entertaining for movie goers of all ages. Based on Burton’s 1984 live action short film of the same name, this full length version is exactly the same story, even with some of the exact same shots. But to expand the story from 29 minutes to 87 minutes, a simple subplot was added: a science fair at school that drives young Victor Frankenstein’s friends to steal the secret he used to revive his dog that was hit by a car.
During this midsection, Frankenweenie pays tribute to classic movie monsters in a way I had hoped Hotel Transylvania would. Stand-ins for Dracula, The Wolfman and The Mummy include a Vampire Cat, a Were-Rat and a Mummy Hamster. But the best creation is that of young Toshiaki. It’s probably not a spoiler at this point; still, I want you to enjoy his revelation as much as I did. Just think: what monster would a Japanese kid bring to life? It’s brilliant.
Tim Burton has become terribly undependable, if you ask me. I wonder why his recent movies are advertised as “from the director of Alice in Wonderland”? I thought that movie stunk. But I guess his true classics are old memories now: Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands. Even his recent Dark Shadows was ruined by excess. So it is wonderful to see that Frankenweenie is as reserved as it is. It is much more welcoming for an emotional reaction.
I believe the reason I liked Frankenweenie so much, and to a slightly lesser extent, Paranorman, was that both had characters to whom you could relate: Victor and Norman. Told from their points of view, the stories were grounded so that there were real consequences for them. There was no such character in Hotel Transylvania. In fact, the only people who might relate to it are those who enjoy fart jokes; that’s the kind of humor it provides.