October is here at last—my favorite month, when the weather in Arizona at long last cools down, and monster-movie season heats up. This season, animated monster pictures for kids are quite the thing.
There are three to choose from in theaters now:
Tim Burton’s gives the boy-and-his-dog movie a macabre but touching spin in this remake, from Disney, of his 1984 live-action short. Young, suburban Victor Frankenstein’s beloved dog Sparky gets run over, but Victor, a science whiz, robs his grave and zaps him back to life.
Other kids get wise to Victor’s revivifying technique and, dreams of science-fair glory in their eyes, try it on a turtle, a rat, Sea Monkeys and other creatures, with chaotic results. Rendered in stop-motion and ravishing black-and-white, with a voice ensemble that includes Catherine O‘Hara, Martin Short, Martin Landau and Winona Ryder, all propelled by a splendid Danny Elfman score, this striking piece of movie craft is an homage, principally, to the Universal monster pictures, though it also carries references to everything from Gamera to The Birds to the Hammer films. Indeed, if the film has a fault it’s that it’s too dense and overstuffed with references, witty though they are, for its brief running time.
But the title canine is so deeply endearing that he ensures an authentic emotional response—Sparky is one of the all-time great achievements in stop-motion characterization. Both visually and as a piece of sustained narrative, this may be Burton’s most satisfying movie since Ed Wood. It’s one of the better films so far this year.
Dracula, voiced by Adam Sandler, presides over the title lodging, a palace buried so deep in the region’s haunted forests that the familiar freaks—Kevin James as Frankenstein, Fran Drescher as his Bride, Steve Buscemi as the Werewolf, David Spade as the Invisible Man, Jon Lovitz as Quasimodo, Chris Parnell as the Fly—can go there and enjoy a nice vacation without worrying about persecution from pitchfork-wielding mobs of humans.
Drac really built the place, however, to keep his cute daughter Mavis (Selena Gomez) safely insulated. But Mavis is 118 now, and eager to experience life, and when a human backpacker (Andy Samberg) wanders in, thinking the place is a hostel, he and Mavis connect.
The movie, which set a September box-office record on its opening weekend, pays subtle tribute to the affectionate parody of iconic monsters popular in the ‘60s—there are hints, in the visual style, of Aurora’s “Monster Rods” models, of the art of Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, of the Rankin-Bass feature Mad Monster Party. But at heart, this sweet film is just the story of a single father trying to deal with a daughter growing up: Something scarier than any monster.
Don’t overlook this excellent little kiddie-spooker, stop-motion animated like Frankenweenie. It starts with the same premise as The Sixth Sense—a little boy who sees dead people. It’s up to Norman to figure out the secret that raises six rotted corpses from their graves and sends shambling through the streets of the small town where he lives.
The movie is imaginative and generous-hearted and funny, though with a surprisingly dramatic and poignant revelation at its core. Best of all, it avoids the sterility that haunts so many contemporary animated movies—Norman’s home town has a grubby, hardscrabble look, like a shop town down its luck, that’s very refreshing.