Thoughts on storytelling and the world of animation. Caution! SPOILERS!

Monster Movies

Monsters have gotten surprisingly popular, haven’t they?  Everybody’s all excited about zombies, vampires are sexy, and who doesn’t want to cuddle up with a werewolf?  Sounds weird, doesn’t it?

There has been a spate of monster themed animated movies.  I can’t say it was started by Pixar’s Monster’s Inc, or even by Tim Burton.  I’ve previously made reference to a very old haunted animation clip by Disney, complete with dancing skeletons.  Scary creatures being cute.  Our minds actually seem to be OK with this.



I still want to say the first modern monster animation was Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas.  What could easily be a horror story is turned upside down by following the point of view of what would normally be the antagonist.  Jack the Pumpkin King has just found out about Christmas!  He loves it!  He wants to join in!  He just adds his own special flair.  Artists all over the world experience the same excitement.  And because we’re intimately exposed to Jack’s thoughts and experiences, we’re caught up with him and rooting for him, rather than fearing him.

I believe that we fear the unknown more than the known.  A villain that lurks in the shadows and doesn’t soliloquize (or sing, for that matter) is much scarier than one with a wise-cracking henchman at his side that gets plenty of screen time.  When the typical villain gets nearly all of the screen time, that fear vanishes.  H’s a little weird, sure, but we’re able to relate to him now because we’re given the opportunity to understand him.  The newer movies and even TV shows are embracing this different view, giving the monsters a little screen time to tell their story.  A few recent ones have crossed my Netflix list.

Hotel Transylvania, by Sony Pictures Animation

johnnydracWhat happens when plain old humans become the monsters?  Count Dracula has opened up a hotel so that monsters can take a break from the human world.  He’s raised his daughter to believe that humans are the scary ones that will kill her if she ever ventures beyond the safety of the property, even going so far as to stage a fake attack so that she doesn’t want to explore the world.  Now throw a young, easy-going human into the hotel and see what happens.

I actually liked this movie.  The interaction between Dracula and Johnny (the human) is well done, and demonstrates a good old fashioned ‘raised to misunderstand each other’ mentality.  It speaks out against teaching hate to your children, and learning to accept people as individuals rather than stereotyping them into one negative feature.   Johnny is a relaxed typical college-student-on-a-European-backpacking-trip who has already learned this lesson on his trips.  I LIKED Johnny.  Everything was amazing to him, and he instinctively knew how to connect with others.  Dracula was the one suffering, but eventually he learned the life lesson he needed to give his daughter the freedom she craved.

Frankenweenie, by Disney and Tim Burton

frankenweenieYou see Tim Burton’s name, and you know to expect originality.  It really seems unfair to include Burton at all, because ALL of his movies seem to represent the monster perspective.  So I’m going to focus on one of his less popular works.  The most unusual feature of Frankenweenie was that it was a black and white stop-motion animated movie!  From what I’ve seen online, it was filmed in color, but all the characters and sets were done in shades of grey. It gave a unique perspective, especially to the backgrounds.  They looked more real, somehow, until you encountered the characters.  It also makes the film LOOK scary even if the events occurring are really rather silly.  Still, I don’t feel it’s a good movie for young children.  There are definitely sad and scary bits.

This film is essentially about a lonely little boy’s experiment to bring his recently departed dog back to life, with old monster movie stereotypes running amok and considered essentially normal. Except for maybe the ‘bringing dead pets back to life’ thing.   The movie had some surprisingly important messages in it, mostly delivered in the form of the school’s science teacher.  The one I needed the most was “It’s OK to fail so long as you keep trying.”   The one that made me laugh was his speech at the school meeting where the parents are questioning the science teacher’s curriculum.  They ask him to explain himself.

Ladies and gentlemen. I think the confusion here is that you are all very ignorant. Is that right word, ignorant? I mean stupid, primitive,unenlightened. You do not understand science, so you are afraid of it. Like a dog is afraid of thunder or balloons. To you, science is magic and witchcraft because you have such small minds. I cannot make your heads bigger, but your children’s heads, I can take them and crack them open. This is what I try to do, to get at their brains!

Um, yeah.  Sometimes you just shouldn’t ask a scientist what’s on his mind.  I don’t really feel that the science teacher should be held at fault for any of the events that occurred in the film.  He was merely teaching his students the basics of electricity and lightning.  It was Victor who figured out the bringing-to-life process, and his cheating schoolmates who copied his attempts (poorly) and caused subsequent chaos.  I’m not sure if there was as clear a  message in this film, except possibly ‘be careful about what science experiments you perform on your pets.’

Monster House, by Amblin Entertainment

monster-houseThis is an animated comedy/horror film, which certainly makes sense if you’re trying to save money on special effects.  I didn’t know comedy horror was a thing.  It feels a lot like The Goonies, and then all of a sudden you realize you’re watching Harry Potter.  Yep, there’s the bullied kid with the frustrating family and the rather useless sidekick friend, and oh look, now they’re teaming up with the smart girl!  What’s that, they find out there’s something horribly wrong in the neighborhood and are suddenly determined to save the day?  Yeah.  Fortunately, THESE kid turn to the authorities for help first.  When the cops are suddenly in trouble, it’s now their turn to figure out how to stop this monster house.  Definitely not for young or sensitive kids.  While it’s not glorifying movie monsters, the ‘monster’ in this film is actually a normally inanimate object.  This would have been an impossible story to tell without the help of animation.  It’s also surprisingly complex.  You assume the old man is the antagonist in the movie, and then you realize it’s the house, and THEN you discover it’s NOT the house, itself.  The plot rolls on.


ParaNorman, by Focus Features (Universal)

paranormanI read the description for this and immediately thought, “Johnny and the Dead!”  Perhaps I read Terry Pratchett too much?  Anyway, I cringed at first because I thought it would be an exact replica of Harry Potter/Monster House main characters.  Three misfit children, one destined to be a hero with special gifts, unsympathetic parents, out to save the town from the wrath of the ghost of a colonial era witch.  Fortunately the ‘smart girl’ turned out to only have a very small role, and ‘goofy sidekick’ turned out to be the most reasonable, helpful, and well adjusted sidekick I’ve ever encountered.  Norman gets his help from his snotty sister, Norman’s jock brother, and a random bully caught up in the chaos, but he could have essentially done it all without them.

I really liked Neil the sidekick, probably more than Norman did.  Neil was unbothered by bullying, accepting of Norman’s ‘freaky’ talent, and brave when it came to scary encounters and protecting his friends.  Nothing got him down, whereas Norman was so weighed down by his ‘gift’ that he had become a loner in order to deal with it.  Neil and Norman aren’t friends, and I’m not exactly sure if they will even become friends after the events in the movie.  Well, Neil gladly will, I’m not sure what will happen to poor Norman.

The movie is essentially a stern warning against bullying, and about stopping, listening, and understanding an unknown/fearful situation first before resorting to violence.    The point is amusingly made at the very beginning of the movie, by Norman’s (dead) grandma while they’re watching a horror film.

Grandma: What’s happening now?
Norman: Well, the zombie is eating her head, Grandma.
Grandma: That’s not very nice. What’s he doing that for?
Norman:  Because he’s a zombie. That’s what they do.
Grandma: He’s gonna ruin his dinner. I’m sure if they just bothered to sit down and talk it through, it would be a different story.

Yes indeed!

The message that came across after watching these monster films was quite profound and unexpected from what appears to be a silly category.  We’re used to typical vampires, werewolves, and zombies spreading their curse and making more monsters, but really, the way humans treat other people, WE’RE the ones making the monsters.  Dracula turns the tables and turns humans into monsters for his daughter, when in reality, the humans in their village are holding celebratory “Dracula Days” in honor of his fame.  Teasing, taunting children are what turned Constance Nebbercracker into a vengeful spirit that animates her home.  Fearful judges torture a young girl with a ‘freaky’ gift to death, who in turn curses THEM and turns them into monsters and starting a long cycle of potential horror for a small town.  Frankenweenie addresses the fear and stupidity that go hand in hand when something different happens and people don’t know how to react.  So much violence and pain, just because we’re cruel to one another.

It’s time to stop making the monsters.

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  1. Pingback: More Confused Villains | Animusings

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