In the decade or so following the retreat of the Disney princess model, children's animated movies have leaned toward thematic gimmicks of various kinds. All the characters will be of a certain type — zoo animals, has-been superheroes, parrots, frantic fish — and this frames the marketing, offers up a hook for eager young moviegoers. But this fall, besides additional Madagascar and Ice Age installments, the most popular mode for these fantasy flicks is a spectre out of the past: classic Hollywood horror and monster movies.
Out last month, animation studio Laika's ParaNorman drew on a plethora of spookshow tropes, bringing low-budget gore homage and John Carpenter's Halloween score to the table. From the start, Genndy Tartakovsky's star-studded spoof Hotel Transylvania broke the box office with its conglomeration of Universal movie monsters and mythological beasts. Last week brought one more kid-targeted cartoon focused on this odd nostalgia, usually reserved for more adult-oriented genre flicks: Tim Burton's muddled but fun feature-length remake of his charming 1984 short, Frankenweenie.
Both Hotel Transylvania and Frankenweenie are positively mired in signifiers from old movies — where ParaNorman playfully pays tribute but does its own thing, the other two films dive head-first into a cultural nexus where allusions to old movies serve as both setup and punchline.
In its original incarnation, Burton's Frankenweenie was an unabashed love letter to James Whale's iconic 1931 Frankenstein — its protagonist was unambiguously named Victor Frankenstein and its plot roughly followed the classic story, with a few heartwarming tweaks. The new take keeps much of what worked about the original but pours on additions like too much cream and sugar. Now there's a cameo by a live-action Christopher Lee as Dracula, a Kaiju monster (a giant turtle named Shelley, har har), a swarm of Sea Monkeys-cum-Creatures from the Black Lagoon, a treacherous twist on the hunchbacked Igor and a friendly neighbor named Van Helsing. It's frankly kind of a mess, and what was once a morality tale is now a confused, somewhat violent adventure movie.
Hotel Transylvania swings 100 percent clear of anything actually horrific. By far the most carefully kid-friendly of the batch, it's also weirdly fixated on marriage as an important goal for teenage girls (and there, it is like an old Disney movie), but that's a different sort of retro note to strike. Predicated on a simple turnabout of popular myth — monsters are just regular folks trying to live their lives, and they fear the vicious persecution of humans — the movie is set in the titular hotel, managed by Dracula (Adam Sandler, doing his best Bela Lugosi) and patronized by the Invisible Man, the Wolfman, Frankenstein's monster and his Bride, a hydra, some gremlins, a glob of green slime ... you get the picture.
When movies not made for kids embrace genre tropes this wholeheartedly — think Shaun of the Dead or Cabin in the Woods — there's an expectation of familiarity with what's come before, and a big part of the enjoyment in these films comes from nostalgia itself, whether reverent or ironic. But little kids can't be expected to know these references. Some of them may have entered via kid-friendly popular culture: Lugosi's Count Dracula is recognizable in Sesame Street's Count von Count, and the neck-screws of Frankenstein's monster are a ubiquitous image in cartoons. And some parents (hey, mine did) might show their kids some of the relatively tame monster movies — Tod Browning's Dracula, James Whale's Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, and other Universal classics.
But those kids may be the exceptions, and even for them, other tropes — like those from the slasher films glanced at in ParaNorman — are probably only familiar via young parents or older siblings, so something else is at work here.
In short, the creative and corporate forces behind these flicks are circling back into classic film territory to create a new generation of horror fiends, separate from the gorehounds borne of the slasher movie slurry of the '80s or the new-new-romantics of the Twilight set. (Twilight even gets lightly dissed by Dracula in Hotel Transylvania.) The sappiness of "teen paranormal romance," after all, is unlikely to grab younger viewers, but by blending a more literary-Gothic sensibility with a Gen-X-hangover refusal to take anything too seriously, these movies may be wiring up the next generation of moviegoing weirdos.
Hear me out: it's actually nothing new to put kids in the line of nostalgia-driven fare they won't connect to. The Saturday morning cartoons of the early-to-mid-'90s, for instance, were a bottomless pit of hip cultural quirks that might appeal to parents but grabbed my tiny attention span for very different reasons. But all that oddness was not lost. The cinephilia, sarcasm and downright esoterica of Animaniacs and The Tick and Earthworm Jim all imprinted on me, and programmed my taste years before it would fully solidify.
After an initial skepticism toward this spate of animated horror-comedies, I think I get it. Kids who enjoy the featherweight scares of ParaNorman, the amiable pastiche of Hotel Transylvania or the grim silliness of Frankenweenie aren't necessarily going to be adding Nosferatu to their Netflix queues tomorrow, but when they later encounter the strains of culture that enchanted audiences in the '30s and '40s and even the gothified '80s, they'll be primed. It's a smart creative and business investment. And though it may sound a bit reactionary (or just crotchety) to admit it, a reintegration of atmospheric and expressionistic qualities into modern effects-focused horror — and into kids' movies — wouldn't hurt.