After finding success in 1964 with their stop-motion Christmas special Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer, Rankin/Bass turned their signature style to the horror genre, with the theatrical release of Mad Monster Party.
Dr. Frankenstein, played by Boris Karloff, the man who portrayed Frankenstein’s monster in the 1931 film version of the story, is planning to retire as head of Monsters Incorporated. We’re told that this group is in charge of all the vampires, ghouls, creatures, etc., but we never get a sense of what that entails; especially since the monsters he invites to his castle to witness his announcement don’t seem to defer any authority to him.
The monsters, of course, are the classic film roster as defined by Universal Pictures in the ’30s. We have Frankenstein, Dracula, Mr.Hyde, The Invisible Man, and so on. This being a children’s film, they aren’t depicted doing anything particularly monstrous, and they have a slight air of parody about them; for instance, Dracula makes a joke about being the original ‘batman,’ and the werewolf chases after a stick when its thrown by Felix.
Felix is Frankenstein’s nephew, to whom the doctor intends to leave his position. The prospect of a human who knows nothing of the monster world taking over as ruler is particularly galling to the doctor’s devoted assistant, Francesca, who decides to elicit the help of the other monsters to rid themselves of the interloper. Francesca has red hair and ridiculously large breasts; she’s the doll-version of Christina Hendricks.
The film is a musical, just like Rankin/Bass’ other works, but the songs aren’t as catchy. There’s no ‘Silver and Gold,’ or ‘One Foot in Front of the Other.’ I just watched this last night, but can’t really remember any of them; though I vaguely recall Phyllis Diller doing one of them.
The longer run-time, 96 minutes, appears to have strained their creative abilities as well. There are a couple scenes that drag on to a near-painful length. The first is the castle’s chef describing the meal he’s making (which includes unappetizing insects and poisons) in unnecessary detail; and another showing the monsters, who are sharing bedrooms (despite the fact that they’re in a giant castle), dealing with their snoring roommate, which would be fine except that the same scenario is repeated four times, once for each pair.
The jokes are childish, and not really funny; but it’s still a fun movie. It’s nice to see all the classic monsters together in a toned-down but respectful homage to the classics (Karloff’s inclusion is great, and he does surprisingly well in the role, considering he’s most famous for playing a non-speaking character). Rankin/Bass works just have that certain something that makes them endlessly enjoyable, and while not their crowning achievement; Mad Monster Party still has much to recommend it.
The video presentation of the Blu Ray is highly controversial. First, because it is presented in 4:3 fullscreen. It was animated in 4:3, but shown in theaters in 16:9 widescreen; which is ‘right’? I’ll leave that for you to decided. The second (bigger) issue is a general dullness to the colors. Some reviews have called this a horrible travesty, others have said it’s expected from a poorly maintained film of its age. It’s true that the colors aren’t vibrant, but they are clear; Francesca’s hair is red and her dress is gold; also, the film takes place in a darkened castle at night, so a little greyness doesn’t stand out as odd. I’ll agree that the colors aren’t optimal; but they aren’t distractingly bad. Colors aside, the picture is very sharp; making it a satisfying presentation overall.