Van Helsing: The London Assignment (2004, Sharon Bridgeman)

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An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: This 30-minute animated special was produced to promote the 2004 movie Van Helsing and dramatises the events immediately before that film’s main storyline. The DVD packaging says it’s set in 1889, a date that’s confirmed by Queen Victoria being 70 years old, even though the parent movie takes place in 1888. The locations are London and the Vatican City.

Faithful to the novel? It’s a new storyline. Dr Jekyll (Dwight Schultz) is the Queen’s personal physician, yet has been secretly turning into a monster called Hyde (Robbie Coltrane), killing women, and bottling their dying breaths. Vatican monster-hunter Gabriel Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman) and his sidekick Carl (David Wenham) are sent to combat him. Turns out, Dr J has been in love with Queen Victoria since she was a young woman and wants to return her to her former beauty and marry her.

Best performance: Give them their due, the producers convinced Hugh Jackman, David Wenham and Robbie Coltrane to reprise their movie roles.

Best bit: The film begins with a 1930s Universal logo. Nice touch.

Review: Various Victorian clichés have been thrown into the mix: as well as Van Helsing himself, we get fog-bound London streets, the chimes of Big Ben, a version of Jack the Ripper (though that name is never used), the Jekyll and Hyde story, the London Underground, beefeaters and Queen Vicky herself. The animation’s stylish, but the story’s slight.

Five proper-sized corsets out of 10

Frankenweenie (2012, Tim Burton)

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An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: It’s the modern day, albeit a stylised version that’s stuck in the 1960s. The story takes place in the town of New Holland.

Faithful to the novel? Not at all. This black-and-white, stop-motion animated film is a parody of Universal Pictures’ pre-war horror films, especially Frankenstein (1931). A young boy called Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan) is distraught when his dog Sparky is run over and killed. So, inspired by a science teacher called Mr Rzykruski (Martin Landau), he resurrects the pooch via the electrical charge of a lightning bolt – ie, in the same way as in the 1931 classic. There are two minor Dracula connections. Victor’s next-door neighbour is a girl called Elsa Van Helsing (Winona Ryder, coincidentally one of the stars of 1992’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula). And in one scene Mr and Mrs Frankenstein (Martin Short and Catherine O’Hara) watch 1958’s Dracula on TV.

Best performance: The stop-motion animators and cinematographer Peter Sorg. The high-contrast, black-and-white photography is very Universal Horror, and the physical puppets and sets really are quite beautiful.

Best bit: The newly resurrected Sparky wags his tail so furiously it falls off. “I can fix that,” says Victor.

Review: A fairly routine animated film, in that there’s plenty of whimsy, a lot of visual humour, and flashes of sweetness and sadness. With the story predictable enough for kids to follow, you start counting off the nods and winks. A character who looks like Vincent Price? A corpse resurrected during a lightning storm? A haircut like Elsa Lanchester in Bride of Frankenstein? A climax in a burning windmill? Check, check, check, check.

Six robotic buckets out of 10

Hotel Transylvania (2012, Genndy Tartakovsky)

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An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: Transylvania. After a prologue set in 1895, we move to the modern day.

Faithful to the novel? Count Dracula (voiced by Adam Sandler) is a widower who lives with his daughter, Mavis (Selena Gomez). He decided to convert his castle into a hotel for fellow monsters, and guests include Frankenstein’s monster, the Invisible Man, skeletons, ghosts and giant spiders. The monsters are avoiding contact with humans and have given up trying to scare them: they just want to be left alone. Dracula has to avoid sunlight and can turn into a bat. He doesn’t drink human blood, though, because it’s fattening. It’s Mavis’s 118th birthday – though she still looks like a teenager because, you know, vampire. She wants to leave the castle and, for the first time, explore the outside world. Dracula lets her go, but arranges for an angry mob to scare her back home because he doesn’t want to lose her. Then a human backpacker called Johnny (Andy Samberg) stumbles across the hotel – he wasn’t put off by the undead-riddled cemetery and spooky woods that Dracula has created as a barrier. Dracula initially tries to hide the truth, but Johnny soon learns what’s going on. He also meets and falls for Mavis.

Best performance: Is that Steve Buscemi playing Wayne the werewolf?! Yes, it is. So that’s what happened to him.

Best bit: The fake townspeople – actually zombies in human masks.

Review: A madcap comedy animation. (There are even fart gags.) There are lots of jokes crammed into every scene. It loses momentum once the set-up’s finished, but is generally amusing and likeable.

Six shrunken heads out of 10

The Batman vs Dracula (2005, Michael Goguen)

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An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: Gotham City, the present day.

Faithful to the novel? No, it’s using the character of Dracula as a villain. This feature-length animated film was a straight-to-DVD spin-off from The Batman (2004-2008), a 65-episode cartoon series. In it, the coffin of Count Dracula (Peter Stormare) is found in a Gotham cemetery by the Penguin (Tom Kenny), who has recently escaped from Arkham Asylum and is looking for some lost loot. A drop of the Penguin’s blood inadvertently brings the vampire back to life. He initially appears haggard and corpse-like, but grows stronger and more human-looking as he feeds. We see flashbacks to him being staked years earlier in Transylvania; his body was then moved to Gotham for reasons unknown. We also learn that the count was once married to Carmilla Karnstein (from Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1871 novella), who he now wants to resurrect. Dracula hypnotises the Penguin into being his acolyte (he’s this story’s Renfield), and also assembles a gang of followers by turning them (temporarily, as it turns out) into vampires. Meanwhile, millionaire Bruce Wayne (Rino Romano) is dating journalist Vicki Vale (Tara Strong). Dracula meets them both when he gatecrashes a party – using the alias Dr Alucard – and identifies Vicki as a means of helping Carmilla. When his battle of wits with Dracula gets underway, the Batman uses the infected Joker (Kevin Michael Richardson) to research a cure. But it’s by targeting a new solar-energy machine, which was clumsily seeded earlier in the story, that he’s finally able to defeat the vampire.

Best performance: Thomas Chase Jones’s music is superb, especially when using flashes of rock guitar.

Best bit: The Batman and Dracula’s first fight – staged on rooftops, Dracula has the upper hand with ease.

Review: The meeting of Batman and Dracula, two bat-related fictional icons who have had many incarnations, is an interesting one. The Count himself even draws the parallel in this film: “My legacy has been quite influential,” he says. And this animated special makes great play of the characters’ connection. Bruce Wayne even has a psychologically resonant dream in which the Batman and Dracula are merged into one creature. The plot might be simple, but the stylish animation and genuinely scary sequences mean this film is entertaining enough. Although superficially similar, it’s unrelated to Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, which I reviewed elsewhere on this site. It’s a new continuity and a new cast.

Seven lost ones out of 10

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993, Eric Radomski and Bruce W Timm)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

No, seriously. I’m going to spoil the ending.

When Gotham City’s gangsters are systematically killed by a bizarre being known as the Phantasm, Batman is wrongly blamed – and must also face dark secrets from his past…

Good guys: Bruce Wayne/Batman (voiced by Kevin Conroy) is a square-jawed hunk and, at first anyway, a commitment-phobic womaniser. We see extensive flashbacks to him as a young man and his early attempts at vigilantism (his costume is a basic all-black affair); after proposing to girlfriend Andrea, the pair are scared by some bats, which gives the young Bruce an idea. In the present day, Batman is falsely accused of the Phantasm’s crimes and is hounded by the police…

Bad guys: Weasel politician Arthur Reeves (Hart Bochner, who was also in Supergirl) used to be an assistant of Andrea’s dad, Carl Beaumont, and is now in league with mobsters. The Joker turns him insane and he ends up laughing uncontrollably in a mental hospital. The maniacal yet dapper Joker doesn’t appear until about halfway through, voiced entertainingly and energetically by Mark Hamill. He’s taken over the ruins of a theme park and made it his lair. When he’s hired by a gangster to stop Batman, who the bad guys assume is the assassin, he quickly learns the Phantasm is actually to blame. At first, we’re led to believe that the Phantasm – a powerful, masked vigilante who appears, kills and disappears enveloped in smoke – is Carl Beaumont, out for revenge on the gangsters who ruined his life. The same actor voices both characters. However…

Other guys: Not properly fitting into either of the previous two categories is Andrea Beaumont. She’s voiced by Dana Delany, whose name sounds like a comic-book character. Andrea is a sharp-talking, sexy dame who had a relationship with Bruce years earlier. Her father was in hock to some gangsters, and just after Bruce has proposed to Andrea, she had to flee Gotham City with her dad. Returning in the present day, she soon figures out Bruce’s secret identity. She also drops enough hints – and then actually states – that her father is the Phantasm. However, the Joker has guessed the truth: it’s actually Andrea. When Bruce finds out, he calls her on her pointless vengeance. She rightly points out he’s a hypocrite. From the established Batman mythology, Alfred gets a few scenes with Bruce, while Commissioner Gordon won’t believe that Batman has turned evil.

Best bits:

* The first appearance of the Phantasm.

* Bruce surrounded by attractive women at a party. “Never mention the M word,” says one, meaning marriage.

* The flashbacks – like in Lost, the switch to the past is always smartly motivated by an emotional character beat.

* Andrea talking to her mother’s grave. “She doesn’t have much to say today,” she quips to Bruce.

* Bruce’s first attempt at crime-fighting – “Who’s this clown?” asks an incredulous bad guy – and the subsequent action sequence.

* The scene in the moonlight graveyard. The Phantasm kills a mobster by tricking him into an open grave and then pushing a huge tombstone on top of him.

* The Gotham World’s Fair, one of those futurist theme parks that predicted hover-cars and robotic domestic staff. There’s a gorgeous dieselpunk aesthetic to the whole thing. A similar sequence features in Captain America: The First Avenger.

* Bruce sees a sleek, retro-futuristic car at the fair: the same model as the future Batmobile.

* Bruce: “You think you know everything about me, don’t you?” Alfred: “I diapered your bottom. I bloody well ought to, sir.”

* Bruce puts his Batman mask on for the first time. We don’t see it, but Alfred looks terrified.

* Just before the first appearance of the Joker (played by Luke Skywalker, of course), we get a sound effect either copied or actually cribbed from The Empire Strikes Back – it’s the noise the Millennium Falcon makes when it breaks down.

* The Batwing.

* The running gag of Alfred walking in on Bruce and Andrea kissing then walking out again.

* The Phantasm pulls off its mask, revealing Andrea!

* Batman and the Joker fighting in the abandoned World’s Fair – their brawl takes place in a scale model of Gotham City, so they seem like giants. (It reminded me of similar gags in Hot Fuzz and Crank: High Voltage.)

Review: After a successful first season of Batman: The Animated Series, its producers set about making a feature-length, direct-to-video special. Impressed with the quality, however, the studio decided to give the film a cinema release. I’m no expert on the TV show and had never seen Mask of the Phantasm before, so I don’t know how representative it is. But it’s an enjoyable piece of storytelling. There’s a good structure, with plenty of plot development. The flashbacks – a nod to Citizen Kane, according to the producers – work really well in simultaneously fleshing out character and filling in back-story. And it also looks gorgeous, with some stylish animation which mixes up its eras to create a fun and interesting world. Enjoyable stuff.

Eight knife-wielding robots out of 10.

Next time: Riddle me this, Harvey Dent!

The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (2011)

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Ace reporter Tintin buys a model ship at the local market and gets embroiled in an adventure to track down the lost treasure of seventeenth-century pirate Sir Francis Haddock…

Seen before? Yes, at the cinema on 6 November 2011 and on DVD a couple of times since.

Best performance: Andy Serkis plays Captain Haddock and is really brilliant, with lots of energy, charm and subtly. He’s often laugh-out-loud funny and holds the whole movie together – more than Tintin, this is *Haddock’s* story. (Although an animated film, actors performed their roles out through motion-capture technology, so they drove the characters’ movement, posture and expressions.) I spoke to Serkis on the phone once – he rang looking for my then boss, Gary Russell, with whom he was writing a book. I’ve actually met a large number of the key personnel on this movie… I’ve been introduced to co-writer Steven Moffat about three times through mutual friends – he was aloof, cold and totally uninterested in me each time. I once spotted Simon Pegg (one half of Thomson and Thompson) in Selfridges, so went and told him I’m a huge fan – he was friendly and open. The next day it was announced he would be playing Scotty in Star Trek. Last year, I saw co-writer Edgar Wright in HMV on Oxford Street, so said hello and told him I love his movies. (I don’t make a habit of this, by the way. Pegg and Wright are special cases.) He was polite and patient with my fanboyness. And, although I’ve never met him, I once transcribed an interview with producer Peter Jackson for a book on The Lord of the Rings, which basically makes us best friends.

ADDENDUM: I rewatched this film on Wednesday 13 August then wrote this review Thursday lunchtime. Literally a few minutes after finishing it, I popped to the nearest shop… and walked past Mackenzie Crook on Soho’s Broadwick Street. He plays one of the bad guy’s heavies in The Adventures of Tintin! When I saw him he had a baseball cap on, but clocked that I’d noticed him and gave me a ‘Don’t talk to me’ look.

Best scene/moment/sequence: An obvious choice, but I adore the comedic chase sequence in Bagghar, which is presented as a single 142-second shot: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gWmMo8hO57g

Review: One of the reasons I wanted to do this #SpielbergWatch process was so I’d have an excuse to see this film again. I utterly love everything about it. It might be – no, is – the best-looking animated/CGI movie of all time. The level of detail, of craftsmanship, of beauty in the design is stunning. A complete artificial world is created, and repeated viewings are a treat because you continually spot new things in the background of each shot. But, crucially, there’s real heart behind this movie too. Like in Toy Story, you soon forget about the technology and the computers, and instead get swept up in the story and charmed by the sheer talent behind it. The plot is simple but smart, with clearly defined characters. There’s wit, whimsy, danger, plenty of visual gags and madcap action… I haven’t read the Tintin books in about 25 years but this seems spot-on to me. A glorious, glorious triumph.

Ten Milanese Nightingales out of 10.