Judgment Dave: 'Mad Monster Party' and Why Stop-motion Doesn't Suck

Judgment Dave: 'Mad Monster Party' and Why Stop-motion Doesn't Suck

Oct 30, 2012

Dave White, our resident film critic, doesn't just have opinions on new movies coming out; he's got plenty to say about older movies too. Every other Tuesday he'll be bringing a past movie to light as it relates to current movies and movie-related issues. Enjoy! Then go read all Dave's reviews.

I believe in the presence of an exclusive, frozen room in the Hot Place Where Bad People Go. And I believe it's reserved for film writers who make a special point of wholesale trashing an entire genre of filmmaking. One of those people recently penned a piece for the U.K.'s Guardian newspaper, petulantly titled: "Stop admiring Frankenweenie! Why stop-motion doesn't move me."

The writer, David Cox, reasons that stop-motion requires too much effort to produce, is aesthetically inferior to digital animation and, worst of all, generates much less money at the box office. Therefore, nobody really wants to see them. Therefore, they suck.

Well, I want to see them. Which makes me nobody. Totally comfortable with that; I was already nobody. And at this time of year this nobody especially wants to see Mad Monster Party.

An extremely strange 45-year-old film, it arrived in theaters with the tiniest of fanfare – only playing weekend "kiddie" matinees – courtesy of stop-motion legends Rankin/Bass, the guys behind Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Of course, quite unlike Rudolph, a heart-warmer where all the monsters and misfits are allowed to survive and thrive in the end, in this movie all the monsters die in what amounts to an antimatter explosion.

The plot involves Dr. Frankenstein (voiced by Boris Karloff) gathering all of the world's most famous monsters together at his private castle for a giant celebration announcing his retirement. He informs them all – Dracula, the Wolfman, Frankenstein's monster and his "mate," a creature who resembles (and is voiced by) Phyllis Diller, an inclusion that, in this late '60s context, is entirely reasonable – that he'll choose a successor as "leader of the monsters." After that he'll bestow upon that ghoul the secret formula for a bomb that will destroy life as we know it, putting absolute godlike power into the hands of… possibly Phyllis Diller. Then they all get drunk and fight about who gets to be the new boss. It was 1967. They put stuff like this in children's films back then.

Giving a little credit to David Cox's otherwise plain-old anti-cinema argument, he's right about one thing: stop-motion is clunkier than digital. It just is. Mad Monster Party, especially, is not a smooth viewing experience. Even by that era's stop-motion standards, the animation is rough and choppy. You see the gears moving in ways that fluid spectacles like Coraline and ParaNorman never betray.

But maybe thanks to that lower-tech approach, something Rankin/Bass called "Animagic," the movie vibrates and wiggles, adding emphasis to its already knowingly wicked brand of idiotic glee. It has a crazy, rebellious, swinging-'60s energy and goofy songs. It also contains the threat – and delivery – of total demolition, an upside-down reference to It's a Wonderful Life in the form of Dr. Frankenstein's heroic, Jimmy Stewart-like nephew character, and Diller's incessant cackle every time she tells a corny joke. It obviously influenced people like Tim Burton and Rob Zombie, but you can also feel entire plot points lifted and delivered straight into the clutches of Hotel Transylvania. It is directly connected to the part of my brain that craves fun-size Milky Way bars and is my very favorite film to watch during the Halloween shopping season.

But according to Cox, loving this film or The Nightmare Before Christmas, Wallace and Gromit or Chicken Run, Jason and the Argonauts or Fantastic Mr. Fox means you're stupid or – here comes the super-burn – a film snob. And the Museum of Modern Art's retrospective of the films of the Quay Brothers? Idiots, all involved. Just like me. Why are you bothering to watch garbage like this? Other people aren't.

You see, Cox is also correct about one other thing: stop-motion doesn't burn up the box office. It never has. His main target, Frankenweenie, is, as they say, "underperforming." Why? Well, after slamming people who revere stop-motion as the "digital-disdaining classes" (that's right, it follows that you also despise Pixar) he lists Frankenweenie's other crimes against cinema: "darkness, death, science, respect for schoolwork and no unseemly explosions. It's even in black and white; all that's missing is subtitles."

So there you go. You just got told. A guy from the Guardian just leveled the most important and damning charge of all: box office failure and artistic failure are the same thing and they're the result of loving science and schoolwork too much. Furthermore, to ask movies to be anything out of the ordinary or mainstream is to advocate for a non-stop diet of No Fun. Subtitles! Scared yet? If so, then you could make a go of it in Hollywood because you think like a development executive.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a date with the ghost of Phyllis Diller and some Halloween candy.

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