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Blu-ray Review: Mad Monster Party

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Mad Monster Party is the fourth feature film produced by stop-motion animation pioneers Rankin/Bass. It centers around a scientist who is the leader of all the monsters in the world – Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, etc. – as he assembles them all at a party at his castle to announce his retirement. The film includes the voice talents of Boris Karloff and Phyllis Diller.

The Movie

Mad Monster Party may unfairly be viewed as the black sheep Rankin/Bass production. It simply doesn’t have the classic status of, say, Frosty the Snowman or Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer. And it could be the fact that, deep down, many people solely relate their work to Christmas (see the above, but also The Year Without A Santa Claus). Our nostalgia has to be stretched to include non-holiday fare in a similar style. But its quirky premise – and perhaps its style as a precursor to the stop-motion films of Tim Burton – has lent it credibility amongst those whose tastes lean towards fringe animation and/or cult cinema.

The story follows Baron von Frankenstein, a scientist who works with and leads the monsters of the world. One day he decides to throw a huge party at his castle and invites all of his monster friends to attend. But he also invites his nephew Felix, who is as clueless about his uncle’s work as he is clumsy and plagued by allergies. The Baron has decided to groom young Felix as his successor and to keep the monster business in the family. Once word gets around that the Baron plans to retire and appoint a new head of the monsters, scheming commences between each of the monsters to not only find out who the successor is, but to make sure that it is one of them, and to undo the plans of anyone else in their path, be they monster or human. The whole thing stays firmly on the silly side, complete with an endless stream of monster puns.

But enjoyment-wise, things start to fall apart with a couple of the early musical numbers. The songs are numerous enough to constitute a musical, but most of them are a little half baked. The dialogue certainly isn’t overly strong, but it’s at least consistent with what you’d expect for a younger age bracket (although some of the sexual innuendo between the monster characters and the Baron’s buxom assistant Francesca feels overreaching as a wink to adults). After a while, there’s a tendency to just wish that they’d get their songs over with and get on with the story, which is always a bad sign for a musical.

For my money, the film is best with the sound off. The songs simply aren’t the strongest, and the voice work feels weak and rushed (and Diller’s constant laugh gets old, as if she needs to keep reminding us that yeah, Phyllis Diller is voicing that character). It’s really the animation that shines, as well as some of the best character design Rankin/Bass has done. Even when dialogue falls flat, the characters are funny simply moving about. The Invisible Man has hilarious charm in his silent moments, as does the non-stop morphing of Jekyll into Hyde. These are a fun, colorful and playful group of characters that just simply needed stronger musical support. But the animation stands on its own, and is as engaging as anything else the creative duo tackled.

But the struggle with this picture, and what relegates it to the “cult classic” category (which often translates to “best enjoyed by people who can overlook the obvious problems”) is that these two stylistic halves feel so mismatched. If the visuals were as weak as the audio, you could just write the whole thing off. But you can’t, because the visuals are really quite well done and charming, even if they’re accompanied by music and voice work that rarely rises above meager.

Video / Audio

The video transfer feels like a pretty big missed opportunity here. The opening shots, which are just chock-full of both stability issues and generous debris and artifacts on the print, are a bad sign. Unfortunately, they’re not just relegated to the opening. Stability in particular is an issue at different points throughout the film, and signals that this film simply didn’t receive much attention for this Blu-ray release. Another blatant problem was color matching, where some entire shots – at a different angle from the scene before – could be not only in a different color temperature, to put it mildly, but with softness of image thrown in, almost as if they were spliced in from an inferior print. The amount of debris on the print is an issue, although smaller, as it’s really only distracting – unless you make a concerted effort to keep an eye on it – in a few key sections of the film.

All of this is important because when it comes to this type of film, and this type of animation, you’re almost exclusively coming for the visuals. (Trust me, it’s not the majestic music in Mad Monster Party…) And although a film like this may never be a top-shelf release worthy of a massive restoration effort, it clearly misses the boat on the one aspect it really has going for it.

The audio is generally fine, and while the DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 track isn’t going to immerse you in ear candy, it ably serves up the soundtrack as it is. Dialogue levels remain consistent, and the musical numbers are well matched to the rest of the sound. The audio track doesn’t blow you away, but more importantly it doesn’t get anything wrong either.

Bonus Features

There are a handful of bonus items included, all of which are in standard-definition and appear to be ported over from previous releases. The main item is “Mad Monster Party? Making of a Cult Classic” (SD, 14:47), which gathers interview footage from several of the technical and music talents as they look back on the making of the film. “It’s Sheer Animagic! Secrets of Stop-Motion Animation” (SD, 9:36) is a demonstration by two modern-day stop-motion animators of how the art form works, and the influence of Rankin/Bass pictures. “Groovey Ghouls! The Music of Mad Monster Party” (SD, 3:45) is a short retrospective piece about – you guessed it – the musical numbers in the film.

There are two musical numbers included in the “Sing-A-Longs” (SD, 4:47) feature – “Our Time To Shine” and “One Step Ahead” – which get the follow-the-bouncing-ball treatment. Finally, the trailer (SD, 1:30) for the film is included. The package includes both Blu-ray and DVD discs, each of which contain the feature and all supplemental items.

Conclusion

This high-definition release for Mad Monster Party seems to have received little – if any – in the way of renovation or care. It comes across as a straight warts-and-all transfer from their vault master. While that may not seem encouraging, it is still far ahead of the standard-definition versions that came before. The improved character detail alone should be enough to sway fans of both Rankin/Bass or stop-motion animation. The dialogue and songs are still as clunky as ever, so for those unfamiliar with this film it’s recommended to catch a rental before spending too much hard cash.

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About David R Perry