The Age of Feature-Length 3D Horror and Sci-Fi Cartoons in America Has Arrived
Feature-length cartoons have been around in American cinema since Disney released Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs back in 1937, but cartoons for genres outside of fairy tale-based musicals have been very rare for most of the time since that milestone. Thus, I've been ecstatic that three horror-themed cartoons--ParaNorman, Hotel Transylvania and Frankenweenie--are being released in American theaters between August and October of this year. Furthermore, all three of them are in 3D and two of them were shot using stop-motion animation, a special effects technique that has almost completely vanished from live-action films.
To be sure, these titles aren't horror cartoons per se--they are mostly comedies with plot points and imagery based on the horror genre. Yet having three of these films debuting in American theaters within weeks of each other is unprecedented and I think that it reflects what 3D and CGI technology can contribute to cinema animation in terms of the kinds of subject matter that animators can explore. I've already posted about how 3D technology has found a home in video games and feature-length CGI cartoons; here, I'll examine how 3D and CGI have sparked new life into animated storytelling, which has resulted in a selection of horror and sci-fi themed cartoons (five of which I will discuss in this post) that will pave the way for new generations of horror and sci-fi fans. In a time where live-action horror and sci-fi films that are released on the big screen have been overrun with remakes, reboots and retreads, this can only be a good thing. Read on ...
For the longest time, the only horror-themed cartoon movie around was Mad Monster Party, which was produced by Rankin/Bass Productions back in 1967, yet that stop-motion cult classic was a rarity even among certain groups of horror fans. I first saw it on syndicated TV when I was just a wee lad during the late 70s (the film was followed by a broadcast of Son of The Blob, which scared the crap out of me before I was old enough to know better). I didn't know the name of the cartoon movie when I first saw it but I remembered enough of Mad Monster Party's visual style and plot that I could tell my friends about it in the years and decades to come, even though none of them had the slightest idea of what I talking about other than to remark that they had no idea that the makers of such holiday favorites as Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman would produce something so monster-centric. Tim Burton would eventually make his own contribution to horror-themed cartoon movies with A Nightmare Before Christmas in 1993, but that still left only two animated titles that dealt with horror themes and visuals amid a long list of American cartoons that didn't.
Things have been picking up for horror and sci-fi cartoon movies in the years since thanks to CGI and 3D technology, even to the point of getting Nightmare Before Christmas re-released in 3D in 2006. Sure, these films aren't as serious as the horror and sci-fi cartoons produced in Japan (then again, what other country is more serious about animation than Japan?), but the fact that American animation companies are willing to expand their subject matter into horror and sci-fi territory is a step in the right direction that is long overdue. In chronological order, here are five examples of 3D horror and sci-fi cartoon movies done right, the models that future 3D animators should follow when blazing new paths of their own.
Monster House (2006)
When Monster House arrived in 2006, I was amazed. It was produced using top-notch CGI, it was in 3D, it had a great voice cast, and it was an obvious homage to the many kid- and early teen-friendly horror/sci-fi/adventure films of the 80s, films such as Gremlins, Goonies, The Gate, Explorers, The Monster Squad and Honey, I Shrunk The Kids. (Then again, with executive producers such as Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis, two filmmakers who excelled at these kinds of movies during their heyday, what else would you expect?) Even though Monster House is told from a kid's perspective and is largely devoid of violence and gore, it still tells as a satisfying ghost story that can be enjoyed by an audience of varying ages. If you're looking to introduce kids to the horror movies, Monster House should place high on your list of titles.
Meet The Robinsons (2007)
Meet The Robinsons has everything: A goofy sense of humor, an intriguing story that is both a parody and a homage to the plot device of time travel, a tribute to Walt Disney's futurism, and a heartwarming message about family, belonging and making peace with an uncertain past to move onward into a brighter, better future. In particular, retro sci-fi fans will love the movie's chrome-plated, tail-finned vision of the future that's skillfully rendered in 3D.
2009 was a fantastic year for horror/sci-fi 3D cartoon movies, beginning with Coraline. Henry Selick applied his animation magic to an adaptation of Neil Gaiman's dark, twisted fairy tale, and the results were astonishing. Not too shabby for the first stop-motion animated feature to be shot entirely in 3D. Also, even though Coraline is not a CGI-animated film, it could not have been animated without computers: The characters' different facial expressions were molded by a 3D printing computer program, which allowed for up to 207,336 possible face combinations for a single character.
Monsters Vs. Aliens (2009)
There are so many nods to Atomic Age horror and sci-fi movies in this cartoon that it's impossible for a creature feature fan like me to resist it. It features homages to such classics and cult favorites such as Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, The Blob, Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Fly and Mothra, and it casts Stephen Colbert himself as the President of the United States--what's not to love? Monsters vs. Aliens is also the first computer animated movie to be directly produced in a stereoscopic 3D format, instead of being converted into 3D after completion.
Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (2009)
Whenever filmmakers decide to take a short children's book and adapt it into a feature-lenght movie, they really need to look at Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs as the example to follow. Not only was this film able to take the book's original idea and expand upon it in a way that could sustain a full movie, but doing so also allowed the filmmakers to do a hilarious parody of the science-running-amok plot that has become a cliche in horror and sci-fi movies. Furthermore, Cloudy's 3D effects are amazing, and this level of quality carries over into the 3D Blu-ray version of the movie.