With the popularity of the Adam Sandler-led animated Hotel Transylvania movie series, it is no surprise that other studios would want to rake in a little of that “monster money” with their own take on the classic monsters. Unfortunately, with director Holger Tappe’s film Monster Family, those favorite monsters don’t quite make an appearance. Instead, we get a middle American family who are transformed into a vampire, a mummy, a werewolf and Frankenstein’s monster by the villainous Dracula. What a twist!
Based on the book Happy Family by author David Safier (the movie was released internationally as Happy Family and only changed for the North American release to Monster Family), the movie tells the story of a dysfunctional family that finds itself monster-fied because Dracula had inexplicably developed the hots for the mom.
Dracula (Jason Isaacs) is not only fond of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor – a standard musical choice for classic monsters – but also the musical stylings of Tom Jones, even to the point of putting on a Las Vegas style stage routine for an audience of none. You see this Dracula is lonely (his trio of bat minions and poor put-upon Renfield notwithstanding), so when American mom Emma Wishbone (Emily Watson) accidentally calls Dracula’s castle instead of a local costume store, she immediately wins his heart. Now, I’m not saying it’s beyond the realms of possibility to fall in love with a person over a two minute phone conversation – those 900 phone-sex numbers are dangerous to the vulnerable at heart – but this film doesn’t really work all that hard on selling how it would work in this context. The writing from the get-go is rather lazy, and the meet cute between Dracula and Emma is as contrived as it is ridiculous – Emma was looking for vampire teeth for her costume and somehow dialed a long distance number by mistake, not only getting an actual vampire on the line, but the Prince of Darkness himself.
As the movie progresses, we discover that the Wishbone family is not the happiest of clans – every dysfunctional family cliché is trotted out in record time: we learn that Emma is a klutzy, hypercritical mom who wants her family to do fun things together; Frank (Nick Frost) is your standard overworked and clueless dad who is oblivious to his wife’s problems and is also saddled with a horrible flatulence condition; and their daughter, Fay (Jessica Brown Findlay) is your typical movie teen who has no use for her mother, is failing school, and is shy around boys. Finally, there is the youngest son, Max (Ethan Rouse), the standard brainiac kid who is picked on by the school bully and is in constant conflict with his older sister.
The only remotely original thing in this movie is the depiction of Dracula as a supervillain living in castle that has more in common with a Bond villain volcano lair than it does your standard Carpathian castle; not only is it his home that is updated, but he as well, as he now travels in a supersonic private jet, has an outfit that not only allows him to travel in the sun but also has jet boots, and to make the Bond villain theme more complete, he has a device that could freeze the sun and end all life on Earth. (Note: He doesn’t have sharks with fricking laser beams on their heads, so there’s that). What he doesn’t have is a mate, so he offers the imprisoned witch Baba Yaga (Catherine Tate) her freedom if she will transform Emma into a vampire (why or how he imprisoned her in the first place is never explained). He doesn’t want to transform her the old fashioned way via biting because that would result in losing her soul. The only possible wrinkle in this plan is that Baba Yaga’s spell will only work if Emma is unhappy, but of course everyone in Emma’s family is unhappy about something, so when Baba Yaga casts the spell, it transforms the entire family into monsters, specifically the ones that they were dressed up as for a Halloween party that Emma was dragging them to.
Will Emma learn to be a less controlling and more understanding mom? Can little Max come to accept the fact that being feared as a monster is not actually a good thing? Is it possible for Fay to realize that beauty on the outside is fleeting and that it’s the person on the inside that counts? As for Frank, well his only issue was being overworked – causing him to nod off during his wife’s frequent rants – and his time as Frankenstein’s mindless monster provides him no epiphany. The script really doesn’t have a character growth moment for him, instead Frank learns that being big and green is something that supermodels find hot. Who knew?
The animation and character designs for Monster Family are decent – even the voice work for the most part sells the characters just fine – but overall, the whole thing comes across as just another tired retread of what we have seen in dozens of other animated kids’ movies. There is barely an ounce of originality in its ninety minute running time, as “Bond villain” Dracula suddenly turns into Syndrome from The Incredibles – with the added “bonus” of his bats trying their best to be the minions from Despicable Me – and the trope of the “family having to finally work together to save the day” is pretty much telegraphed from the beginning of the movie.
I’m sure little kids will get a kick out of this film – there is plenty of colorful action and it does move along at a nice pace – but the reliance on clichés and Dracula’s strange seduction of Emma will have older audiences either yawning or scratching their heads. Monster Family is mostly guilty of being a cobbled together retread of better films, and thus it will likely fade away into obscurity.