There are many things about cinema that The Cine-Men co-host Darryl Mansel laments, but the one that he laments the most is the lack of swashbuckler films. Disney’s recent Jungle Cruise possesses traits of these films, though mostly due to its familiarity to fellow Disney series Pirates of the Caribbean, so Darryl continues to go unsated. There’s a common thought that one tends to find the thing they’re looking for once they stop actively seeking and the soon-to-come-to-home video Petit Vampire (Little Vampire) may just the thing which quenches Darryl’s beleaguered thirst. Originally created as a children’s book series by Joann Sfar, the cinematic adaptation appears to tackle the first three books as one, resulting in an animated adventure that’s Corpse Bride (2005) meets ParaNorman (2012) as ghosts, skeletons, monsters of all kinds, and more gather together to protect themselves from a most fearsome foe that’s hunted them for three centuries. It is a most hauntingly unexpected tale of adventure and friendship.
Just when all hope seemed lost for a young boy (voiced by Louise Lacoste) and his mother, Pandora (voiced by Camille Cottin), out of nowhere came the Captain of the Dead (voiced by Jean-Paul Rouve), who promised to save them from their imminent deaths with the gift of immortality. Unfortunately, this meant that the young boy-turned-vampire would forever be that age, doomed to never grow even slightly older, even should he ever become dead-dead. At first, this is delightful, especially as he and his new family gather more and more to join them; but, after 300 years, all Little Vampire wants is do what regular kids do: go to school and make friends. Upon defying his parents’ orders, Little Vampire does make a friend and ends up putting all he loves under threat from an old foe in the process.
Having not read any of the books, what follows will not involve any comparisons whatsoever to the series. That said, fans of the books should at least take heart that Sfar serves as both director and co-writer of the script, alongside Sandrina Jardel, whom Sfar worked with on 2011’s Le chat du rabbin (The Rabbi’s Cat) (another of Sfar’s works). One can imply a certain trust of the material if Sfar is reteaming with Jardel, so if you felt like Cat was on the money, then Vampire is likely to come across the same way. One thing I can declare — if I hadn’t known going into the film that there was a book series for kids, the content of the tale would certainly have come as a bit of a surprise given much of the morbid content. It’s not nightmare-inducing in the ways of The Secret of Nimh (1982) or Watership Down (1978), it’s just a tad unsettling given the more grotesque aspects of the setting: Captain of the Dead is a literal skeleton pirate, one of Vampire’s friends is a creation of Dr. Frankenstein (and voiced by Sfar), and the foe that comes for them is a servant of Death itself. There’s plenty of Pixar or recent Disney films which do play with content like this, but the animation is usually a little more soft and uplifting to act as a counter-balance whereas Little Vampire appears more in line with films like Nimh in that they’re more hand-drawn in design with characters layered over still backgrounds. What they lack in dynamism they make up for in being unique and captivating as it’s hard not to be impressed with any of the character designs. One bit of authenticity that will be appreciated by series readers, the style does appear to carry forward the original book cover visual style nicely.
Allow me a moment to adjust or soften a comment from above: just because the content is a tad grotesque or teetering on the edge of what some may find appropriate for their children, there’s a fantastic story of friendship, family, and love within. All of the monsters and creatures who surround Little Vampire treat each other as relatives, though their kinship is by choice rather than by blood. If there were a pithy phrase to describe their intimacy, it’s “The blood of the covenant is thicker than the blood of the womb.” Though Pandora does love and support her son, amidst some typically coddling, those who surround Vampire do so out of choice and go into battle with him (literally or figuratively) gladly. None of them judge each other for their idiosyncratic speech patterns, physical forms, or predilections and it’s a wonderful message to pass along. In other words, if they mean no harm, what is there to fear about those who might be different? That this enables the film to dovetail smoothly into a conversation about the pain of loss without judgement is magnificent because too much pain in the world is due to what people bottle up instead of feeling confident in their friends to understand or console. While you’ve got films like Soul (2020) or Inside Out (2015), which challenge their audience, via the characters, to consider their lives or emotions, it’s rare to see a film tackle grief in such a way. Normalize talking about how you feel. Normalize listening without judgement. Normalize that there is no normal and all things are chaotic, but we can be something gentle for someone else during their storm. That this comes while said character is breathing in the farts of another character due to the air being too thin to breathe, well, that just puts a little methane icing on the cake.
If there is a downside to the story, it’s how the film uses but doesn’t address the inherent misogyny of the villain and his motives. The film begins in media res with Pandora and her son being pursued by a blonde man angered by the fact that Pandora has a child (i.e. she loved someone before him). He must kill her for this transgression, which sets up her rescue and the transformation of herself and her son to the living dead. This man, called The Gibbous (voiced by Alex Lutz), spends the entire movie trying to either kill or reclaim Pandora simply because he can’t handle not having what he wants the way he wants it. Though there’s a moment where this gets called out, it’s not handled in a way in which clearly defines how destructive this way of thinking this is and why it needs to be shut down quickly and early. That it comes up so late in the film and is almost handled via a throwaway bit of dialogue prevents younger audience members from understanding that The Gibbous is evil through-and-through without redemption. The ending of the film tries to absolve it, but all it does is imply that his POV can only be assuaged through trade and not actual growth. It is, in a word, gross.
After spending some time on the international festival circuit, Petit Vampire is going to be available in the U.S. on digital and physical media and, if the above sounds like a good time to you, then this is a safe recommendation for you. Personally, if my eldest could handle watching The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) more than once a year (only on Halloween), I think he’d dig this. Keep in mind that my eldest is a tad more sensitive and prone to his imagination going wild, so while he might delight in Marguerite, the Frankenstein’s monster-like character, it would also upset him a tad, methinks. If your child is a bit more intrepid, then the most Petit Vampire will do is create an opportunity for conversation. That, in and of itself, is a big win.
Available on digital September 21st, 2021.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD from Shout! Factory October 5th, 2021.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.