Retro Review: Rankin/Bass Mad Monster Party.
We return to the wonders of Animagic to see if Rankin and Bass’ Halloween offering can rival their Christmas classics.
Jules Bass and Arthur Rankin Jr.’s stop motion specials used to dominate the holidays when I was a kid. Everyone has seen their famous Christmas specials such as Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman. What many folks may have missed is the second string of the Rankin/Bass holiday line-up. Several god-awful Easter specials got made, and Halloween even got a pair of offerings. While Mad Monster Party was not released in October, it ran in heavy syndication around the holiday ever after. The follow up to a traditionally animated special, Mad Mad Mad Monsters, MMP got a theatrical release in 1967 before winding up on TV. It wasn’t well received at the time, only gradually becoming a staple of the holidays. As we’ll see, the initial impression was well deserved.
Mad Monster Party (1967)
Baron Boris Von Frankenstein summons all of the world’s monsters to his secluded island. As he has just completed his masterpiece, a liquid that can destroy matter at the atomic level, he wishes to retire from his role as the leader of the Monster’s Association and pass the torch on to his erstwhile heir, Felix Flankin. Felix is a shy and clumsy boy who grew up never knowing his lineage as a Frankenstein. Boris wants to get him into the family business of mad science, and hopes that the secret of ultimate destruction will help Felix to keep the other monsters in line. He’s going to need the help, because all of the other creatures want the formula and Frankenstein’s job for themselves.
The Animagic Factor.
There’s a quality to Rankin/Bass’ Animagic that is almost the opposite of timeless: it is a technique and style that was born into the late 60’s and early 70’s and essentially vanished with the end of Jules and Arthur’s studio. Like black and white films, or silent films, or even Disney’s hand drawn animation, it’s a cultural artifact that becomes more significant because it is extinct.
Mad Monster Party isn’t the best of the studio’s output, but it’s still unmistakable as a Rankin and Bass artifact. The puppets have a quality like carved Christmas ornaments come to life that is undiminished by the models being ghouls and monsters. The film stock for MMP hasn’t aged well, but the visuals are meticulously crafted and hold up well even 50 years later. The characters are unique and memorable, putting a cute and quaint spin on the famous Universal monsters, and the settings are gorgeously detailed.
One aspect of MMP that doesn’t benefit from age is the deluge of cultural references. Mad Monster Party is very much the product of its time…but in the 60’s the time’s were a changin’. This leads to a weird hybrid where the film is trying to talk to two generations in turns, making for a very choppy experience.
One part of MMP wants very much to be the zany monster mash that was popularized by contemporary TV shows like The Addams Family, The Munsters, and Scooby Doo. There are even references to TV’s Batman, and the opening credits include the visual sound effects made famous by Adam West’s caped crusader. Like those shows, Mad Monster Party wanted to be hip and fun; there are rock and roll segments, girls in mod fashion, and references to 60’s pop culture. This would probably have been too hip for parents used to the Burl Ives wholesomeness of the other Rankin/Bass holiday shows.
The other half of MMP is more akin to It’s a Wonderful Life than The Munsters. Alan Swift, who voices nearly every character, even does Felix’s voice as a version of Jimmy Stewart. Other impersonations include Peter Lorre, Charles Laughton and Sydney Greenstreet – all actors who were most famous a generation before MMP came out. Kids tuning in to Batman or Scooby Doo were not going to understand these references, and probably dislike the quaint humor they spouted.
Murder Your Darlings.
Another failing of Mad Monster Party comes from lax editing. The movie really overstays its welcome at 95 minutes. It seems that Jules Bass was padding out the run time in order to get to a theatrical release. So much of the content is repetition that it kills the pace and wears on the nerves. We get “humorous” introductions to the monsters no less than three times. One gag about the monsters having to share rooms and becoming irritated by their roomate’s sleeping habits is repeated three or four times. Many of the songs seem out of place and added just to fill time. Somebody explains their plan, only to then sing their plan. Pick one and move on! If they’d edited out the dross, this could have been a solid 50 minute TV special.
Leave the Party Early.
My overall impression of Mad Monster Party is that it has good points, but too many flaws to really earn that classic label that so many other Rankin and Bass Animagic films receive. Stretching a TV special out to a movie was murder, especially since the last half hour was so much better than the rest of the film. They could have cut nearly all of the first hour and just gone with a tight comedy about the monsters trying to kill poor bumbling Felix. The mish-mashed tone also drags down the film, showing that there really was no singular vision to it.
As a cultural artifact, I do really appreciate Mad Monster Party. The stop-motion is good, the character models are superb, and the sets are probably the finest created by Rankin and Bass. Frankenstein’s castle is detailed and ornate, and each room feels like a classic movie set. Even the ship Felix travels on and the soda shop he works at have depth and character. The voice work is solid, especially with Boris Karloff lending his unforgettable voice to Dr. Frankenstein. The musical numbers are hit or miss, but the introductory song is fantastic. I even love the special effects. When Boris blows up a raven to test his potion, it’s like a moment out of Doctor Strangelove.
At the end of the day, MMP is worth a view if you’ve never seen it, or if you’re a giant fan of Rankin and Bass. Otherwise, one viewing is plenty, and Mad Monster Party won’t make your list of fantastic Halloween specials. Maybe if they’d added Tim Curry…