The Austin Chronicle

The Little Vampire

Rated PG, 97 min. Directed by Uli Edel. Starring Jonathan Lipnicki, Richard E. Grant, Jim Carter, Alice Krige, Rollo Weeks, John Wood, Pamela Gidley, Tommy Hinkley, Anna Popplewell, Dean Cook.

REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Oct. 27, 2000

Adults may have a hard time swallowing this toothless tale of PG-rated bloodsuckers, but kids may relate better to its lessons about the ostracization of strangers and the value of friendship. Based on The Little Vampire series of children's books by German author Angela Sommer-Bodenburg, which have been translated into over 20 languages and sold over 12 million copies worldwide, the movie presents a kinder, gentler, and less aggressive sort of vampire. Maligned and misunderstood, the vampires in this story "don't want to eat humans. They want to become human." In the meantime, they sustain themselves by sucking on the milk of Scottish cows. Lipnicki (Jerry Maguire, Stuart Little) plays Tony Thompson, an American kid who moves with his parents (Gidley and Hinkley) to a small town in the Scottish Highlands, where his father oversees the building of a golf course for the stuffy Lord Ashton (Wood). Bullied at school by the local kids, Tony retreats into his persistent dreams and fantasies about vampires, which make his classmates tease him all the more. One night, a large bat flies through Tony's open bedroom window, Peter Pan-style, and instantly turns into a young boy named Rudolph (Weeks). Oddly dressed in feathery Elizabethan garb, Rudolph is a sweet, young vampire who teaches Tony about the sad plight of his clan. In exchange, Tony teaches Rudolph about Nintendo and modern slang. The story is more muddled than is generally common in children's films (unless we're talking about truly impenetrable things like the Poké- or Digimons). The script by screenwriters Larry Wilson (Beetlejuice, The Addams Family) and Karey Kirkpatrick (Chicken Run, James and the Giant Peach) shows few signs of the genially macabre humor they brought to these previous projects. A subplot about a menacing vampire hunter (Carter) with a ramshackle search vehicle and two fluorescent tubes tied together in the shape of a crucifix adds more confusion than clarity to the proceedings. Uli Edel seems a curious choice to helm this kid-focused project, having directed such dark adult fare as Christiane F., Last Exit to Brooklyn, and Madonna's Body of Evidence. The German-born director never manages to find a cohesive tone for the story's disparate strands of pre-teen humor and adult in-jokes. It's as if the filmmakers were trying to create a tongue-in-cheek sense of the macabre along the lines of The Addams Family films, but instead wound up with a grade-school Halloween pageant -- albeit with good costumes and special effects. One particularly eye-catching effect featuring flying cows is badly underutilized -- although the consequent aftermath of flying cow dung is sure to satisfy the film's preteen scatological requirements. Despite his undeniably cute face, Lipnicki's dramatic talents are insufficient for the task of carrying a whole movie. Especially when surrounded by a number of other capable child actors, Lipnicki's lack of subtlety makes his performance seem all the more canned and unbelievable. Most of the film's other roles are underwritten, but a few of the actors (Grant and Carter, in particular) still manage to sink some teeth into their characters. But, on the whole, this production serves up its vampires fully defanged. (The Little Vampire premiered in Austin at the Austin Film Festival.)

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