I’m a self-proclaimed disciple of H.P. Lovecraft, I have to say. Ever since my English teacher introduced me to The Strange Case of Charles Dexter Ward when I was around 12, I’ve been a fan. His work is a huge influence on my own writing, even though I’ve never written anything that remotely resembles his work. I also feel somewhat protective of his writing and his concepts, which most notably include the “Cthulhu Mythos”. I tend to feel aggrieved when I see how his most famous creation has become assimilated into mass-produced pop culture – Cthulhu plushies and the like (but I think Lovecraft would have secretly loved all of this) – and the name Cthulhu tossed around by people who have most never read a word of Lovecraft’s work. Even those who have read Lovecraft and create works influenced by him, can barely get past the pastiche-homage of tentacled monsters in dark New England towns. No, to honour Lovecraft is not rip him off, it’s to understand the context of his work and having done that, create new works of your own that don’t slavishly follow a Cthulhu gameplan. This explains why I watched Howard Lovecraft and the Frozen Kingdom.
I discovered this by accident, and I was intrigued for sure. I felt the same kind of interest I remember feeling for David Lynch’s The Straight Story, back in 1999. How could someone take the work of Lovecraft and adapt it into a children’s animated movie? It was just such a bizarre concept that I had to see it – at that point I wasn’t aware that it was an adaptation of the first of three graphic novels, none of which I’ve read as I write this review. The series features a youthful protagonist named Howard Lovecraft, a kind of fairy tale version of HP Lovecraft, as he has adventures in realms inspired by Lovecraft’s work. The three graphic novels are named “Howard Lovecraft &” The Frozen Kingdom; The Undersea Kingdom; The Kingdom of Madness – all three were collected in 2014 under the title Howard Lovecraft & The Three Kingdoms, which I think I’ll buy – but not on the strength of the movie. Howard Lovecraft and the Frozen Kingdom, as an animated feature, just does not work at all.
Howard Lovecraft is around 12 years old, living with mother and grandmother in a spooky looking home in Providence, RI. His father has recently been confined to a mental hospital in Arkham. When Howard and his mother visit him, the insane father alerts Howard to a mission he must undertake in order to save humanity from nether-spawned destruction. Once Howard undertakes the mission, he is transported to the titular Frozen Kingdom where he meets and befriends a Cthulhu like being, an Innsmouth-like family of humanoid squids, and a queen in a far off castle, and learns he needs to retrieve one of three books in order to restore both the kingdom, and prevent the Earth’s doom. On the face of it, this basic plot lends itself well to a children’s animated feature – unfortunately, the entire production falls flat in many obvious ways.
Starting with the visuals, the movie looks horrible. The character design is hugely inconsistent and unappealing. At least to my eyes (caveat: I’m not a particular fan of animated movies) it looks like there were multiple hands involved in the design of the characters, like they all came from other movies, thrown together here. The character modeling and animation is subpar from beginning to end. I was struck while watching it that the lack of detail and complexity in the rendering is like watching something from the early days of TV computer animation. It looks almost insultingly cheap. In terms of story, again, there is almost no attempt made to create anything more complex than the plot I described above. It’s mechanical – this happens, then this happens, then this happens, the end. I’m not talking about non-linear complexity, I’m talking more in terms of character motivation, behavior, humour (it is a children’s movie, after all), a clear throughline, and a satisfying, thrilling climax. The amateur hour visuals and writing put paid to just about every one of these. And if you think criticizing a children’s movie using the same criteria as I would a movie for adults, you just don’t understand movies. Every one of the great Pixar movies has these exact qualities. Just because a movie is made for children, the story isn’t banged out in half an hour.
The movie commits a cardinal sin too – while it’s meant for kids, I’d contend that there’s very little about this movie that will appeal to kids of any age. These days I’d find it hard to believe a kid would sit through an animated movie that looks this simplistic. There’s just nothing to hook the viewer visually, and in terms of character, while Howard Lovecraft might be the best of the bunch, he doesn’t have a lot of appeal, nor is the writing sophisticated enough to make him an audience identification figure. He’s a lonely kid who reads a lot, okay, but he’s given nothing about himself that he has to overcome and change for the better, just a purely one-note creation. The friendship between Howard and “Spot” might have been inspired by The Iron Giant, but it has none of the mutual commitment to friendship and pathos that’s so obviously felt between Hogarth and The Giant. The supporting characters are terribly rendered and written too – the Innsmouth-like family are depressingly bland and the humour is forced through brutally awful writing. Another example of how bad the writing is, about halfway through, the plot takes a break to show a bonding montage between Howard and Spot, which essentially involves them having a snowball fight. It contains two seriously outdated references for the adults (the bullet time of The Matrix, and an homage to spaghetti westerns), but also contains a couple of truly awkward scenes, such as when Spot angrily slams a GIANT snowball on Howard in retribution for being hit by a snowball. In a scene that’s meant to be playful, it comes across as being mean spirited. And talking about awkward, there are two other factors – the Fade To Black edits throughout the movie are super amateur. Almost is if they were done by someone who’s never made a movie before – it’s like watching an old movie that’s been shoddily edited to fit in ads, and very noticeable. And don’t get me started about the bizarre intra-end-credits scene that shows two minor characters from the movie snowboarding. Yeah, that’s all they do. I guess it’s meant to be funny, but it’s beyond unfunny, and so utterly disconnected from anything in the narrative that it’s hard to imagine ANY reason to include it.
Did I like anything? Well yeah, I enjoyed the hard references to Lovecraft’s work in the story, and I kind of liked the revealed villain, and the musical score is good, but that’s literally it. In the end, I’m wondering who the movie was for. It’s a kid movie that few kids would have any interest in, and the stuff the adults will like will only really be appreciated by hardcore fans of Lovecraft like myself, a niche market if there ever was one. The movie makes no attempt to say anything about anything, which is madness these days. Complexity IS something that kids pick up on and appreciate. Complexity and subtext are the seasonings in any plot stew. You might not directly know when they are there, but you certainly feel their absence when they’re not.
Howard Lovecraft and the Frozen Kingdom is an earnest, but doomed, attempt to do something interesting with Lovecraft’s work, but nobody involved in the production seemed able to step up to that challenge. It’s not even a noble failure, just a failure.
© Andrew Hope, 2017