Howard Lovecraft and the Frozen Kingdom is an intriguing foray into the Lovecraft mythos. The film is based on a graphic novel series by Bruce Brown, with art by Renzo Podesta, and published by Arcana Comics, the brainchild of Sean Patrick O’Reilly, which he started back in 2004. The Canadian company only kicked off its animation studio in 2010, with the movie Clockwork Girl.
The Plot & Characters:
As the story begins we see a young H.P. Lovecraft grappling with the insanity of his father, who has been institutionalized. Winfield sets young Howard on a quest to right his wrongs, which in this case involves the opening of a gate to the land of R’lyeh. After his mother gives him the book, Howard finds himself lost and alone in a frozen kingdom, where his objective immediately becomes getting back home again. Along the way, Howard befriends a strange, monstrous creature that becomes as much of a pet as a friend, and is then taken in by the deformed followers of Father Dagon. The movie, despite the dark setting, is more of a coming of age story than an epic quest. Howard, a lonely boy with no friends in his world, discovers identity and purpose as he claims his heritage. There are complicated relationships and emotional struggles, beneath the sometimes comical and oddly-proportioned characters. While the story takes certain liberties, parts of it are based on the real life of the famed writer, yet Lovecraft fans may be challenged, as those liberties lead to an unexpected turn in plot. Howard’s pet/friend, which he names “Spot” as his real name is initially unpronounceable to the young boy, is not who or what he seems. This twist, hardcore Lovecraftians may find to be too much.
I wasn’t a fan of the troll-looking minions, especially the one with the wing-pack glider, as they’re just silly, while the twin squid children are a bit annoying. I assume that all of those characters are played for laughs, to give the kiddos in the audience something to be entertained by. It works…to a degree, but the best humor in the best animated films for kids, is the humor that doesn’t alienate the parents.
Thankfully, it isn’t all that way. The selling point of the film is certainly in the characters’ relationships. Howard and Spot have a very unique and intriguing dynamic that really carries the movie. The entire thing would fall apart without question if not for their chemistry and fun banter. In fact, all of the aforementioned attempts at humor pale in comparison to the couple genuine laughs derived from Spot’s interaction with the boy. Similarly, the heart of the movie comes from Howard’s relationship with his father, Winfield. The story is set in motion by the son’s love for his father and the way he sets out to try to understand why his dad is the way he is. As the story progresses, Howard comes to understand his father in a way that would have been otherwise impossible to do, and at the end of the movie, when Howard tells Winfield that he loves him, you truly believe it, and that line feels earned. So, too, does the promise of the two planned sequels, Undersea Kingdom & Kingdom of Madness, which are based on the other graphic novels in the series.
In terms of voice acting, Dr. West and Winfield Lovecraft (voiced by Christopher Plummer & Tyler Nicol, respectively) were the best of the crop by far. Howard and Spot did their part, Howard’s mom and the main squid girl were fine, but as previously mentioned, many of the side characters had weird or annoying voices (which is why they didn’t always work), and the always exceptional Jane Curtin felt wasted in her role as the quasi-villainous Algid Bunk. While the script does not always translate from novel to movie screen as well as it could, the overall dialogue hints at and pulls you deeper into the Lovecraft mythos.
It should be noted here that animation is an expensive process, and Arcana Studio is still a fledgling company in terms of its animated movie experience. Do not go into this movie expecting the latest Dreamworks blockbuster. The art style is a charming blend of cute and creepy, channeling a Frankenweenie or Corpse Bride thing that really works for the movie, but the animation is a little clunky at times, some of the characters’ movements are a little too loose. While the art does enough to keep the mood appropriately dark, the background often feels tacked on, not as detailed as they should have been, and the town especially felt bland, as if it were taken out of the rendering oven a little too early. The artwork for the graphic novels, however, is on-point, and I would say in comparison with the movie, the novels win out. All that being said, the art creates an appropriate mood.
The main challenge for me here is the target audience. The graphic novels were dark and quirky, playfully challenging the presuppositions of a typical Lovecraftian horror. The artwork was dark, but without diverging into the grotesque. The audience for the novels could be middle school through adult, depending upon the sensitivity of the parents.
Yet the movie is a little harder to place. The animation is too juvenile for most adults, while the content is a little too dark for kids. Or maybe not? I guess most kids wouldn’t be fazed by it these days, but I feel like the movie falls in-between audience age brackets and may struggle a little with identity.
That being said, I have to give credit to any company entering the challenging market of animated movies. The standard has been set so high by the big dogs, that independent studios will have a hard time coming close to it. Overall, the film was entertaining and certainly showed enough promise that I’m excited to see what else Arcana comes out with. This is one studio that’s worth watching, as the evolution of quality that is prevalent in their graphic novel releases will undoubtedly translate to their video efforts, as well.
In case you missed it, we sat down with Arcana’s founder for a riveting interview.
[Guest post by M. Nutton]