This is the first film adaptation of the popular German children’s book series by the same name, written by Angela Sommer-Bodenburg. Previously, the franchise had been used for two TV-shows: The Little Vampire (1986) and Der Kleine Vampir – Neue Abenteuer (1993).
While those shows each adapted two specific novels from the series, this 2000 live action film is only loosely based on the book franchise. Hence it is very flexible in its approach to the source material. While the basic idea of a friendship between a young boy and a young vampire stays the same (as well as the general character constellation), the names and location have been altered and a new plot has been written for this film.
In this film version, Anton is called “Tony”. He is an American boy who moves with his parents to Scotland, where his dad has found work supervising a golf course development. By this simple change, the writers can produce a protagonist who is the “new kid at school” and an outsider in his immediate environment, language barriers included. He is bullied by his schoolmates as well as his teacher. That makes the franchise’s scenario easy to sell: that Tony would strike up a friendship with another “outsider”, the vampire boy (called Rudolph here, instead of Rüdiger). Another benefit of the changes: you have the whole Gothic potential of Scotland at your disposal, castles and ruins included.
Unlike in the TV shows, Tony has not had a life-long fascination with vampires even before meeting them. Instead, his obsession with vampires in the film stems from nightmares he began suffering from when moving to Scotland. His general attitude towards vampires is initially one of fear and not one of fandom.
The incident through which Tony and Rudolph meet is convincing, but not the type and speed of the way in which their first meeting immediately develops into them being BFFs. The script does away with all the complexity (and downsides) of Rüdiger’s (Rudolph’s) character (as seen in the TV shows) and the challenges this friendship entails for Tony. Equally, the difficulties Tony gets into with his parents – and, vice versa, the challenges of parenting a boy who seems to constantly fantasise about vampires – get pretty much sidelined; while they were arguably the most important elements of the two TV shows. It is evident that, faced with the running time limitations of a feature film, the filmmakers wanted to get to the “actual” plot as quickly as possibly, therefore fast-tracking the friendship between Tony and Rudolph. There is, therefore, a certain lack of depth and complexity in the portrayal of their relationship; but seeing as this is “only” a kids film, the idea of getting to the main action as quickly as possible is probably not a bad idea, as children might get bored otherwise.
The actual plot involves Rudolph’s immediate family as well as a wider network of vampires (who play no role in the story) – and a determined vampire hunter. The hunter character is taken from the novels. And like in the TV shows, vampire hunting is a family tradition that has been handed down from one generation to the next over the course of several centuries. The only change is that, for the film, the hunter has been renamed Rookery for no good reason. Likewise, Rudolph’s/Rüdiger’s family has been renamed as is now bearing the Hobbiton-inspired name of Sackville-Bagg. While Rudolph’s sister Anna has kept her name, his older brother’s (or “cousin’s”, the two TV shows differ in the exact nature of the family relationships) name has been changed from Lumpi to Gregory.
The film boasts a pretty impressive British cast. Veteran character actor Jim Carter (Dowton Abbey) plays the vampire hunter Rookery (and, in a flashback, also one of Rookery’s ancestors). The role of Lord McAshton, the employer of Tony’s father, went to John Wood. And Alice Krige and Richard E. Grant make for a great on-screen couple as Rudolph’s parents.
I am far less familiar with the film’s American actors. But Pamela Gidley – who sadly passed away recently – and Tommy Hinkley do a fine job playing Tony’s parents. Their roles are somewhat constricted in their potential, I feel, by not nearly exploring enough the culture-clash and fish-out-of-water scenario of two Americans in Scotland. It is hinted at in one or two scenes, but never usefully employed for comedic effect, possibly because the filmmakers felt that this was not something that would interest children.
As we never get invested enough in these two characters, their involvement in the film’s finale feels strange and somewhat unwarranted.
The child members of the cast are a bit of a mixed bag. Anna Popplewell is very good as Anna, but she is barely in this film. Anna’s love for Tony, a recurring element in the franchise, is mentioned but completely unwarranted as they barely know each other. Dean Cook is doing a fine job as Gregory, but he too gets very little screen-time. These two characters’ casting represents a departure from the TV-shows, as Anna is blonde in this film while Gregory is significantly younger than Lumpi was on the shows.
Tony and Rudolph, on the other hand, are much closer in physical appearance to the shows. Rollo Weeks is giving a very good performance as Rudolph. But as I said, his character is written as a very harmless, tame, well-behaved young boy, completely different from Rüdiger on the shows. The one weak spot in the cast is Jonathan Lipnicki as Tony. Although he must have been nine years old at the time of shooting, his face and facial expressions, as well as his waddling way of walking make him appear much younger. It doesn’t help that he has to play opposite Weeks who is three years his senior. Lipnicki’s acting is weak in some scenes, but in general his acting is not all that bad. The problem with his casting stems more from the fact that he is somehow unable to carry the film as a lead. As you watch him waddle his way through his scenes, you never once care about his character – which is of course also a writing problem.
Talking of which: The writing is not bad in and of itself. The script was written by Karey Kirkpatrick, who knows a thing or two about writing children’s films, and by executive producer Larry Wilson, who has some experience in writing “entertaining Gothic”, such as The Addams Family (1991) and Beetlejuice, as well as several Tales from the Crypt episodes.
The plot for this film version of The Little Vampire is a standard children’s adventure tale with a MacGuffin, an unforgiving deadline, and a nasty antagonist. With a few exceptions (such as one or two too many side-plots), there is nothing wrong with the script. The film’s problems seem to lie more in the execution, headed by German director Uli Edel, though they are hard to pinpoint. The plot seems to move at different speeds at times, and there are minor plot holes or logical jumps. But the main problem is that the wealth of material barely seems to fit into this film, and that the filmmakers’ response was to cram it in and rush the action. It is mostly the film’s experienced editor, Peter R. Adam, who is bearing the brunt of this approach – in spite of his generally competent editing, the film never appears smooth and whole.
The film’s looks are also weird. On the one hand, the production employed a production designer, an art director and a set decorator who are all very experienced in their fields: Joseph C. Nemec III, Nick Palmer, and Jille Azis. And the costume were provided by three-time Oscar winner James Acheson. And despite the obvious efforts, the film does not look good. The sound stage always looks like a sound stage, and the set design and the costumes are very reminiscent of the intentionally-unreal-looking, lavish fantasy productions of the 1980s, like Legend, or The NeverEnding Story. That particular style comes 15 years too late, and it seems an ill fit for the vampire genre.
Mediocre bluescreen-rendering and mediocre CGI add to the weird, disappointing looks. One obvious example are the film’s infamous “vampire cows”, which are a pretty silly idea which is then poorly executed. At this moment the film almost sinks to Vampire Dog levels of inanity.
The one stylistic element that works for me (apart from the castle and graveyard) is the vampire hunter’s varied equipment, which has a certain steam-punk vibe and seems fitting for a children’s film. The camera work is also rather decent, with DP Bernd Heinl even managing to create a few very nice and spooky shots.
Since the story itself is pretty decent and all the story-elements work – even if much of the film itself disappoints – I am willing to rate this film at 5.0 to 5.5 out of 10. As far as kid’s films go, it is better than Vampire Dog, but not by all that much.