[Screen It]

(2000) (Jonathan Lipnicki, Richard E. Grant) (PG)

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Drama/Comedy: A young American boy tries to help his new Scottish vampire friend and his family retrieve an amulet that will make them human once again.
Tony Thompson (JONATHAN LIPNICKI) is a nine-year-old who's moved with his mom, Dottie (PAMELA GIDLEY), and dad, Bob (TOMMY HINKLEY) from San Diego to Scotland where the latter is designing a golf course and convention center for Lord McAshton (JOHN WOOD).

Tony isn't happy because he doesn't have any friends, and his parents are worried about the many nightmares he's been having that are always about vampires. To make matters worse, nobody believes his stories about such creatures and even McAshton's two grandsons pick on Tony in school.

Things change when Tony meets Rudolph (ROLLO WEEKS), a young vampire who mistakes Tony for one of his own when flying by one night. Weak from a lack of plasmatic nourishment and initially unhappy to have met a human, Rudolph realizes he shares a kindred spirit with Tony and is happy when he finds him a cow to satiate his appetite.

It turns out that Rudolph, along with his aristocratic parents, Frederick (RICHARD E. GRANT) and Freda (ALICE KRIGE), sister Anna (ANNA POPPLEWELL) and rebellious older brother Gregory (DEAN COOK), don't want to attack humans, but instead want to become them. Unfortunately, for the past three hundred years they've been searching for a missing amulet stone that, when used upon the rare alignment of the moon and a certain passing comet, will turn them back into mortals.

Worse yet, Rookery (JIM CARTER), a persistent vampire hunter, is hot on their trail, determined to kill them the old fashioned way - with stakes - or via the missing stone that, when used in another amulet, will send them straight to Hell. From that point on, Tony tries to do what he can to help Rudolph and his vampire family while they all try to avoid Rookery and the light of day.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
It isn't easy being a child performer. Although such young thespians get a lot of attention, the best working hours (due to child labor laws) and are the envy of kids worldwide, Hollywood has a nasty tendency of chewing them up and spitting them out. Like puppies and kittens, kid performers are often cute and adorable and thrive off their looks. Yet, as they age, they often begin to wear out their welcome, as that cuteness doesn't always transfer that well into adolescence or young adulthood.

As such, for every Ron Howard and Jodie Foster who managed to survive and thrive in the industry as teens and then adults, there are hundreds and thousands who don't. Among the current crop, only Haley Joel Osment seems to have a fighting chance, and it's not certain whether this is just a childhood hobby or something he wants to continue pursuing.

It's still too early to say what will happen with Jonathan Lipnicki. The pint-sized, cute as a button performer stole nearly every scene in which he appeared in "Jerry Maguire" and has since gone to parlay that cuteness into the lead human role in "Stuart Little." Fortunately, he and his cuteness haven't become too irksome, but his performances - when viewed from a thespian standpoint - haven't inspired a tremendous amount of faith in his acting range or his long term viability in the industry should he decide to continue in it.

His appearance in this week's release of "The Little Vampire" not only proves that he won't be competing against Osment for any serious or high profile roles (notwithstanding their slight difference in age), but also that he probably shouldn't give up his "day job" of going to school and getting an education. It's not that he's horrible in the role, and he does adequately deliver what's expected of him. Nevertheless, his reliance on gimmicky cuteness does begin to wear a bit thin here.

Based on the best-selling "The Little Vampire" novels by Angela Sommer-Bodenburg, this big screen adaptation is obviously aimed at young kids and Lipnicki will certainly serve as a focal point for that target audience. The thought of a kid-based film having vampires as key characters, however, might seem to be something of an oxymoron. After all, the bloodsuckers usually aren't associated with family fair and the last portrayal of a child vampire (Kirsten Dunst in "Interview With The Vampire") was clearly nightmare inducing material.

Fortunately, director Uli Edel ("Body of Evidence," "Last Exit to Brooklyn") and screenwriters Karey Kirkpatrick ("Chicken Run," "James and the Giant Peach") and Larry Wilson ("The Addams Family," "Beetlejuice") have made sure to tone down the "horror" to more kid-friendly levels, although parents should note that some of it might still freak out little kids.

That said, whereas vampires are usually portrayed in most films as solitary monsters, here they're a family that doesn't attack humans - they drink cow blood which leads to some later, funny moments that will remind viewers of the "flying" cow scenes in "Twister" - and instead want to become human once again. The villain, on the other hand, is a persistent human vampire hunter who's determined to send them straight to H-E-Double Hockey sticks.

That setup naturally lends itself to some subsequent child-based action and adventure, the highlight for kids obviously being the scenes where Lipnicki and his vampire pal fly around the night sky like Superman and Lois Lane. That, coupled with various bits of humor aimed at both kids and adults, leads to a cute, but not fabulous end product.

What's missing is a stronger script (things get uneven in the second half and unfold in the equivalent of how a kid would make up a story on the fly) as well as a greater sense of overall fun. While there are those flying scenes and a few moments of child retribution against some classroom bullies, the film - and the audience's enjoyment of it - would have benefited from more such material, particularly considering the somewhat macabre scenario and related potential.

For instance, I kept waiting for Tony to cut his finger or scrape his knee and imagining the vampire family trying to resist the temptation, or having his mother - or the vampires, for that matter - employed at the local blood bank, etc. What's present is okay, but the filmmakers don't seem to have mined the subject matter as thoroughly as possible.

Like many films targeted at kids, the characters and performances of those who embody them don't extend far beyond what's simply required to entertain and otherwise tune in kids into the basic story. Beyond Lipnicki, who's moderately entertaining through sheer cuteness and youthful exuberance rather than any substantive skill, Rollo Weeks (making his feature debut) is okay as a true "lost boy," while Richard E. Grant ("Spice World," "The Portrait of a Lady") and Alice Krige ("Star Trek: First Contact," various TV movies/shows) are fun as his vampire parents.

Those playing Lipnicki's parents - namely Pamela Gidley ("Permanent Record," "S.F.W.") and Tommy Hinkley ("The Cable Guy," "Lethal Weapon 2") - on the other hand, don't come across as much more than pleasant parental stereotypes. That leaves Jim Carter ("Shakespeare in Love," "Brassed Off") to steal the film, and he does a fine job in the role of the persistent vampire hunter.

Overall, the film is cute and entertaining enough for both kids and their parents or adult chaperones, but will probably leave most viewers' memories faster than blood from one's neck at a vampire convention. Passable, but certainly no classic, "The Little Vampire" rates a 6 out of 10.

Reviewed October 21, 2000 / Posted October 27, 2000

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