“Daddy, are monsters real?” a little girl wants to know in “Zombillenium,” a gloriously stylized, bizarrely didactic animated feature in which vampires, witches, zombies, etc. really do exist, but manage to go undetected by working at a horror-themed amusement park. Adapted from a hit graphic novel by French cartoonist Arthur de Pins and co-director Alexis Ducord, “Zombillenium” boasts a rock-solid concept and some of the most appealing character design in recent memory, but doesn’t quite know where to go with it. What might have been a worldwide, “Scooby-Doo”-esque phenom with young audiences winds up feeling a little too French.
How so? For some reason, rather than taking the time to lovingly establish the world (à la Sony’s hit “Hotel Transylvania”) or to riff on monster-human relations (like Pixar’s “Monsters Inc.”), de Pins and Ducord decide to get political, focusing the plot on the class struggles between the different castes of monsters. And they don’t stop at “all monsters are created equal” marches either. No, “Zombillenium” is designed to indoctrinate young French audiences into the idea that all those overworked zombies ought to unionize and go on strike.
It’s not so much that one can’t make a cartoon about a Marxist monster revolution. It’s just that it might have been smarter to save that particular storyline for some future sequel, once the “Zombillenium” franchise has firmly established its footing. That said, French audiences already got a head start: Not only do readers of Spirou magazine (where de Pins comics version was serialized) already know the characters, but the 2013 music video for French neo-Goth electro-punk band Skip the Use’s “Nameless World” doubled as proof-of-concept and prologue for the feature.
Still, it seems like a mistake not to let audiences get the hang of how Zombillenium works — teens swoon at the sexy, “Twilight”-style vampires, while the other monsters do their best to scare the guests, haunted house style — before switching gears to a power struggle where capitalist vampires are trying to banish the exploited “working dead” from the theme park that bears their name. Apparently, business has been slipping at Zombillenium, and blood-sucking CEO Francis Von Bloodt is desperate to save it.
Not realizing the park’s big secret (that the employees aren’t merely dressed as monsters, but are actually the real thing, souls earning temporary reprieve from eternal damnation as long as they stick to their dead-end park jobs), human safety inspector Hector shows up for a behind-the-scenes tour. Though his daughter Lucie is dying for a visit, Hector is determined to shut it down — so Francis kills him, which means his soul is now stuck working at the very park he’d tried to audit.
Such punishment seems a little harsh for a bureaucrat, but no one in town seems to mind. He “had it coming,” one of Lucie’s classmates tell her, since Hector “put people out of work” — although you’d still think that deaths/disappearances at the park might be cause for alarm (and possibly even the basis for a more interesting plot, since Skip the Use similarly wound up enslaved to permanent park duty as well).
It takes Hector a loooong time to figure out not only that he’s dead, but what kind of monster he is. The confusion is understandable, since he’s ghettoized among the zombies, but has reddish skin, demon horns and wings — which technically makes him closer to the Devil, who runs the place. His appearance potentially makes him a good match for the Devil’s daughter, a broom-surfing, spell-casting hipster witch named Gretchen, who used to date top vampire (and pretty-boy villain) Steven, but could be just the ally the zombies need for their uprising.
All this talk of workers’ rights could make “Zombillenium” feel a bit too much like a civics lesson for American audiences, but don’t underestimate the otherwise powerful allure of the world de Pins and Ducord have created here: It’s not just that all your favorite kinds of monsters are here, but each has a fresh new look to suit the film’s lanky, long-limbed aesthetic.
With her bulbous nose and colorful tattoo “sleeves,” Gretchen looks less like a witch than the cool Goth chick who skips classes in high school — she’s the kind of gal you want to hang out with. Meanwhile, “Twilight” fans who identified as Team Jacob should get a kick out of Steven, an angular caricature of sparkly-skinned Edward Cullen, even if the thug-like werewolves resemble mafia henchmen more than teen heartthrobs. (All the character animation was modeled in 3D, then stripped of its shadows to better match the strong signature look of de Pins’ comics.)
And yet, the ensemble’s appeal isn’t strictly limited to the way their appearance, but extends to how they move/behave as well, from slouchy mummy Aton to Michael Jackson impersonator Sirius, with his knock-off “Thriller” moves (played by Skip the Use lead singer Mat Bastard, who supplies a handful of high-energy tunes). Considering how much fun these characters are to be around, it’s easy to excuse the storytelling clumsiness, especially since the filmmakers were learning on the job. With any luck, “Zombillenium” will be successful enough to keep the park in business, leaving room to upgrade its attractions in future installments.