Five stories of the macabre tend more toward monotony in the strikingly animated but rather wishfully titled “Extraordinary Tales.” Spanish writer-director Raul Garcia has brought considerable care and artistry to bear on this omnibus of the ominous inspired by the writings of Edgar Allan Poe, though not even the use of a different drawing style for each yarn can ward off a creeping sense of inertia; with a few exceptions, this death-obsessed affair never fully sparks to life. Released in Stateside theaters just in time for Halloween, the GKids pickup should appeal to young adults and toon buffs inclined toward non-mainstream animated fare, even if it only intermittently captures a sense of Poe’s telltale art.
A veteran animator who has worked on any number of Disney features (“Aladdin,” “The Lion King,” “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”) and co-directed 2008’s “The Missing Lynx,” Garcia has adapted Poe’s fiction in admirably straightforward fashion, with few concessions to the cute or kid-friendly. One of the better entries, “The Masque of the Red Death,” contains fleeting suggestions of nudity in its richly hued, near-wordless evocation of a world of cloistered debauchery, with Prince Prospero’s one line of dialogue voiced by none other than B-movie kingpin Roger Corman (who famously directed eight acclaimed Poe adaptations in the ’50s and ’60s, including his own 1964 take on “Masque”).
Another beloved horror veteran, the late Christopher Lee, delivers one of his final performances as narrator of the film’s first entry, “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Lee’s basso profundo delivery makes you want to hear him read the story in its entirety, an approach that might well have resulted in something more cumulatively atmospheric than Garcia’s short. While the shadowy interiors of Roderick Usher’s crumbling manse convey an adequate sense of doom and gloom, the overall aesthetic — including the characters’ pallid, grimly chiseled 3D faces — feels too obviously redolent of earlier haunted houses to leave much of a lingering chill.
Things take a more overtly stylized turn with “The Tell-Tale Heart” (a 2005 short making a reappearance here), which adopts a bold, almost “Sin City”-style black-and-white palette — save for a few judicious slashes of red — to animate Poe’s famous story of murder, madness and guilt. The use of Bela Lugosi’s 1940s radio recording of the story, scratches and all, is a nice touch. More effective still is the Julian Sands-narrated “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” designed in a style reminiscent of classic comicbooks; the paneled visuals here do a better job than most of amplifying the horror of the tale, about a man lulled into a grossly unnatural hypnotic state somewhere between life and death.
The fourth short, “The Pit and the Pendulum,” draws on a more realistic computer-generated style to plunge us into the bowels of a prison where an unlucky new arrival finds himself inches from death by swinging blade; the results are engrossing if workmanlike, from the straightforward visuals to the indifferent narration by Mexican horror maestro Guillermo del Toro. By this point in the 73-minute compendium, a sense of diminishing returns has begun to set in; even the more successful entries feel like handsome but redundant illustrations, ably showcasing the creativity of the visual artists at work but doing little to flatter or enhance the material. The shorts may nail the language and mood of much of Poe’s work, but capturing the darkly brooding magic of his storytelling proves a taller order.
The stories are connected yet separated by clunky interstitial passages set in a graveyard, where a lady statue representing Death (voiced by Cornelia Funke) carries on a teasing, probing conversation with a raven (Stephen Hugues) who turns out to be the living representation of Poe’s spirit — a neurotic, self-regarding creature whose obsession with death is matched only by his concern for his legacy as a writer. It’s not a legacy that stands to be significantly burnished or tarnished by “Extraordinary Tales.”