Very loosely based on the short story by Oscar Wilde of the same name, Kim Burdon and Robert Chandler’s The Canterville Ghost is a slight adaptation of what was a simultaneously a satire on American modernity and British cultural mores with a message of forgiveness. After working as a producer on 2022’s The Amazing Maurice, Chandler’s next project was an official selection of the 2023 Annecy Animation Film Festival.
It is the 1930s and Lord Munroe (Bill Lobley), owner of English country home Canterville Chase, is spooked out of his estate by resident ghost Sir Simon De Canterville (Stephen Fry). The estate is quickly sold and bought in total by Hiram Otis (David Harewood). Hiram is a wealthy businessman from Boston who brings with him wife Lucretia (Meera Syal), two twin young sons, and teenage daughter Virginia (Emily Carey). According to superstition the house has been haunted for three hundred years. Housekeeper Mrs Umney (Imelda Staunton) informs the American family that it is more than a superstition. The family seem completely unfazed by the revelation.
Most of the story follows in the perspective of Virginia, a discontented teen who misses her hometown. One night she discovers a book that contains the history of Canterville and finds herself in a conversation with Sir Simon himself. He believes he can have the family running from the property within two weeks. However, he soon finds his undertaking impossible when the family see him as neither terrifying, nor threatening. If anything, Sir Simon is more easily scared by the family than the family are of him. Therein lies the main joke of the film, one repeated ad-nauseam.
When Virginia stumbles upon a locket in a lake nearby containing an image of Sir Simon and his wife, Mrs Umney informs the family he drowned his wife in the lake, unveiling the reason why he’s forever haunting Canterville. What ensues is a mystery surrounding the estate’s murky history, a prophecy tied to the Grim Reaper (Hugh Laurie), and a budding romance between Virginia and local Duke, Sir Henry Cheshire (Freddie Highmore).
One of the ironies of The Canterville Ghost is that like Sir Simon de Canterville, the film has existed in a sort of purgatory for over a decade. When it was announced in 2012 that “Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie are to work together for the first time in thirteen years.” It was another twelve years before the final product would come to fruition. Thus, it is unsurprising the completely inert and garish animation would arise from a film with such a tortuous backstory. The production delays do not absolve the film of its visual shortcomings. Fry and Laurie being reunited also don’t add much, if anything, to the proceedings. Like The Amazing Maurice the A-list voice cast seems to be primary draw-card to induce audience to watch an unpolished piece of animation. Regrettably, most of the voice-work itself feels overblown; many voices being directed to shout instead of engaging in effective vocal dramaturgy.
The animation style does the film few favours. It becomes apparent as the film progresses that certain textures and backdrops have unfinished rendering, ultimately creating a very unsightly style that immediately takes the viewer out of the action. Its oversaturated colours will be alluring to those under the age of ten, but for the rest, they will twig that the unnaturally brightened hues are a mask for what are some very ugly and unappealing animation. The film’s greatest artistic strength is when it attempts some diorama and papercut out montages, which create a welcome distraction from the faux-whimsical surrounds.
The film attempts to create a dichotomy between the rising innovation of American industry and the class-based traditionalist attitudes of early 20th century Britain to little effect. Mr Otis at one point holds a banquet to show off the new electrical fixtures he’s had installed in Canterville, but Sir Simon crashes the party, pops every light bulb, and sets the house ablaze. Within a couple minutes though, he quickly regrets his actions, puts out the fire, and apologises to Virginia – not the clash of cultures Wilde would satirise with wit and aplomb.
Characters such as Sir Henry Cheshire are relegated uninspired characterisation as the dashing young heartthrob. Declaring to Virginia that Britain can be “stuffy at times,” and reminding her that “grand English families like to hold a grudge.” He exists purely as a British foil for Virginia’s American sympathies to acclimate. The script also never allows Virginia herself to evolve beyond a disgruntled teenager with a dash of curiosity. The less said about Miranda Hart’s ‘Ghost Hunter’ Algernean Van Finchley – the better for all involved.
Younger audiences might find enjoyment out of the film’s quick spirited pace and gothic mystery; but they are far more deserving of a tale told with much better visual and narrative consistency. An overstuffed climax provides no foundation to manage the film’s moving parts, particularly without a better-defined antagonist. It attempts to teach children that love, redemption, and change are all a natural part of life. However, the point of Wilde’s ghost story comedy is to also make people laugh – something Burdon and Chandler’s animation rarely manages to achieve.
One can imagine Oscar Wilde sitting in his death bed proclaiming, “Either this animation goes, or I do.”
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