"The Little Vampire," a sitcom-ish effort from German director Uli Edel ("Body of Evidence," "Last Exit to Brooklyn"), is a mildly entertaining, kid-oriented movie built on an easily grasped premise: What happens when smart American kid Tony Thompson (Jonathan Lipnicki, the talented tyke from "Jerry Maguire" and "Stuart Little") comes face-to-face with the Old World's special brand of bloodsucking freaks?
Tony and his parents (Tommy Hinkley and Pamela Gidley) have temporarily relocated from San Diego to Scotland, where Dad is developing a golf course for pompous, stick-in-the-mud Lord McAshton (John Wood). Tony's new life is characterized by ongoing strife with a couple of school bullies. Just when he's sure things can't get any worse, he makes a new friend. It's Rudolph (Rollo Weeks), a junior vampire who looks like a pint-sized cross between a Goth kid and a Eurotrash dance-club devotee. On a bad hair day, that is.
Pardon the bad pun, but Rollo has even more reason than Tony to believe that life sucks. For the last 300 years, his now-faded, aristocratic family -- completed by father Frederick (Richard E. Grant), mother Freda (Alice Krige) and fang-baring siblings Gregory (Dean Cook) and Anna (Anna Popplewell) -- has been in hiding, waiting for the reoccurrence of a particular celestial event and hoping to retrieve a long-lost amulet that will allow them to be transformed into humans.
Along with a handful of other neck biters, the clan has survived by retreating to dank underground lairs, mostly foregoing human blood to prey on unfortunate cows. Their wits have enabled them to escape the clutches of fierce vampire hunter Rookery (Jim Carter), the latest in a long line of adversaries. This spiritual kin of Dr. Van Helsing uses every gadget at his disposal to pursue the undead -- mostly to no avail.
Despite their fashion differences, Tony and Rudolph become fast friends. Tony promises to help the vampires with their quest, and Rudolph takes the human along for some night flying (shades of 1978's "Superman"), including an impressively photographed trip to the top of a hot-air balloon.
"It's great to be a vampire," Tony proclaims. "Membership does have its privileges," Rudolph responds, demonstrating the limited ambitions of the mediocre script.
Lipnicki, the very definition of movie cuteness, is a magnetic performer who tends to grab the center of attention during every scene in which he appears (here, practically every one). And it's a lot of fun to watch Grant and Krige interact with one another and with their brood. They're like the couples on TV's "The Munsters" or "The Addams Family," but with heaps more style. In comparison, Tony's cheery, apple-pie parents are hopelessly boring.
Worse, "The Little Vampire" suffers from a somewhat scattershot plot and a markedly uneven tone that may render it too frightening for the pre-kindergarten set yet too bland for older audiences. Too bad Edel didn't make more of the movie's most inspired touch: after they're bitten, the aforementioned cows sport glowing eyes and indulge a newfound penchant for flying around at night and hanging upside-down from rafters. Maybe they'll get their own movie some day.