Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Toon-arama: Hotel Transylvania (2012)

by tryanmax

What is Halloween without some candy? That’s exactly what Hotel Transylvania is, a big gob of gooey, tasty sweetness in a holiday wrapper. Definitely for the kids, but the grown-ups can enjoy it too.

Just as kids have been enjoying the same treats for generations, there’s not much new to find here. The story is very familiar. Dracula (Adam Sandler) is the overprotective father of a slightly rebellious teenager, Mavis (Selena Gomez), trying to keep her away from the threat of humans in the hotel he built as sanctuary for monsters. But everything goes awry when a backpacker, Jonathan (Andy Samberg) stumbles upon the hotel. The presence of a human in the hotel would threaten the hotel’s integrity, but Jonathan proves annoyingly difficult to get rid of. Worse, while in disguise, he ingrates himself to the other monsters, who find him loads more fun than the stodgy Count. And, of course, he and Mavis become emotionally involved. It’s hardly a spoiler to tell you that everyone will ultimately put aside their prejudices and the star-crossed lovers will have a happy ending.
None of that means that the film is boring, however. The first thing the film does is get you emotionally involved with Dracula and Mavis’ backstory, a saccharine daddy-daughter montage with goofy monster mix-ins that make the leads immediately sympathetic. It’s a cheap storytelling trick, but it’s effective.

The joke-o-matic is set on high for this film. As soon as the title card is taken away, the viewer is assaulted with a flurry of monster gags that never lets up for the rest of the film. Yeah, a lot of them are old, a lot of them are predictable, but this film is all about seeing what’s coming and enjoying the anticipation. Laughing while rolling one’s eyes is probably not a safe combination, but I did it more times than I could count.
Helping deliver the laughs are a cavalcade of familiars putting their own spin on classic monsters. Kevin James and Fran Drescher as Frankenstein and his bride, Steve Buscemi and Molly Shannon as the harried parents of a large litter of werewolf pups, David Spade as the Invisible Man, CeeLo Green as the Mummy, Jon Lovitz as Quasimodo, and Chris Parnell as The Fly, along with cameos by members of the Sandler clan, Jackie and Sadie, and co-exec, Robert Smigel. The ranks of extras are filled by clumsy zombies, mouthy shrunken heads, prudish skeletons, ghostly flying tables (seriously), and a host of lesser movie monsters. The name of the game is “Oh, there’s the _________!”
Visually, the animation is not as impressive as the stuff heavyweight PIXAR puts out, but Sony Animation has cultivated a unique style. Their characters are far more cartoony than the typical CGI production, which adds loads to the visual appeal. I wish some of that look would carry over to the sets to fill out the Sony look, but backgrounds are often given short shrift. Technical efforts appear to have gone into the vampire-bat transformations, which a quick, smooth, and frequent. The bat flight sequences are also very well executed and prominently featured.
Hotel Transylvania is pop-cinema, to be sure. The expectation bar is low and satisfaction is received when it is cleared, but I would have to say this film came over with a couple inches to spare. It helps that the film is so self-aware of this fact. The characters know they are tropes, and even the suggestion of a deeper social message is dispensed with by pulling out obvious lines like “That’s racist” and “Excuse me? ‘His kind’?” My only complaint is that the big music number/rap-off at the end firmly locks the film into the present, but this film probably isn’t destined for classic status anyway. If the little monsters in your house are looking for some family-friendly monster fare this Halloween, this is a good pick.


AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, Thanks for the review!

I watched this in anticipation of your review and I agree that the characters are nicely drawn (cartoony), but the sets aren't as creative.

I personally, didn't enjoy the film and the reason was that I couldn't connect to the characters. I'm not sure why, but it all felt very much like they were going through the motions and I never had the sense that anything unexpected would happen.

tryanmax said...

Fair enough. What made it enjoyable for me was the very thing that turned you off. The film telegraphed everything so much that it seemed to telegraph that it was telegraphing, so I took enjoyment from watching everything fall into place.

AndrewPrice said...

LOL! Now my head is spinning.

I see your point, it's like comfort food.

But that doesn't work for me. I have a hard time with films that give you exactly what is expected. In fact, to go back to your prior excellent review of Wreck-It Ralph, what made me really like that film was that it was impossible to predict where Ralph would go next, how he would act, or what he would encounter. Not knowing the first time through makes me curious and keeps me watching. Then enjoying the clever twists keeps me watching on repeat showings. When a film does exactly what is expected, I really struggle to pay attention because I find the film tedious and I have nothing to look forward to on a repeat showing.

To give you an example, when they are racing after Johnathan in the car and they are blocked by the sheep, and Buscemi gets out. I would hope the film does something unexpected, but instead he did what a werewolf would do. That's the sort of thing that I find disappointing. By comparison, if he had stacked them by the road or something, then I would have laughed a lot.

Individualist said...

When we get to the point that films about the Monsters having to hide from the evil humans is so played out that it is no longer considered ironic but just run of the mill same old same old....

Well that in and of itself is ironic.

Tennessee Jed said...

you are much more in tune with tunes than I, but my initial impression was the opposite regarding Sony animation' visuals. That may be their unique style, but it doesn't seem quite as impressive to me. Of course, I'm an old school Fantasia kind of guy who likes Mickey as the scorceror's apprentice.

tryanmax said...

Indy, I cannot disagree. Everything about this film suggested paint-by-numbers, and that is how I recommend it be viewed. If you're looking for originality, it's not here. But to extend my earlier metaphor, people keep giving kids those nasty peanut butter kisses year in and year out.

tryanmax said...

Jed, I won't defend Sony's characters against the lavish and fluid work of Disney's Nine Old Men. Even for 3D animation, Sony's characters look a little flat. Still, with the trend in CGI going toward greater and greater realism, I found it refreshing to see some toons that look like, well, toons.

Rustbelt said...

Well, I haven't seen this one, so I can't comment on the plot. I remember the promos for this one seemed to center around Adam Sandler in the lead role. As I noted in an earlier thread, the so-called 'all-star cast' is a quick turnoff for me. Though,this time, that seems a little inaccurate. (A cast of "current teen idols/Sandler friends/will-work-for-food voice actors/SNL dropouts/stars of cancelled sitcoms that took place in NYC" seems more fitting.)

But, to be honest, that's not why I wasn't interested in this one. It's the lack of variety in the appearance of 3D cartoons that bothers me these days. The animation style for this one (although, as tryanmax described, is a bit more cartoony), is hardly different from Pixar's work in the '90's, such as 'Toy Story'- which came out 18 years ago.
I know it's not fair to compare something like this to the Disney classics, but I will. I just don't see any variety in 3D animation- even if something is more cartoony than something else. I guess 'uninspired' is a good word. The early Disney films (so I've read), were inspired by various art books collected by Walt. The offshore appearance of Pleasure Island in 'Pinocchio,' for instance, was inspired by a painting of Hell in an illustrated book of Dante's 'The Divine Comedy.' 'Sleeping Beauty' was intentionally drawn with medieval art styles to make it stand out. '101 Dalmations' had its xeroxed style forced upon it (cost reasons), but still became unique in its own right because of that. And, of course, the 80's/90's renaissance used a blend of hand-drawn and computer animation.
I just don't see any of that in any 3D animation these days. It's the same detailed, fluid, flawless CGI I saw back in 1995. This lack of movies having their own style is getting pretty old, pretty fast for me.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, Modern cartoons are much more hit and miss than older cartoons. The older ones seemed to have a particular level of quality, but that's not true with the newer ones.

AndrewPrice said...

Rustbelt, The all-star cast is a turn off to me too, but it's all they do now.

Rustbelt said...

Also, since this is a Halloween thread, I found an interesting Dracula-themed link that I think might be interesting. (I was going to post it in Sunday's thread, where Vincent was prominently mentioned, but I was out-of-town and couldn't use my computer.) Enjoy!


tryanmax said...

Rustbelt, I've said it before that the all-star cast doesn't bother me near as much as when they model the characters after the voice actors--a Disney standard practice. So I guess there is my one major criticism of Disney. This film didn't do that, at least. I don't remember the ads for this one, so I can't comment on how it was sold, though given the names on the list, it wouldn't surprise me.

I can't disagree that there is a lack of variety in the way CGI characters are designed. I'm mostly giving Sony props for at least going a different direction than the realism that most of the other studios have apparently decided to strive for. But I also agree that they don't seem to be looking very hard for outside inspiration. I can't say that any of the CGI studios appear to be.

tryanmax said...

Andrew, I suspect that the reason modern cartoons are more hit-and-miss is because CGI makes them far cheaper and quicker to produce. Even the traditional animation techniques have been sped up through computers, which probably accounts for why the later Disney Renaissance just doesn't compare to the beginning. Even so, traditional animation is still on average better than CGI, I suspect owing to the higher level of involvement required to produce.

tryanmax said...

Rustbelt, I'll totally check out the Dracula documentary. In the meantime, if you are interested, check out THIS review of seven Dracula films I did a couple years back. (I think my writing has greatly improved in the last couple of years, but I'm still proud of having watched them all.)

AndrewPrice said...

You know, I agree with that completely. When it takes time and real effort to do something, you tend to want to make sure you do it right. That means really thinking things through. When you can just tell your computer, "do this," you kind of lose that need. I'm actually going to talk about this a bit on Friday in the film I review: Phantasm, a labor of love that blows away a vast number of big money films.

Rustbelt said...

tryanmax, wow! That's some good work! I totally like the idea of assigning one of the Seven Deadly Sins to each of the Dracula movies. Good job!

Well, you just had to hit upon a subject that I just can't resist. So, here's a few things and knick-knacks I thought of/remembered for each of the films...

Nosferatu (1922): Not a lot to add here. I remember seeing images from this film as a kid and being unable to sleep for days. Those images just won't go away!
It's really a miracle this didn't become a 'lost film.' Eventually, a German court ruled in favor of Mrs. Stoker as having violated the book's copyright and ordered all prints be destroyed. (Bram died in 1912.) There are two stories about what happened afterward: one, that a copy just happened to survive. The other, that Mrs. Stoker kept a copy for herself that was eventually itself copied and distributed in the public domain.

Dracula (1931): I've read a ton about the making of this movie, not all of it good. For one thing, Lon Chaney, Sr. (his son played the Wolf Man) was supposed to play the role. Best known as the Phantom of the Opera, he died before filming began.
Director Tod Browning couldn't really make the transition from silent to talkies, and thus reportedly lost interest in the project (especially after the death of his friend, Chaney). That's why, as the film goes on, it relies more and more on master shots and the play version, rather than the novel.
Interestingly, all previous movies featuring supposed monsters often ended in a 'Scooby Doo' ending- with the monster unmasked as a costumed criminal. This was the first Hollywood picture to have a genuine supernatural character.
Trivia: Lugosi's much-imitated voice is Hungarian. However, Borgo Pass is in modern Romania, so he should actually have a Slavic accent. Also noteworthy is that while disguised as the coachman who picks up Harker at the Pass, the Count speaks some German. However, when he greets Harker at the castle door, Harker recalls that Dracula speaks "excellent English, but with a strange intonation." So, there's room for interpretation there.

Horror of Dracula (1958): I haven't seen this one all the way through, but I've read synopses of the plot changes. Pretty heavy. All in all, not bad from the clips I've seen.

Count Dracula (1970): Yours is the first positive review I've read about this one. Most claim that it starts off good, but then wears down.
As for the Count's mustache, I checked my copy of the novel and, according to Harker (for anyone not familiar, the book is written in the form of journal and diary entries), the Count was "clean shaven except for a long white mustache." He also has pointed eyebrows that almost meet, a domed forehead, "hair growing scantily around the temples, but profusely elsewhere," and "the mouth...was fixed and rather cruel-looking, with peculiarly sharp white teeth."
I've read the novel several times, and there are no references to him becoming handsome as he drinks blood, just younger. I guess this where the rape analogy comes from. He uses hypnosis (a date rape drug?) to get women close to him so he can have his way. In the castle, his brides accuse him of never actually loving them. It might be inferred that he coerced them into his 'service,' while still using hypnotic powers to control them.


Rustbelt said...

Dracula (1979): I just have trouble with this one, For one thing, it starts with the Demeter landing in Whitby. No Transylvania at all. And the Count is portrayed as a Casanova-style character who frees women from the bonds of Victorian morality. Not the demonic rapist-style character as I noted above. Ah, it was the '70's. Maybe the filmmakers were just in a rebellious spirit and wanted the 'free love' bad guy to win over the fuddy-duddy establishment characters.

Nosferatu the Vampire (1979): I've only seen brief clips of this one, so I can't really comment. However, from your description, this is definitely one I need to check out.

Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992): I've read that Coppola intentionally re-wrote the script to focus more on the female characters. (lesbian kiss, several invented scenes, the Marie Curie reference, etc.) And since Ryder previously snubbed Coppola on 'Godfather Part III,' it's a wonder the two even worked together. Again, the Count is a "sexually athletic"* anti-hero with the other characters being portraying as (sexually) unsatisfying and boring proper Victorian men. When will Hollywood learn there's actually more to a relationship than just sex? (rhetorical question, of course)
There's not a lot I can add to your review. However, if you watch the scene where Dracula and Mina meet, there's a guy with a placard advertising Sir Henry Irving's Lyceum Theater- where Bram Stoker worked as chief manager. (Irving, a dominating man who could inspire great fear in his employees, is believed by some to be the inspiration for the Count.) Also, this is one of the few films to keep the characters of Arthur Holmwood and Quincey P. Morris intact.

*I didn't invent that phrase. I heard it once used to describe Charles Manson.

On that note, I'd like to add one more film:

Count Dracula (1977): This is actually a mini-series from the BBC. It stars Louis Jourdan (Kamal Khan in "Octopussy") in the title role. He's more brooding and less emotional than previous versions. But I like it that way. I think a disinterested demeanor might actually be a likely attitude for an immortal character.
Although some liberties are taken there are many scenes from the book that are often cut from other film versions, including: the flask of slivovitz (plum brandy) that a disguised Dracula gives Harker before proceeding to the castle; Harker being told he can leave the castle, only to find a pack of hungry wolves at the door and a threatening Count chastising him from behind; Van Helsing's Christianity is left largely intact; Renfield stays in the asylum and remains largely subdued; Mina and Lucy meet old Mr. Swales in the cemetery in Whitby, etc.
The only drawback is that Holmwood and Morris are combined into the character of "Quincey Holmwood" -an attache at the American Embassy in London. If you thought Keanu Reeves' British accent in BSD was bad...well, it still is. But this guy's Texan accent is something to behold. (You might need some slivovitz to get past it.)

Oh, and one more thing. In appreciation your terrific article, here's another Dracula documentary. It's a great BBC production that concerns the writing of the novel. Definitely a companion piece to the Vincent Price one.


tryanmax said...

Cool, thanks for the feedback. On Count Dracula (1970), I'd hardly call what I wrote a glowing review. Calling it better than the Hammer series of Dracula films is scant praise.

Definitely you should check out the 1979 Nosferatu. It's pretty much the antithesis of the 1979 Dracula in that it loves its original rather than disdains it.

I'll see if I can find that miniseries. I'd love to see a lengthier treatment of the story. One of these days, I'll even try to read the novel. LOL

Rustbelt said...

The miniseries has been posted to Youtube several times. Here's the latest LINK. (You'll have to endure the Portuguese subtitles, however.)

And you really should read the novel! After all the campy adaptations, it's a LOT better than you might expect.

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