Thursday, January 31, 2013

Hotel Transylvania

Deep into award season, you get desperate. We'd been debating whether to see Hotel Transylvania since before it came out back in September. The movie posters looked dumb. The trailers looked dumb. It's an Adam Sandler movie, fercryinoutloud.


Genndy Tartakovsky.

If you don't know the name, Tartakovsky partnered with Craig McCracken, and the two created "Dexter's Laboratory" and "The Powerpuff Girls". (The latter was McCracken's concept, while the former was Tartakovsky's, but the teams involved in worked pretty interchangeably.) From there, Tartakovsky went on to create "Samurai Jack" and then produced pretty much the only watchable "Star Wars" stuff in the 2000s: "The Clone Wars".

At each step in his career, you can see brilliance: He and McCracken made art out of spare drawing and strong characters, and they did it in a way where it looked to be an artistic choice rather than budgetary necessity. "Samurai Jack" is particularly interesting for being a cartoon that uses not just spare drawing but minimal dialogue, getting its story across primarily through action and expressive characters.

Yeah, we're kinda fans around here.

So. Adam Sandler. Genndy Tartakovsky. You can see the dilemma. The Boy, in particular, has a heavy distaste for Sandler, even though (I'm pretty sure) he's never actually seen a Sandler film.

But in the preceding weeks, we've seen, literally, every film that we didn't violently object to (Django, e.g.) which left us with things we only strongly objected to, like this one, and Fat Man Falls Down (better known as Here Comes The Boom). And in The Boy's mind, James is pretty much tainted by association with Sandler (from Zookeeper, which he flat-out refused to see, clever boy).

And? Well, Hotel Transylvania is exactly what you'd expect from a combination of Adam Sandler and Genndy Tartakovsky. The most Sandler-esque elements of the movie (and I'm not referring to his personal efforts, but what his team seems to bring to most of his projects) are relentlessly mediocre.

The plot is that over-protective Papa Dracula (Sandler), who lost his wife (played by his real-life wife) to an angry mob 100 years ago, has spirited his young daughter (played by his real-life daughter) away from the world of humans, and set up a hidden hotel for monsters. Every year all the monsters come to celebrate her birthday in a big bash, until she's 18 years old and voiced by Selena Gomez and wanting to see the world.

Only it's not her 18th birthday, 'cause she's a monster, it's 118th birthday. Get it?

Now, Jonathan, a human boy (Andy Samberg, fresh off the poorly received Sandler flick That's My Boy) has accidentally wandered into the castle, and Dracula has to keep the other monsters from killing him and keep his daughter away from him.

This is strained, to say the least, but understandably so. You can't really have the monsters snuffing humans out in a kid flick. The excuse given is that it would end up drawing human attention to them, which of course makes no sense, since the entire premise is that they're completely hidden, and it's only through sheer accident that Jonathan has stumbled upon the place.

So, basically, I guess, the premise is that monsters are merely misunderstood by easily frightened humans.

It plays out in a painfully predictable way, with Dracula's daughter, Mavis (hilarity!) becoming more attracted to Jonathan, and Dracula hating him, but then growing to like him more, particularly in a pointless 3D, um, flying table race, but then Jonathan coming to agree that Mavis should be protected from angry humans, and—well, let's just say there's a race to the airport at the end.

On top of that, the movie is chock full of celebrity voices that are largely non-descript, but just recognizable enough to be annoying. "Who is that?!?" Not Gomez nor Samberg—they're just non-descript. Though, in fairness, the one that drove me nuts was David Spade, who plays the Invisible Man, and is really funny.

On top of them, you've got Molly Shannon and Steve Buscemi as a werewolf couple, Kevin James and Fran Dreschers as Frankensteins, Cee Lo Green as a mummy and Jon Lovitz as a hunchback.

You also, naturally, have a bunch of jokes about bodily gases, but not as many and not as tasteless as you might think.

By all rights, this should've been pretty awful. There are a few chuckles from the usual suspects. Sandler is not untalented and has some good lines, and there's some good support among the rest of the cast.

Mark Mothersburgh's score seemed to have a couple of awkward moments, but I don't think I would put that on him. Seems like they were going for something and didn't quite sell it right, so the music stood out.

So, if the plot is awful, the voice acting so-so to pretty good, the script largely tired except for a few jokes, why isn't this an awful movie? Well, first of all, there are quite a few jokes, so the ones that miss are quickly forgotten for ones that follow those up.

But the real brilliance of the film is in the cracks between the typical movie structure, i.e., the Tartakovsky parts. Even if the monsters are saying something tired, they are excellently animated. Even Dracula, whose basic outline was almost offensive to my kids ("He looks like Metro Man!"), moves with aplomb.

There are just bunches of nice touches, great character animations, little sight gags, and so on, to basically overwhelm the tedious plot. And the artistry there keeps you alert so the jokes work a lot better as well. The hacky characterization also benefits hugely.

Would I recommend it? Well, it depends. I know if I'd seen this when I was a teenager, I would've scorned it for the plot (and execution of said plot), but ultimately it won me over. The Boy was similarly charmed, if only mildly. The Flower liked it more than we did. Her logic was that, as a kid, she was used to seeing this kind of crap done really poorly, and she thought it was done really well.

So, there you have it. Adam Sandler as Dracula. Next up: Adam Sandler as Benjamin Disraeli.

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