Hotel Transylvania, the latest animated feature film from Sony Pictures Animation (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, The Smurfs), has received a lukewarm response from critics, but a very enthusiastic one from fans; so I walked into the cinema on Wednesday not quite knowing what to expect. I walked out none the wiser: simultaneously, impressed and underwhelmed. But the main vibe I got from Hotel Transylvania was fun, and it's a film that's not ashamed to wear its relative one-dimensionality on its vampiric sleeve.
When I say one-dimensionality, I don't mean to deride the film or undermine its emotional core, it's just: this film is very fun, its story isn't fantastic, nor, mainly, are its characters, but it's funny and it's entertaining, and it happily embraces that. In contrast to The Lorax, it doesn't try to be more than it is and push moral messages in your face. And for that it should be commended.
Because that is undoubtedly this film's best point: its animation. The term animation is often used homogeneously for graphics, when talking about CG, but in this case I mean animation in its purest sense. Because Hotel Transylvania is the closest thing I've seen to a computer animated cartoon. The CG boom at the tail-end of the last millennium changed animation forever, and, for fear of getting left behind, everyone jumped on the Pixar bandwagon. It's only been very recently that studios have had the confidence to return to traditional animation, to experiment with hybrids, and to explore what's really possible with computer animation. Hotel T falls firmly into the latter category.
Worlds away from the stylised-realism of a Pixar or DreamWorks film, Hotel Transylvania's animation is more resemblant of a Looney Tunes short - more so even than the style in last year's I Tawt I Taw a Puddy Tat was. The way Dracula in particular moves: it's so fluid, so exaggerated, so comical; it's brilliant!
The mastermind of this creatively excellent visual style is the film's director, TV animation veteran, Genndy Tartakovsky (Dexter's Lab, Samurai Jack). Tartakovsky's hitherto animation experience has been with traditional-animation, so it makes perfect sense that he would want to bring his distinctive visual style to the film's computer animation. I suspect that Tartakovsky would have much rather made the film as hand-drawn, but, in a way, this is even better. Because this is a groundbreaking films in many ways, in that it shows people what you can do with computer animation, outside of racing for realism; I hope Tartakovsky's next film for Sony, the CG Popeye feature, takes this style and runs with it.
On this topic, everything with Dracula in was an absolute delight! He's just such an endearing and hilarious character. His movements are so fluid, and the way he contorts and pantomimes himself throughout the film is fantastic. He goes from ramrod straight, to bent double, to soaring across the room, at a rapidly hilarious speed; I also greatly enjoyed the way his cape was almost an extension of himself. The film definitely had some not so great moments (more to come), but every time Dracula came on screen, I found myself smiling.
Now the not so great: the story wasn't brilliant. I said above that this film isn't a Monsters, Inc. rip-off, but it's not all that original either. The overprotective dad storyline has been played out to death, and while Hotel T offers a few twists on that dynamic, it's still a little derivative in places. That said, the film was very, very fun throughout. As previously said, it's not pretentious, it knows what it is, and is happy with, and makes the most of, that - which does work somewhat in its favour.
The story wasn't great, but it wasn't terrible - in fact, it was pretty solid. It was actually surprisingly heartfelt in some places - particularly where addressing Dracula's past relations with humans - but, as it stated in The Art and Making of Hotel Transylvania, the film tended to skip over these warm moments quite quickly, in favour of more gags or jokes. Little kids will love the flying-table chase and the jokes, whereas adults and animation fans will be more enthralled by the cartoony style.
Many of the characters that populate Hotel Transylvania are very entertaining and fun - but, echoing my thoughts on the film as a whole, rather one-dimensional. I enjoyed Dracula (Adam Sandler) greatly, and his friends - Murray the Mummy (Cee Lo Green), Frank-enstein (Kevin James), Wayne the Werewolf (Steve Buscemi) and Griffin the Invisible Man (David Spade) - too. Quasimodo (Jon Lovtiz), as the chef, was also hilarious - largely because of his ridiculously cartoony mannerisms, like Dracula.
However, some characters really got on my nerves, namely, Mavis (Selena Gomez) and Jonathan (Andy Samberg). Clearly an attempt by Sony to make the film appeal to teens and kids, the rebellious, free-spirited younger characters, had exactly the opposite effect on me. I'm sick to my back teeth of young characters in films saying "dude", "man" and "bro" every other word, skateboarding and playing guitar - it's not accurate, it's not funny; it's annoying. And every time Jonathan's musical talents were brought into the film, I felt a little nauseated.
That said, the relationships between the characters in the films were really quite touching. You definitely get the sense of a powerful friendship between Dracula and his friends, and your heart actually goes out to Mavis towards the end of the film. Oddly, the relationship I most enjoyed in the film was the one between Dracula and Jonathan; the kind of odd bromance relationship that developed between them was a nice touch, and nailed home the more solemn moments towards the end of the film.
All-star voice casts are hit or miss with animated films, and I'm particularly unfond of the recent inclusion of singers. Adam Sandler was solid as Dracula, but Selena Gomez and Andy Sandberg just annoyed as Mavis and Jonathan. Jon Lovitz was fun as Quasimodo, but there was little else to write home about on the voice cast side of things.
Overall though, I have a positive impression of Hotel Transylvania. It was very funny (I particularly liked the little Twilight jab towards the end of the film), had a pretty good score, some really fun characters and absolutely magnificent animation. I also really liked the 2D end-credits animation, and it made me very eager to see the traditionally-animated, Hotel T based, short film, Goodnight, Mr. Foot. Genndy Tartakovsky's influence is heavily felt, and his comic timing and animation-mastery helps balance out annoying characters and an overloaded voice cast, leaving us with a one-dimensional, but fun, funny and zany film that kids will absolutely lap up: the true essence of a cartoon.
Related posts: Interview: Marcelo Vignali, Production Designer on Hotel Transylvania.