3 out of 5
Directed by: Genndy Tartakovsky
I didn’t laugh much during Hotel Transylvania 2. At first – meaning, like, for the initial 2/3rds of the movie – I was wondering where all of the antic animation that the previous movie had offered was, as that was absolutely the main appeal of that flick: watching a master of hand-drawn style and timing, director Genndy Tartakovsky, apply the same approach to CGI and resulting in a kids movie that, years later, still looks quite unlike any of its peers. As I began to question whether or not I was enjoying the film, I recognized that I wasn’t actually bored, and that there was, still, something quite transfixing on the screen, but I couldn’t quite figure out what it was. I hit pause. I read some reviews, which – the ones I read – trashed the movie. I pushed play.
There’s a scene rather deep into the flick when Dracula (Adam Sandler) and all of his monster buddies (Wolfman, Frankenstein and the like, voiced by Steve Buscemi, Kevin James and etc.) are taking Drac’s grandson, ‘Denisovich’ (Asher Blinkoff), on a desperate romp around once-scary locations in order to jumpstart the kid’s hopeful transformation into a vampire, and we zoom waaaay up a creaky ol’ tower off of which Dracula plans to drop said kid and trigger his turn-into-bat instincts. The structure of the tower, the zoom, the music stings – it’s Looney Tunes. And then I got it. And then I got why this wasn’t working for a lot of people, and why it was puzzling to me to figure out why it had held my attention.
The first Hotel Transylvania was Genndy pushing the general CGI style to more animated extremes; that push probably caused him to go overboard, making the movie very frantic throughout …and causing quite a drop-off in tone when it suddenly had to go back to story beats, but nonetheless, there was almost always some crazy, bouncing scene a few minutes away at which to marvel at its design and rhythm. I don’t think I laughed much during that movie, either (the script is, as suggested, fairly dopey), but the physical comedy is ridiculously entertaining. So going into 2, my brain was expecting more of the same – if it ain’t broke, etc. – but I’m forgetting why Genndy is so good at his job: because he learns. He no longer needed to push things to an extreme, and so he figured out what was successful, and fine-tuned it. Where all the heavy lifting was done by characters in HT 1, HT 2 is able to take fuller advantage of the whole picture: once I recognized that I was watching a classic cartoon, just done up in CG, the beauty of the purposefully flattened backgrounds framing these primary-shaped characters (all angles or circles or squares) came to life; the chosen points of articulation – keeping the rest of the bodies stiff – instantly recalled Wile E. Coyote; the offbeat timing of the dialogue – Bugs Bunny; the playful music and camera are of the old school, hand-drawn, Warner Bros. ilk. Immediately, the movie became a lot funnier, because it no longer needed to be “smart” or “safe” like a lot of modern kids films aim to be, because it was just going for that Dexter’s Laboratory kooky comedy.
That’s not to say that the movie is some unrecognized genius – I’d say the comedy only really starts to kick in at the point I mentioned. The steps leading up to that point, involving Drac fretting over his vampire daughter (Selena Gomez) and human married-into-the-fam son (Adam Sanberg) potentially moving out of the titular hotel, hence the expediency behind figuring out if lil’ Dennis a.k.a. Denisovich is a monster (= stay at the hotel) or a human (= move to a human town), is very much a churn of story to get characters in place to be able to do wacky things, and Tartakovsky again seems to get a kick out of throwing characters into dance routines, which would be fine if they weren’t required to be mapped to soundtrack-selling pop tunes which feel woefully out of place in the movie, but… HT 2 has a much more – believe it or not – cult classic tone to it, in that the sense that the humor is so droll at times (this was often the Looney Tunes format – pairing a plain faced lead with ridiculous antics) that it bears rewatching to milk out the yuks; I sense that I’ll laugh more a second and third time through, and so I’m actually looking forward to those repeated viewings…
The blu-ray extras, despite having two commentaries, are a little less grabbing than on the first movie. On HT1, the extras felt geared more towards adult viewers. Here, there was still definitely effort put into this stuff – making Halloween decorations, singalongs – but there’s less behind-the-scenes kinda stuff. However, the spotlight on Foley work is a cool thing for kids, and the presenter is really energetic. The commentaries aren’t as interesting, either. Sandler and Robert Smigel take one and mostly end up talking about their kids, so it’s kind of a wash. Genndy is on the other one, and has some interesting bits on color choices and tweaking the animation, but he’s more settled in his role here, so there are less stories to tell about the learning curve of working on a CGI movie and thus there’s a bit of silence on the track.