Genndy (with a hard g) Tartakovsky is one of the few animation auteurs working today, having created Dexter’s Lab, Samurai Jack, Star Wars: Clone Wars - the first and best one - and the unfortunately canceled Sym-Bionic Titan. His instantly-recognizable work combines both old-fashioned and modern animation sensibilities and is beloved by fans the world over, thanks to its boundless energy and creativity.
So, needless to say, when it was announced that Tartakovsky would be directing the computer-animated Hotel Transylvania - his feature directorial debut - our interest in the project immediately skyrocketed. Last week, we were invited to a screening of some early footage of Transylvania with Tartakovsky and producer Michelle Murdocca (Open Season) in attendance.
The film tells the story of Dracula (as voiced by Adam Sandler), the owner of a hideaway hotel for monsters like Frank/Frankenstein (Kevin James), Murray the Mummy (Cee Lo Green), Wayne the werewolf (Steve Buscemi), Griffin the Invisible Man (David Spade), and many, many, many more. Yetis, zombies, skeletons, you name it.
Dracula also happens to be the overprotective father of a 118-year-old teenage (?) daughter named Mavis (Selena Gomez), who wants nothing more than to leave the hotel for the first time ever and see the great, big world beyond. Things become particularly hairy when a twenty-something human named Jonathon (Andy Samberg) accidentally crashes Mavis’ birthday party and catches her eye.
On wanting to turn Dracula into a crazy, overbearing father, Genndy Tartakovsky said:
"As soon as I realized ['Hotel Transylvania'] was an opportunity to reimagine, in a way, all the classic monsters, in addition to [bringing] Dracula into a new light for this generation, I was really excited [to make the movie]. Just the idea that I’m a dad – I have three kids – and [to be able to] reimagine Dracula as a father was exciting. He’s kind of obsessive, he’s kind of crazy, he’s kind of a helicopter dad, but he’s also Dracula. […] That’s what really made me excited about it."
I've summarized the clips below in what seemed to be chronological order:
- The first clip featured Dracula and his daughter, Mavis, as she pleads to be allowed to leave the hotel after her 118th birthday party so she can finally experience life to the fullest; meanwhile, Dracula concocts ways of tricking Mavis into wanting to stay at the hotel forever.
- The second clip featured Jonathon the witless human as he essentially stumbles across a monster hotel and is completely oblivious to this fact. Dracula spots Jonathon and attempts to hide him from the other monsters by dressing him up as a monster - Johnny Stein - but this just results in his meeting Mavis and the two sort of hitting it off. Ruh-roh.
- The third clip featured Dracula trying to hypnotize Jonathon into leaving forever, but failing due to his contact lenses.
- The fourth and final clip featured Dracula and Jonathon in the hotel ballroom setting up tables for Mavis' birthday party. Unlike your typical tables, these babies have Brave Little Toaster-esque faces and fly around on command. The scene culminated in something of a Star Wars X-Wing/Tie Fighter hommage as Dracula and his three tables chased down Jonathon on his table, which turned out to be genuine fun for the old, grumpy Dracula. Could the prince of darkness be having a change of ... heart?
The footage we saw was unfinished, with temporary music and incomplete frames here and there, but it gave a pretty good idea of the sort of animation style Tartakovsky and company are going for with the film. Of particular note was the over-the-top animation which seemed more akin to Looney Tunes (or, indeed, Dexter's Lab) than your typical computer-generated animation film.
Tartakovsky talked about the unusual animation style, saying:
"['Hotel Transylvania'] is a really broad comedy. We wanted it to stand out from other movies, so we wanted this really energetic, caricatured, funny tone to the movie. It’s a broad comedy. And so - one of the things we tried to do […] is to push the animation. Feature animation is [typically] really grounded in this traditional, classical style of movement, and I wanted to push [‘Hotel Transylvania’] further and make it caricatured and much more cartoony, in a way.
"So we pushed the expressiveness of the faces. In CG, you have kind of a puppet in the computer to move around, but I wanted the animators to have more of a drawing sensibility to [the animation]. We did a lot more drawings and transferred the drawings to the CG models and had really strong silhouettes and expressive poses. [Sometimes] Dracula’s hands are big, but then they get really tiny for the comedy. We have all these comedians [like Adam Sandler] and we wanted - not just to have verbal funniness, but we also wanted to have the physicality of broad animation. In features it's more unusual, and I think we were pretty successful with that. I think it's one of the unique qualities of the film."
In fact, it was rather surprising just how strange it was to watch a major motion (computer-generated) picture with such blatant animation. Not strange-bad, mind you - strange-good. From the clips we watched, this is a film that wants to be fun every single frame of every single scene. Hands get bigger, smaller, as Genndy said; bodies contort in ways that no CG-animated body has ever contorted before; and facial expressions are perpetually in motion.
Truth be told, I'd prefer to watch a Genndy Tartakovsky feature film in his typical two-dimensional style, but I'm nevertheless thrilled to see what the man can do with CGI and a substantial budget. If he can take the sub-medium to new and interesting places, well, good for him and good for Michelle Murdocca for taking him on.
Of course, that doesn't mean I didn't miss certain aspects of his unique style, regardless.
Genndy is actually the fifth director to be attached to the project since its inception some six years ago. While that might instill fear in the hearts of many a Tartakovsky fan as to how far along the film was before he got involved, producer Murdocca said that Hotel Transylvania started anew (aside from previously created "assets" like CG backgrounds and the casting of Sandler) once he came onboard as director.
Unfortunately, the clips we saw last week were short and seemingly spread apart, so it was difficult to get a serious sense of the overall quality of the film. The footage was certainly funny and entertaining, but I think the recently released trailer - which felt a bit like vintage Tim Burton - did a better job of packaging the film.
Hotel Transylvania hits theaters September 28th, 2012.
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