With Dreamworks steadily improving their output, and leaving behind their old, Shrek 3 ways, there was an empty space in the animation world; a black hole ready to be filled by someone else making slightly empty comedies about talking animals following one note plots. Enter Sony Animation, the studio responsible for Rio and Open Season. Like Dreamworks of old, they’ve had a couple of excellent films (Surf’s Up and Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs), and have had a fruitful partnership with Aardman (Arthur Christmas and Pirates!). However, also like Dreamworks of old, they have a propensity towards shallow storytelling, annoying characters and end of film musical numbers. So their latest, Hotel Transylvania, about a human-free retreat for famous literary and cinematic monsters, shows a lot of promise but ultimately feels a little rote, and is seriously lacking in the screenplay department.
That is, perhaps, slightly unfair. Genndy Tartakovsky‘s homage to horror characters has lots to enjoy, and it’s unlikely to bore you over the course of its run time (how children will react could be entirely different though). Tartakovsky crams the frame with visual jokes, and horror fans are in for a treat with the massive amount of references to genre classics that permeate the film. The writing is at its strongest when riffing on the tropes and clichés of horror that even the uninitiated are familiar with: the issue of Dracula’s aversion to stakes through the heart is addressed pithily; the Invisible Man gets insecure about his appearance.
But aside from these few wry observations and one or two big laughs, it all feels rather uninspired. The jokes are mostly visual, and many are confined to mere background details. The characters are somewhat one-note, with only the central trio of Dracula, his daughter and Johnny, a human back-packer, getting anything that resembles an interesting personality. And as the meat of the story is a rather tired plot about an over-protective father, these three fail to do enough to leave a lasting impact.
Another issue is the voice casting, which is a cross between the cast of Grown Ups and the Disney channel, with Ceelo Green thrown in for good measure. The strongest performance comes from Steve Buscemi, whose nasal drawl is a perfect fit for a world-weary werewolf. The rest of the cast are forgettable, but Adam Sandler is worse than that, as he seriously struggles to maintain an accent that Steve Carrell did better in Despicable Me. He fails to bring Dracula to life, a problem which is even more frustrating and baffling given how iconic the character is. Such a bland cast undoubtedly contributes to the rather flat tone of the film.
Perhaps the biggest letdown, for a film by the man behind the inventive, aesthetically unique Star Wars spin-off The Clone Wars, is that the animation fails to be especially interesting or engaging. The characters are the strongest visual aspect, Tartakovsky giving them his signature angular look, but the world they inhabit feels too polished and flat to have any effect. The castle doesn’t carry any sense of grandeur, the rooms don’t breathe with history as they should; it’s cutting edge animation but the execution is lifeless. Which, in a film about a hotel full of famous monsters, is very disappointing indeed.
So while Hotel Transylvania is a fun, sporadically amusing film, it is seriously hampered by a poor cast, edgeless characters and uninspired animation. The result, aptly for a film about vampires, is sadly bloodless.
Autumn 2012 in cinema is notable for an apparent effort in the big animated releases to scare kids senseless. Some of the biggest upcoming animated films look to set to give children across the nation nightmares, with plots rooted in horror, and styles clearly influenced by the genre greats. This isn’t especially new for animation – think back to the deeply unnerving sight of Coraline’s Other Mother going full-on evil, or the inventive scares of Monster House, and you can see that the medium is well suited to terror. Disney have long been in on this, too, with many a childhood scarred by Sleeping Beauty’s unforgettable villain Maleficent, or the truly haunting scene of Snow White running away to the woods.
So horror in animation is almost as old as animation itself. What is new with this current clutch is that they are all arriving at once. In the space of the next few months, Paranorman, about a zombie invasion, Frankenweenie, the story of a boy and his reanimated dog, and Hotel Transylvania, in which Dracula runs a retreat for classic horror figures, will all hit cinema screens round the country, and all of which feature the undead in some way. The only other big name animation coming out during this time is Madagascar 3, which is, hopefully, vampire and zombie free. So why the current move towards a genre that, more often than not, is not targeted at children? And will any of them be any good?
The answer to the second question is, of course, impossible to say until we’ve seen them, but the signs are good. Laika, the studio behind Paranorman, have excellent form in stop-motion terror, as their last film, Coraline, proved to be both beautifully animated and wonderfully imaginative. It was also a creepy, sometimes downright terrifying work of cinema, and if they can maintain all these elements for Paranorman, then we should have a treat on our hands. The one worry is that Henry Selick, the director of Coraline and The Nightmare Before Christmas, is not involved with this one, but the signs are still good and you can scare yourself silly when it comes out on September 14th.
Frankenweenie also looks like it could be worth our time, as this is going for a resolutely old school approach. Homaging the classic James Whale Frankenstein films of the 30s, the black and white, bolts-in-the-neck aesthetic display director Tim Burton‘s love of classic horror. I’ve sadly not seen the original short that Burton did before his career in feature films, but anything that sees him going back to his roots as a director, before he became an indulgent self-parody, can only be a good thing. At his best, Burton is a visually impressive, constantly imaginative director. At his worst he makes messy, plotless rambles with cliché ridden visuals and phoned in Johnny Depp performances. Let’s hope that the former turned up to direct Frankenweenie.
The other film in the trio of terror, Hotel Transylvania, is a far more straightforward, studio comedy that will probably have very little horror but lots of pop culture references. Sony, the studio behind Rio, have assembled a cast that would be terrible in a live action comedy – Adam Sandler, Kevin James and David Spade don’t exactly inspire confidence – but may do well as a voice cast with a good script. Some of the gags in the trailer are pretty sharp, and director Genndy Tartakovsky has done some impressive work with the Star Wars TV series, but it remains to be seen if this will be more than a run of the mill comedy.
As to that first question – why all the animated horror? – there are a couple of possibilities. Studios often mimic each other, Pixar and Dreamworks in particular have a history of it (Antz vs. A Bug’s Life, Finding Nemo vs. Shark’s Tale and so on), so perhaps there is some of that here. If something proves to be successful, then others will want to get a piece of the action. It could just be that Hallowe’en is coming up and studios LOVE to tie releases in with holidays (Legend of the Guardians, for instance, looks set for a nice wintry, Christmassy release). Yet maybe, just maybe, there is a desire to instil a bit of fear and backbone into a generation of kids softened by bland, threatless films and television. Whatever it is, it’s a curious trend that may just prove to be a bit too much for the younger demographic: parents may end up being very grateful for the primary colours and circus afros of Madagascar 3.