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Non-Review Review: Hotel Transylvania 2

Hotel Transylvania 2 certainly has some moves.

The film might be computer animated, but director Genndy Tartakovsky draws from more a classic style of cartooning. There are several points in Hotel Transylvania 2 where it seems like the film has reverted to a two-dimensional style, with figures standing in silhouette against the background. Even the human characters of Hotel Transylvania 2 take on an elasticity, stretching and distorting in the style of classic Looney Tunes. Hotel Transylvania 2 gets considerable mileage out of this slapstick element.

Drac pack's back...

Drac pack’s back…

It helps that the film is packed with gags. Not all the jokes land as well as they might, with the film leaning a little too heavily on some particularly cheap shots, but there is a sense that Hotel Transylvania 2 is more concerned with getting those jokes into the film than it is with actually constructing a narrative around them. The film packs an impressive quantity of humour into its ninety-minute runtime, with nothing in the film being allowed to overstay its welcome.

That said, the movie hits some speedbumps when it comes to plot and characterisation. Some of these issues are simply structural, with Hotel Transylvania 2 eschewing all but the most basic of set-up and pay-off in favour of energetic cut-away jokes and quick sight gags. Some of the issues are tonal, with the film wrapping up some very uncomfortable plot developments and decisions with a simple “all’s well that ends well” conclusion that ultimately avoids delving too deeply into any of the implications of certain characters’ actions.

Vamping it up...

Vamping it up…

There is a lot of energy to Hotel Transylvania 2. The film moves incredibly fast, covering a lot of plot in a very short amount of time. Indeed, Hotel Transylvania 2 charts an extended period of time in the lives of its protagonists. It covers events from the marriage of Jonathan and Mavis through to the birth of their child; it then charts the progress of that child’s development through to his fifth birthday. That is a lot of ground to cover, with Hotel Transylvania 2 generally avoiding montages in favour of quick gags and snippets of character motivation.

It doesn’t quite work from a plotting perspective, but it allows the film a great deal of freedom in terms of constructing scenes that play as extended sketches. There is room for a sequence where Dracula tries to infiltrate the birth of his first grandson, without bogging down the movie too much. There is time for a sequence where Jonathan tries to get the eponymous institution engaged with social media. There is also a framework that allows for an ensemble road trip where Dracula and buddies attempt to teach his grandson how to be a monster.

Don't get ahead of yourself...

Don’t get ahead of yourself…

The film’s animation takes on something of a loose Tex Avery quality, emphasising the cartoonish nature of the characters. Clouds seem to be textured like big piles of cotton wool, characters squeeze like tubs of toothpaste when squeezed, a character’s mood seems to change the mood lighting in a scene. The movie wears its influences on its sleeve, with Dracula ultimately infiltrating the birth of his grandson by dressing as a particular buxom nurse in the classic style of Bugs Bunny.

This is not the only point where the wears its influences on its sleeves. Hotel Transylvania 2 is populated with recognisable veteran comedy actors, with Adam Sandler drawing together an impressive collection of old-school performers. Dana Carvey pops up in a small role as a modern vampire camp leader, but the most obvious example of this is the casting of Mel Brooks in the role of Vlad. The idea of casting Mel Brooks as Adam Sandler’s father is inspired, to the point that it feels like Hotel Transylvania 2 never capitalises on it as well as it should.

Undead to the world...

Undead to the world…

Hotel Transylvania 2 devotes a lot of care and attention to its physical comedy. Little details stand out, like a sequence of the blob getting repeatedly whacked in the face by tree branches during the road trip sequence, or the way that his decision to wear a helmet affects the shape of his head. The movie is full of background gags, like a hotel guest awkwardly cringing after Dracula entrances the table at the worst possible moment, or Frankenstein’s monster generously offering to share a handful of foam with some fire-fighters.

Genndy Tartakovsky’s direction takes a lot of joy in the sheer act of moving. The film builds to an inevitable dance party climax, but the script takes any opportunity to have the characters bust a move. For no reason that is relevant to plot, Dracula connects to his grandson through a pretty groovy dance sequence that showcases the flexibility of his character model. The film adopts a very slapstick approach to humour, with the best gags hinging on the actions of these animated characters rather than the dialogue of the performers.

"... falling with style."

“… falling with style.”

There is a sense that this style of comedy plays well to the Happy Madison ensemble, and the performances do capture a playfulness that can often seem obnoxious or ill-judged when played out in live-action. The idea of the Invisible Man pretending (for years, apparently) to have an invisible Canadian girlfriend circles back around through sad and into funny. On the other hand, there some ill-advised choices. The movie’s fixation on the weight and appetite of Frankenstein’s monster feels occasionally mean-spirited, particularly since he is played by Kevin James.

This energy does become a problem when it comes to plotting the film. To be fair, the movie does maintain a consistent throughline by focusing on the relationship between Dracula and his grandson. However, the film feels surprisingly episodic for a ninety-minute adventure; it plays more like a series of skits arranged around certain themes than it feels like a single linear story. It feels like there are some ideas in Hotel Transylvania 2 that might have been developed further, while others feel over-extended as it is.

Revamped family...

Revamped family…

This is most obvious at the climax of the film, when the script decides that it needs a major antagonist to wrap things up. However, the biggest conflict in the movie to this point has been the one brewing between Dracula and Mavis. (With the implication of a conflict lingering between Dracula and his own father, Vlad.) However, there are limits to how far Hotel Transylvania 2 is willing to push that conflict. Quite simply, not past the point where the relationship can’t be salvaged by a dance-party ending.

So the film rather clumsily grafts on a last-minute conflict between the inhabitants of the eponymous hotel and a character who did not appear until the start of the third act introduced him in a supporting capacity. The ending doesn’t feel satisfying or organic, it just feels like a transparent attempt to brush aside any of the more complicated emotional undercurrents of the plot in favour of an “everybody dances” resolution. Nothing heals divisions and brings a family together quite like a good third-act brawl.

He's really sinking his teeth into this whole family thing...

He’s really sinking his teeth into this whole family thing…

While Hotel Transylvania 2 harks back to a very old-school approach to animation, it does feel somewhat outdated in the era of Pixar or Studio Ghibli. The film touches on a host of issues around identity and culture in ways that are funny and sharp; Wayne the Werewolf refuses to kill a deer because that would play to stereotypes and “set back monsters one hundred years” while Dracula is horrified to discover that the Dark Forest he used to haunt has been gentrified by the upper-middle-class. However, the film lacks the emotional honesty necessary for its story to work.

This is most obvious in the way that it handles the dynamic between Mavis and the two men in her life, Jonathan and Dracula. Over the course of the film, both Jonathan and Dracula conspire together to manipulate Mavis to serve their own sinister ends; the film tries to pitch this as a “cute” moment, but it feels like a very fundamental and profound betrayal. While Dracula’s issues with his grandson are meant to be funny, there are points where the film crosses the line into creepy and unsettling.

The original bad grampa...

The original bad grampa…

Mavis is never allowed to properly call Dracula and Jonathan out on their behaviour towards her. In the end, Hotel Transylvania 2 stubbornly insists that family is ultimately family. It is a very simple and very basic moral, but it is one that feels somewhat outdated. It is an overly simplistic resolution to a complicated emotional dynamic, recalling the difficulty that Cars 2 had with reconciling “friends are loyal to one another” with the limits of basic human decency. The best animated films don’t simplify their moral universes for children, like Hotel Transylvania 2 does.

Hotel Transylvania 2 doesn’t quite work as a carefully-crafted piece of family entertainment. However, it does work as a series of high-energy vignettes constructed in a very old-fashioned style. Though it doesn’t necessarily have the depth that delineates the best of contemporary animated cinema, it has energy to burn.

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3 Responses

  1. Finally had a chance to see this today, at a completely fully matinee in Brooklyn, with my 5-year-old girl loudly shouting all the best jokes back at the screen. The subtext in this movie is heavily Jewish, with Sandler and Robert Smigel writing about the perils of intermarriage, and the age-old battle between parents and grandparents as to how the first grandchild is to be raised. With Jon Lovitz and Fran Drescher in small supporting roles, and Mel Brooks as the grandfather (“Why don’t you just put a stake through my heart?”), and with the WASP-y California in-laws sneering at all the monsters, the production team isn’t really pulling any punches. My own kid is being raised full-vampire, however, so I didn’t feel too guilty.

    I agree with all your points about the third-act villain being a failed bit of misdirection, and with all the gentrification gags feeling a bit forced…. but, like I said, I saw this movie in Brooklyn, in a nearly century-old movie house that is about to be partially converted into luxury condos, in a neighborhood that is currently being exploded by real-estate speculators and hipster restaraunteurs. So perhaps the jokes landed a bit too well, at least for this member of the audience …

    • Good spot! I honestly never would have got the Jewish thing, despite the rather obvious connection to be made given the casting and production team.

    • Actors of fully Jewish background: Logan Lerman, Natalie Portman, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Mila Kunis, Bar Refaeli, James Wolk, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Julian Morris, Adam Brody, Esti Ginzburg, Kat Dennings, Gabriel Macht, Erin Heatherton, Odeya Rush, Anton Yelchin, Paul Rudd, Scott Mechlowicz, Lisa Kudrow, Lizzy Caplan, Emmanuelle Chriqui, Gal Gadot, Debra Messing, Robert Kazinsky, Melanie Laurent, Shiri Appleby, Justin Bartha, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Margarita Levieva, Elizabeth Berkley, Halston Sage, Seth Gabel, Corey Stoll, Mia Kirshner, Alden Ehrenreich, Debra Winger, Eric Balfour, Jason Isaacs, Jon Bernthal, William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy.

      Andrew Garfield and Aaron Taylor-Johnson are Jewish, too (though I don’t know if both of their parents are).

      Actors with Jewish mothers and non-Jewish fathers: Jake Gyllenhaal, Dave Franco, James Franco, Scarlett Johansson, Daniel Day-Lewis, Daniel Radcliffe, Alison Brie, Eva Green, Joaquin Phoenix, River Phoenix, Emmy Rossum, Rashida Jones, Jennifer Connelly, Sofia Black D’Elia, Nora Arnezeder, Goldie Hawn, Ginnifer Goodwin, Amanda Peet, Eric Dane, Jeremy Jordan, Joel Kinnaman, Ben Barnes, Patricia Arquette, Kyra Sedgwick, Dave Annable, Ryan Potter.

      Actors with Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers, who themselves were either raised as Jews and/or identify as Jews: Ezra Miller, Gwyneth Paltrow, Alexa Davalos, Nat Wolff, Nicola Peltz, James Maslow, Josh Bowman, Winona Ryder, Michael Douglas, Ben Foster, Jamie Lee Curtis, Nikki Reed, Zac Efron, Jonathan Keltz, Paul Newman.

      Oh, and Ansel Elgort’s father is Jewish, though I don’t know how Ansel was raised. Robert Downey, Jr. and Sean Penn were also born to Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers. Armie Hammer and Chris Pine are part Jewish.

      Actors with one Jewish-born parent and one parent who converted to Judaism: Dianna Agron, Sara Paxton (whose father converted, not her mother), Alicia Silverstone, Jamie-Lynn Sigler.

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