Sunday 29 November 2015

Hotel Transylvania 2 (2015) - Movie Review

If you spent any amount of time watching Cartoon Network during its heyday, or even grew up on it like I did, then you owe a lot to one Genndy Tartakovsky. The man’s work on shows like Dexter’s Laboratory, The Powerpuff Girls, Samurai Jack and the Star Wars: Clone Wars animated mini-series has gone on to make him one of the most vibrant creative minds that Hanna-Barbera has ever been associated with… yes, seriously. As such, the next big step in terms of flexing animated muscle is going on to do feature films, and so he was brought on to direct 2012’s Hotel Transylvania. That is, he was brought on as the sixth reported director of the film. Usually a pretty bad sign, especially for a first-time film director, but he nevertheless gave it his all and made the film his own. The result was a surprisingly fun and not-surprisingly well animated family film; sure, it had its annoying/stupid moments but the good points far outweighed the bad. Since it made over four times its budget at the box office, it of course got a sequel. Let’s hope that this isn’t another sequel made for its own sake, because I want to maintain my respect for Genndy as best I can.

The plot: Since the events of the first film, the now-married Mavis (Selena Gomez) and Johnny (Andy Samberg) have had a child called Dennis. A human child, a fact which worries Dracula (Adam Sandler) who wants his vampiric bloodline to continue. While Mavis and Johnny are having a vacation in California, Dracula is left to take care of Dennis. With the kid’s fifth birthday fast approaching, Dracula gathers his monster friends to help teach Dennis how to be a monster. However, it seems that it may not be so simple these days.

The big draw of the first film was undoubtedly the animation. In an industry where studios are almost too hesitant to put the effort in, it is just about the most gleefully energetic of the last several years. It transcends simply being composed of constant movement in order to keep the attention of children and fulfills the director’s intention of creating a 3-D representation of old-school Tex Avery cartoons. It’s the kind of fun that speaks to all the demographics that enjoyed Genndy’s work on Cartoon Network.

Here, while it definitely keeps consistency with the previous work in terms of character design and setting, it has sobered up a hell of a lot in the three-year interim. There aren’t any big chase sequences, no ultra-kinetic character movements, no real showcases for what we know full well these filmmakers and this studio are capable of. The only exception here is the finale, where our monsters duke it out against a brood that wants to kill Dennis and, not gonna lie, it almost makes up for the more subdued tone of the rest of the film. Sure, it’s not that long a sequence but what we do get is amazingly well animated, probably the best use of computer graphics I’ve seen all year. Yeah, I still maintain that Hoopa And The Clash Of Ages has the best on a technical level, but in terms of its effectiveness, this is astoundingly good.

The comedy is a lot more levelled-out than before, which is both good and bad. Good, because it contains far less gags that rely on bodily functions and the strangely well-detailed arses of the characters; that, and former weakest link Johnathon doesn’t reach the peaks of annoyance that he did prior. Bad, because it doesn’t have as many quick jokes that were not only performed excellently but surprisingly clever in how they played on the tropes of the classic monsters that make up the main cast. Basically, it follows the same mode of writing as Fifty Shades Of Grey: It took out the weaker parts, but also the stronger points too. It has its moments, particularly the one-off remarks from The Phantom Of The Opera during certain scenes in the third act, but it doesn’t deliver the serious side-ticklers that helped the first film. Then again, this is all being said after gaining a far greater appreciation for the original upon re-watching in preparation for this review; maybe the same thing could happen here. However, as it stands now after first viewing, it’s just okay in terms of chuckles.

The writing as a whole continues on with the minority analogue from last time, only turning it around here and mainly looking at the humans reacting to the monsters. A lot of the gags involving Johnathon’s family features some blunt observations about how they want Dennis to be raised around ‘normal people’, even inviting some tokens to join them for dinner as a means of showing that they’re not racist; they have friends who are monsters. Now, when talking about prejudices, I don’t have the most stable legs to stand on. I am a white able-bodied male whom society could easily just dismiss as being straight despite the reality of things without much issue; all things considered, I’m better off than most.

However, when it comes to seeing how the real monsters react to how humanity views them, both in the flesh and through a Sesame Street surrogate called Cakey, I can actually sympathise. We got a brief glimpse of this in the first film with a short Twilight parody, but here is where it really sticks. How these monsters feel about their representation in human society, right down to the humans dressing up as them complete with face paint, is easily translatable to my own reaction to The Big Bang Theory as a geek: All they have done is boiled it down to its most basic elements, resulting in an unfair representation of that demographic. Or, if that’s not close enough to connect with, imagine a white family dressing up as minstrels to welcome an African-American family into the neighbourhood. Yeah, it may be well intentioned, but that doesn’t make it any less offensive.

Alongside the attitudes to ‘the other’, the writing also works as a look into modern culture’s perspective on the classic monsters themselves. As I’ve discussed before, it has been a long time since we’ve looked at vampires, werewolves, zombies and the like as something to be completely scared of. They have become far too familiar to us and have been filtered through so many reinterpretations and re-imaginings that they have almost reached Krillitane levels of dissimilarity. As we watch Dracula try (and fail) to teach Dennis how to be a vampire in the same way he was taught, the film brings up a question that I don’t think gets brought up often enough: Do they have to be scary to be taken seriously?

Back in the Universal golden age, these monsters were taken at face value and treated as something to be afraid of, much like anything that is different from what we consider the norm. Now, we’ve dug under the surface and found the person that the monster is, or at least was. After the works of Anne Rice, Joss Whedon and even Stephanie Meyer have altered the collective mindset when it comes to vampires, people often cry out that they miss the days when they were scary and not portrayed as the romantic, brooding and sparkly creatures that they are seen as today.

This all ties back into the racial elements of things in a rather unexpected way: These monsters can still be scary, but it’s not something to be forced. Just as women shouldn’t have to be portrayed as servile housewives, black people as heartless thugs or gay people as sexual deviants, monsters don’t have to fit the mould that they have long since outgrown. That’s not to say that they can never be scary again; just that people are still acting like that is the natural order of things. As much as people may argue that problems with our fiction shouldn’t be put on the same level as problems with our reality, certain people get pigeon-holed in both for the exact same small-minded reasons.

All in all, while I do consider this to be an unfortunate step down from the previous film in terms of overall entertainment, I am gobsmacked by how observant the writing is in terms of not only our attitudes to these monsters, but also to pretty much anyone that is considered ‘different’. The comedy is balanced out, for better or for worse, the music shows a definite improvement over the previous LMFAO-heavy soundtrack, the acting is still excellent (even if Mel Brooks isn’t in it nearly enough) and its subtext is something that definitely needs to be looked at, considering that attitude is one of the main reasons why people couldn’t get into the excellent original film in the first place.

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