Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Cinema File #2: "Hotel Transylvania" Review

Holy shitballs, I think I just thoroughly enjoyed an Adam Sandler movie.

Actually, you know what, now that I say that, I don't actually think that's as strange a concept as it sounds. I'm looking back on Sandler's filmography to try to find out exactly where my distaste for this man's work comes from, and I'm finding that it's evidently much more recent a phenomenon than I realized. I like his stuff up until Little Nicky, which is his first real misstep, but even that had its moments and was at least his most visually interesting movie up to that point. After that you have a long string of movies that are somewhere on the line of mediocre to decent, but all generally pleasant and inoffensive with at least enough enjoyable moments to make them not unbearable. And then there's Jack and Jill. I'm not reviewing Jack and Jill today, nor will I ever review it, because that would require me to watch it again, and I have sworn a blood oath with several Norse gods never to do so lest glorious Ragnarock commence. Now, after watching Hotel Transylvania, I'm beginning to wonder if that one horrible movie is the sole reason for my knee jerk rejection of the idea that he could be involved with anything good.

I...didn't hate this. At all in fact. As the movie started, still in my "Sandler = Suck" mentality, I instantly rolled my eyes when Sandler's hokey voiced Dracula brought out the guitar in the first five minutes to do his well known schtick. But then, surprisingly, it stopped. It was a short moment, cute, not unfunny, and didn't drag on as I assumed it would. Then as the movie went on, it only got more and more pleasant and endearing as we learn of Dracula's mission to protect his monster brethren, all peaceful creatures of course, building a massive castle retreat against the evil humans with their torches and pitchforks. Then once the monsters start getting together and the arrival of an unsuspecting human throws a wrench into things, I was, weirdly enough, completely on board and along for the ride. There's nothing amazing about it, the jokes are often funny but rarely unpredictable, and many do fall flat, but enough stick. It's not a revelation in terms of story or animation, but it does its job and is as good or better than your average CG movie. It's not special. It's just good. It's a good movie. It's a good movie with Adam Sandler in it.

I'm starting to feel like one of those Star Trek robots that just got served a logical paradox.

Back when I was dreading going to see this movie, the one shining ray of hope I had was that it was directed by Genndy Tartikovsky, the creator of Dexter's Laboratory, Samurai Jack, and basically my childhood (along with my parents or something, I guess). I thought that maybe at least his contribution would be good and might save what I assumed would be a mostly terrible experience. Maybe it would be unbearably unfunny, but at least it would look good. Turns out, I was wrong. Far from simply saving the movie, the collision of Tartikovsky's frenetic style and sense of humor with a more toned down and less annoying Sandler made what could have been a painfully cheesy story both exciting and heartwarming. I don't know how much was Tartikovsky and how much was Sandler's people (I know Smigel had a hand in this as well). The cynic in me wants to say it was mostly the guy I like, but whatever the ratio of the collaboration, the balance works. Please Adam Sandler, if you're reading this (who am I kidding, of course you're reading this), keep this dude on your payroll. Get him to punch up every movie you do from now on. Even the live action ones.

The supporting cast is naturally filled with the usual suspects from Sandler's stable, Kevin James, Steve Buscemi, David Spade, Jon Lovitz, and now apparently Andy Samberg is in that troupe as well. They all do a good job, and yes, I generally don't much care for at least a few of the people on that list (I'll leave it to you to guess which ones). I want to give special mention to Kevin James' Frankenstein* who probably has the most laughs of the other monstrous guests. Again, they're all pretty obvious, a big lunk head who falls apart and hates fire, but it works and it doesn't get annoying or grating as so many wacky supporting characters in kids movies inevitably do. The only weak link I can point to is Cee Lo Green's Mummy, only because they don't really give him enough to do and he doesn't get a chance to add much. The thing that impressed me most is how nothing in this movie, no character or running gag, ever overstays its welcome. So many movies like this nowadays take a premise that can be funny and Family Guy it to death, dragging out every gag long past the point where it could be funny, whether it was in the first place or not. This movie throws a lot of stuff up against the wall fast, and not all of it lands, but chances are, if a joke's not funny, the last two before it probably were and the next two after it probably will be.

I'm always partial to animation. My favorite movie this year so far is ParaNorman and pretty much the only movies I'm still looking forward to this year are Wreck It Ralph and Rise of the Guardians. I can't say that Hotel Transylvania quite rises to the level of ParaNorman, or even anywhere close to say my top five of the year, but between ParaNorman and the last animated movie I saw in theaters, the generally okay but basically superfluous Frankenweinee, this movie is definitely closer to the former than the latter. The thing that brings it down is the simple, paint by numbers nature of the story. While ParaNorman dealt with a lot of weighty themes like the cycle of bullying and man's inhumanity to man, Hotel Transylvania is pretty much a typical Sandler comedy in a monster movie setting. There's the two people who fall in love amid some quickly diminished obstacle, the brief turn or reveal that threatens to crush their love, and even a scene where one of the lovers is going to the airport and we've gotta stop 'em before they leave forever. It's all pretty trite, but to the movie's credit, it delivers the cliches in a way that I wasn't annoyed or angered by the lack of originality.

I think I sound more effusive about this movie than I actually feel because, even though on the whole it was only decent, I can't help but think of how much worse it could have been and how much better it was than I was expecting. It's not just the Sandler thing either; how many bad puns and terrible corny jokes could have been hung on this premise of a wacky monster weekend getaway in the hands of a less capable production team? Just writing that sentence gave me cold chills and visions of Will Vinton's masterpiece of claymation and horrible sight gags. I've always been one to say that a movie must stand on its own. Simply not sucking is not an accomplishment, and not being as bad as other movies doubly so. I'm not sure if my positive estimation of Hotel Transylvania will fade after more thought and introspection in the coming days, but right now, I'm inclined to say that it surpassed this standard and stands up as a reliable recommendation. Maybe it's just harder for me to dislike an animated film. Then again, that didn't seem too difficult for the inhuman shit fest that was Brave. No, I'm pretty sure that this is good Sandler. Good Sandler.

I think I need a drink.

* And yes the character is named Frankenstein, and he's the monster, not the doctor. I hate when purists piss themselves over this thing. Unless you think the movie Bride of Frankenstein is all about the doctor's wife who you see for like ten fucking minutes and not the chick with the big hair, then clearly that title is referring to the monster, who is named Frankenstein. Also suck it. If it helps, just think of the monster as a son of sorts to Dr. Frankenstein. Since he's never named, all he has is one name, Frankenstein, the last name of his father. He's kinda like Cher in that way, only less decrepit.)
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