Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Gremlins (1984) (Movie Review)


     It’s the holiday season, no other time of year is more joyful or magical then this. So, what better way to close out Christmas then with a classic Horror movie from the 1980’s. Now the notion of a horror themed Christmas film has been done sense the early 1970’s, but the 1984 movie “Gremlins” is a special case in which it’s actually regarded as a Yuletide classic that’s celebrated year after year. Heck, putting aside Christmas, there are some who would still make the argument that “Gremlins” as a classic movie in general. While I personally can’t call this one of my favorite movies the same way many others easily could, I do still have a lot of fondness reserved for this film, and there is something special about it that’s tricky to describe. It’s such a unique film that’s very adult with most of its context, but it’s aimed toward kids. It’s branded as a horror film, but it’s watched around the Christmas season. It’s a crazy, harper-active, monster run-amuck movie, but celebrated like any Hollywood masterpiece. Even when I was a little kid, I had no idea how to feel while watching this film, it terrified me just as much as it made me laugh, and it was consistently entertaining to watch. There’s simply no other film like it, so it’s time to dust it off my movie shelf, give it another watch and see what makes it so special after all these years.

      Our story begins with an inventor who’s looking for a special Christmas gift for his son Billy. He stumbles upon a beaten up old antic shop where he discovers a most unusual yet unavoidably lovable little furry creature named Gizmo, who’s instantly picked to be the special gift. Billy takes an immediate liking to his new pet, and a close friendship ensues between them. However, they’re three particular rules Billy needs to adhere to, and naturally he blunders every single one of them. Rule #1 … bright lights will hurt it, and the sun light is lethal. Rule #2 … don’t let him get wet or he’ll multiply into a bunch of nasty critters. Rule #3 … never feed them after midnight or those furry little critters will transform into savage monsters called Gremlins. After failing to follow three simple guide lines, Billy along with his little friend Gizmo do all in their power to stop the Gremlins from terrorizing their small town, and hopefully in the process … save Christmas from going to the monsters.

      It’s a very standard monster movie plot, but it’s lased with so many cornels of originality that it stands apart from other typical B horror movies. Most of this film’s success comes from all the right talents coming together to work on this project. Steven Spielberg at the height of his carrier produced this film, and while he didn’t direct, his finger prints are all over the film. There’s countless references to his movies ranging from “Indiana Jones” to “E.T.”, and he even has a walk by cameo. The screenplay was written by then new-comer Chris Columbus who would later bring to life another Christmas classic “Home Alone”, and most famously direct the first two “Harry Potter” movies.
The director of the movie is Joe Dante, who was heavily influenced by “the loony toons” to give this movie the feel and tone of a live action cartoon, and it really helps give the film its own distinct identity. Other films in his carrier include “The ‘burbs” and “Innerspace”, yet “Gremlins” remains his magnum opus. Of course, Joe Dante would also direct other crazy kid films in the same vein as “Gremlins” like “Small Soldiers”, and he even got his own shot at the loony toons with the 2004 movie “Loony Toons: Back in Action”. There’s even a scene in “Gremlins” where famous Loony Toon animator Chuk Jones makes an appearance commenting Billy on his sketch drawing, and all while a Loony Toon short plays on a TV in the background. Another very important talent to address is my personal favorite movie music composer … the late Jerry Goldsmith, who supplied the music in “Gremlins”. His score for “Gremlins” is spot on, gives the film a lot of energy and again helps give the movie an identity. It’s such a bouncy and catchy score that you’ll be humming it to yourself for days after watching this.    

      Of course, the best thing about this movie by far are the Gremlins themselves, who are easily some of my all time favorite movie monsters. Unlike other films that involve creatures attacking people, the Gremlins have no clear evil motives, nor do they eat anyone, these guys just want to have a party and let loose while all at the cost of the humans who all get trampled under their amusement. You could say the Gremlins represent an immoral side of ourselves that just wants to bust loose and have fun, regardless of how dangerous the fun might be to others. They almost behave like adolescent children, because at one moment they could be doing something terrible but then they also watch “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”, and they sing along with the songs and just enjoy themselves to the fullest. It doesn’t excuse their actions, but we still like them on some level, and it’s such a treat to see monsters convey so much personality. I also like how there’s that one Gremlin with a furry Mohawk that can be singled out as the leader, and lovingly nicknamed Stripe. He is the wickedest of the Gremlins and blessed with the vocal talents of the great Frank Welker, who’s one of the best animal/creature voice actors to ever live. He’s also famous for voicing various cartoon bad guys from shows like “Inspector Gadget” and “Transformers”.       

      Let’s talk about the effects, because these are easily some of the greatest monster effects and a true testament to the art of practical animatronics. There’s no CGI at all, everything is puppets and robotics performing in front of the camera, and even though I’m aware of that, they always felt real to me. The expressions and mannerism from both the Gremlins and Gizmo are so genuine that I never even think about that figurative “man behind the curtain”, or in this case men behind the puppets. Now I’ve talked a lot about the Gremlins, but our hero creature Gizmo shouldn’t be ignored as he’s at the heart of the film. As a kid I always wanted to reach into the TV screen and take him for a pet myself. Actually, now that I think about it … I still want Gizmo as a pet. His relationship with the hero boy Billy also works well because they keep it subtle. It’s an admittedly cliched “boy and his pet scenario”, but the movie lets the relation play out in a humble way without forcing any overly toughing scenes on the audience. Zach Galligan is also very committed to the role, and kudos to him for keeping a straight face while talking all cutesy to a puppet like Gizmo.         

   Aside from all the memorable creatures that steal the show, this movie actually has a strong ensemble of human characters. There’s a goofy neighbor played by Dick Miller and he’s always a welcome presence. Actually, he’s a regular actor in many of Joe Dante’s films including “The Twilight Zone: The Movie” and “Small Soldiers”. 

My favorite of the human characters is actually Billie’s father, an inspired inventor whose machines always go wrong. His contraptions bring a lot of comedy to the film, but the character himself is actually very charming and an all-around lovable father. It could have been so easy to make him a one-note joke with failing inventions, but he really adds a warm presence to the film. Another memorable human character is this wicked old crone named Mrs. Deagle, who has a grudge against Billy and his little dog too. She makes for a terrific villain character who’s just there to get a satisfying payoff when she encounters the monsters … and boy howdy is it satisfying. It’s one of the most brutal yet hilarious payoffs a villain of this sort could possibly receive, and it’s a rare case in which we really cheer for the monsters. The only human character I never liked and felt could have been removed completely from the film was the girl friend played by Phoebe Cates, who could give Charlie Brown a run for his money about feel depressed around the holiday season. Of course, she has a very dark back story that explains everything, including why she “doesn’t believe in Santa”, but it never added anything to the film for me, nor did it get me invested in her character. Her back story by the way is so offbeat that it actually bothered me more than anything the creepy monsters did in the film.

    This brings me to my next subject of the film, which is its horror movie elements. While “Gremlins” is mostly a family comedy, it’s equally a horror film and has some stand out creepy highlights that shocked my senses when I was a little kid. The best scene of all is the buildup to when the Gremlins take their new monster forms. There kept off screen for several minutes, yet there’s an eerie atmosphere, and sustained tension just building to when we finally see them. I love the details like the shadows casted on the walls and the jump scares involving things popping out from either the foreground or the background. 
Each jump scare slowly reveals more of what the monsters look like, which in of itself is terrific filmmaking, and a great way of taking an old horror cliché and making it work. The scene in which the high-school doctor looks around his classroom for an escaped Germline is honestly more subtle and disturbing then most slasher movies, and the payoff is very effective. When Billy enters the classroom, he finds the doctors dead body on the floor with a lethal injection pumped into him, which is disturbing enough, but it also raises another alarming question … “just what the heck was this high school doctor doing with a lethal injection is his classroom?” Another scary highlight is the kitchen attack, in which Billy’s mother has to fight off multiple Gremlins at once, and it’s every bit as disturbing as it is awesome. She chops one up in a blender, stabs one with a kitchen knife and blows up another in a microwave ... in short, it’s the greatest horror movie moment in which a generic mother can fight off her attackers. It should be noted that this film along with “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” are what lead to the creation of the PG-13 rating system. 

        Now for all the monster violence and scary scenes, the film consistently maintains the look and feel of a Christmas movie. It’s such a unique contrast, but the film really is shot and colored like any classic holiday film, and it just adds a different flavor to the experience. The opening title sequence alone captures the magic of any Christmas film and boasts a catchy theme song that sounds just like something you’d hear on the radio this time of year. Gizmo is literally introduced to us as a Christmas gift that gets unwrapped. There’s moments with people just walking down the side walk while Christmas carolers are singing in front of homes, and there’s countless other little details and even memorable Christmas visuals. 
There’s the moment with Gizmo wearing a Santa hat, we have the Gremlins dressed like Christmas carolers, also the dog wrapped in colorful Christmas lights, there’s the one evil Gremlin popping out of the Christmas tree and there’s even an effectively creepy usage of classic holiday tunes. My sister for example was never able to listing to the song “Do you Hear What I Hear” after watching this film. One of my favorite moments takes place after the Gremlins attacked the town, and features our surviving hero’s walking around the destruction while an eerie instrumental rendition of “Silent Night” plays in the background, and it really adds to the atmosphere. Perhaps the most shocking holiday image of all is seeing Santa Clause himself attacked by the Gremlins, while the cops are too dumbfounded to help. I really can’t think of any other horror movie that sparkles in that warm Christmas glow, while still being a creepy and violent monster flick.  

    Another charm this movie has going for it are all the movie references, trivia and homages on display. Seriously, if you’re a movie buff of any kind, you’ll love all the gags and details referencing other works. For example, the birth of the evil Gremlins is intercut with the characters watching “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”, in which the film’s most famous line “There here already, your next!” reflects what’s about to transpire in the film. There’s a scene with the father at a Sci-Fi convention and we can see the vehicle from “The Time Machine” in the background, which hilariously disappears between shots … as if it actually went to the future. Robby the Robot from “Forbidden Planet” also makes a cameo, which is great, I love it when that robot makes appearances in other works. There’s a theater that’s apparently playing two movies titled “A Boys Life” and “Watch the Skies” which were actually the working titles for Spielberg’s “E.T. The Extra Terrestrial. We even have the towns radio DJ marketing himself like “Indiana Jones”. Of course it wouldn't be complete without references to other Christmas movies like "It's a Wonderful Life". Aside from the movie references, there’s other little jokes cleverly weaved throughout the film, including an “AMC Gremlin” that’s parked outside a gas station.

    The movie builds to an exciting finally in which all the monsters are blown up in a theater, and Billy is lured into a deadly game of cat and mouse with the lead Gremlin Stripe in a shopping mall. This is where the film gets scary again as the action gets really intense, and Stripes death is downright horrific as it features his body melting away into a nasty corps … its great stuff. One thing that always annoyed me is that after all Billy experienced, he still has to give Gizmo back to its original owner, ending the film on a bitter sweet note. One little detail that always stood out to me is that the music heard during this good-bye scene sounds just like the theme music from “Free Willy”. Now obviously “Free Willy” wouldn’t come out until years after “Gremlins”, but seriously, listen to the music in this scene again and tell me it’s doesn’t sound like that same “Free Willy” theme music.

     Before I wrap things post up with my final verdict of the film, lets quickly look at the one and only sequel in 1990 titled “Gremlins 2: The New Batch”. This is one of those cases in which I can’t make any persuasive argument that this sequel is better than the first, but I certainly enjoy it more. I actually find this to be a very underappreciated sequel that might just be better than audiences give it credit for. You’d think that after the large fan base of the first “Gremlins”, the sequel would at least get some recognition. Well, then again, it’s not as subtle as the original and is extremely over the top. It might just be the wildest sequel I’ve ever seen, full of forth wall jokes, movie references and self-paradise ... kind of like the first, but on steroids. Personally, that’s what I like about this film, it’s just non-stop entertainment and even builds on the original. Instead of watching Gremlins invade a city, this sequel confines them in a giant corporate building of sorts, which is a great way to change things up. We also get a variety of different Gremlins and designs on display which again keeps things feeling fresh and new. If you can get passed its mind-numbing overtones, you might just be able to have a really fun time with this film.  

    In the end, both “Gremlins” and its sequel were two of my favorite movies as a kid, and while they haven’t aged with me very well, they are still a tone of fun to watch and still very unique. I’ll say this, if you’re in the mood for an offbeat horror movie to watch for Christmas, things don’t get any better than “Gremlins”. It’s still the definitive scary holiday film for kids and families to watch around the holiday season. I can’t make a persuasive argument that everyone will get into the films over the top behavior and strange tone, but it is still a small classic. I loved it as a kid, and it’s an important reminder of how to take a clichéd concept like monsters invading a small town, then given new life through a smart screen play and it feels wildly original.

I give “Gremlins” 3 ½ stars out of 5.  


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Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Moana (2016) (Movie Review)

     Back in the early 1990’s, I was privileged to grow up with some of Disney’s greatest animated movies, and looking back on that time, I was never really aware of the great Golden Age of Disney animation I was living in until years later. Well, I’m going to say it now before it’s too late … “the current  two-thousand-teens mark a new Golden Age of Disney animation”. There was a time in which it seemed that Disney could never produce an animated film better then Pixar, but they’re actually surpassing most of what Pixar has done in the past couple years. With films like “Frozen”, “Big Hero 6” and “Zootopia” receiving critical acclaim, and breaking records at the box office, it seems that the studio is finally souring again just like in its glory days. Disney’s more recent 2016 animated movie “Moana” is yet another outstanding entry to their collective works, and personally, this is the Disney movie that has won me over to this new Golden age. After the death of traditional 2D animation, I was in denial that I could ever truly love another animated Disney film. Well, not only is “Moana” my personal favorite of the 3D animated Disney movies, but I might just put it among my top five favorites Disney films in general. It’s a film that stays true to the Disney formula, but it also adds new layers to it, along with a big splash of creative originality.

   “Moana” is Disney’s 56th animated studio feature, and might just be their first original fantasy story that’s not adapted from any existing source material. Previous Disney movies like “Tangled” and “Frozen” were all adapted from existing fairytales and novels like “Rapunzel” and “The Ice Queen”, but “Moana” is a completely original tail that’s heavily influenced through Polynesian Mythology. While myths of the demy God character Moui do stem from the real Polynesian islands, there was still no specific literary score material for “Moana”, which makes the end product feel all the more special. In this movie, Moana is an island princess who sets sail for an adventure across the sea in an effort to save her island from a mysterious darkness that’s slowly killing her home. Her goal is to find The mystic and mischievous Demy God named Moui who was responsible for angering a Goddess and setting the Ocean world out of balance. Through her courage and a heart of gold, she puts the self-centered demy God on the path of redemption, and a friendship ensues between the two. So together they aim to bring balance back to the ocean by calming the angered Sea Goddess. On their quest they sail to various mystical islands, battle pirates, a giant crab monster and come across various other oddities along the journey.

     The first thing that won me over is the character Moana herself. Oh, my goodness … I absolutely adored this character. For the longest time both Belle from “Beauty and the Beast” and Pocahontas were tied as my favorite among the classic Disney princesses, and Anna from “Frozen” was my favorite of the new modern age. As of now, I think Moana is quite possibly my favorite of all the Disney girls. 

It’s hard to explain, but there’s something about this character that feels very special, and sets a new standard for the Disney princesses. She has all the same cute quirks and a contagiously cheerful personality that made previous characters like Rapunzel and Anna appealing, but she also has the same strong, independent, character driving force that I loved from many of Hayao Miyazaki’s Anime characters. Most especially, the combination of Moana’s strength and love made me think of Princess Nausicaa from “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind”. The opening scene alone in which she chooses to protect a baby sea turtle instead of taking a pretty item from the beach summed up everything great about this character and it’s easily my favorite introduction scene to any of Disney’s princesses. Another great aspect of Moana’s character is that while she clearly has her own wants and dreams that go against the order of her tribe, she’s also still very committed to her ruling position. The majority of Disney Princesses are all vary rebellious to their royal positions and rarely ever have any interaction with the people of their kingdoms. Moana on the other hand actually dose go out among her people, helps them with their daily lives and just puts her all into her position of leadership, which is really refreshing. It’s also great to see a Disney Princess from a different ethnicity, and not just another blond girl. On a side note, I’m so glad that Moana was able to stay single, and didn’t draw attention to the fact in any way. Personally, I felt that recent Disney movies like “Brave” put way too much emphases on the notion that the girl didn’t fall in love and stayed single. There’s also some very funny self-referential hummer aimed at common princess tropes, most notably of all is that a non-princess will still be labeled as such.   

   The voice cast, while small is still phenomenal, especially new comer Auli’I Cravalho who supplies the voice of our lead princess. She’s definitely a new talent to watch out for, and brings the character of Moana to life with a breathtaking voice, and lots of passion. Dwayne Jonson is also very good and extremely charismatic as the self-centered Demy God Moui, who’s one of those jerk characters you love to hate. Dwayne Jonson in general has always been a charming talent and it’s great to finally see that appeal come to life in an animated character. Other animated characters voiced by celebrities typically fall victim to being obvious stereotypes of themselves, but Dwayne Jonson brings the character Maui to life with that same love that Robin Williams himself brought to the role of the Genie way back in Disney’s “Aladdin”. 

The cute comedic side characters also provide some laughs, most notably is Maui’s little tattoo that comes to life, and seems to have the most personality of any one. On that note, I love how Maui’s tattoos can come to life and tell stories, as it’s visually captivating and something that I’ve never seen before. Alan Tudyk is also very funny as a brainless rooster, although he admittedly is the most useless animal side kick I’ve ever seen, and usually Disney’s comedic animals can be just as funny as they are helpful … but not this rooster. I also really liked the kooky grandma character, which actually brings me to one of the film’s most shocking moments (Spoilers ahead). It’s not uncommon for one of the parent characters to get killed off in a Disney film, in fact at this point it’s almost a tradition, but I never would have expected Disney to kill off a funny grandma character, that never happens. Her death was also earned, and a genuinely emotional moment that wasn’t overly dramatic.    

   Another one of the films great strengths is its enchanted ocean setting. Personally, I can’t remember the last time I felt this submersed in a films magical environment. Unlike say “The Little Mermaid” that only featured an underwater Kingdome with mythical mer-people, the ocean setting of Moana takes on a completely unique life of its own and features some of the wildest things I’ve ever seen. We have Goddesses becoming one with the surroundings of nature, a different realm full of monsters that dwell under the ocean floor, people coming back from the dead as animal spirits, and even the Ocean water itself is like a living entity with its own distinct personality. There’s a very atmospheric scene in which Monna discovers a cavern of ships, and through pounding on the drums it causes the lanterns to flare up and a tapestry comes to life telling the story of her ancestors. Just about everything from the setting, to the culture, to the myths intrigued me. The stunning 3D animation speaks for itself. Of course, it looks great, with very absorbing colors, but the backdrops half the time are some of the most photo realistic to come from a Disney production. There’s even select moments in which traditional 2D animation is woven in with the 3D cells, and it’s such a cool effect that celebrates both the old and the new. 

    One thing that appeals to my own personal taste is the overall tone and pacing of the movie. I love how this film takes it’s time allowing the audience to get to know the characters while also letting us enjoy the films unique environment. It never feels rushed, but also has a great deal of energy and fun on display. Having said that, there are some people, particularly little kids that might feel the exact opposite, and may find it a little boring in places. I say this mostly because when I saw this movie in the theater, I heard a lot of kids asking their parents when the film was going to end. This is where many young adults, or maybe adults in general may take more away from this film then their kids. The scenes that might come off as boring to little children may be quite impactful to some older viewers. Personally, I felt the film delivered more than enough entertainment, as well as some well-placed action scenes. I loved all the sinister creatures our heroes battled on their journey, and felt they came in a nice variety, with unique designs, and even their own charms. One of my favorite action highlights is when our heroes are attacked by these little coconut pirates, who all had fun designs and I loved the visual details of their ships.  

     I especially liked the giant crab monster, which is probably the most bizarre detour in the whole film, but extremely entertaining. He might just be my favorite of the one-shot villains, kind of like Madam Mim from “The Sword in the Stone” who’s only there for one scene but still very memorable. His villain song too is a lot of fun in just how colorful and wired it is. On that note, lets finally talk about the songs, as this is without a doubt one of Disney’s best animated musicals. These songs are outstanding as they both sound great, and add substance to the films themes, ideas and characters. Dwayne Johnsons “You’re Welcome” is probably one of the catchiest tunes I’ve heard in years, in fact it’s bouncing around in my head right now as I’m talking about it. The musical number “We Know the Way” boasts another very upbeat melody that will be playing around in your head after you hear it. My personal favorite number is the triumphant “I am Moana” song which was both touching and got me thrilled. Of course, the big break out song is “How Far I’ll Go”, which thankfully didn’t over stay it’s welcome the same way “Let it go” did back in “Frozen”. 

   If I had any problems with “Moana”, it would be that the film occasionally recycles some very familiar elements and tropes from previous films. We have an ignorant parent who can’t see passed his own narrow sited mind, we have the two friends breaking apart even though we know they’ll get back together, etc. However, the execution of all these tropes, the story in general, and especially the moral at the end are all masterfully handled, so there’s really not much to complain about. For every recognizable Disney formula on display, there’s some clever twists to other time warn clichés, and again the films setting continues to excite the imagination with no shortage of creativity. The climax also plays with expectations, as it starts a blazing spectacle in which our hero’s battle a giant lava monster, but then it gradually transitions into one of the most touching and impactful finales I’ve seen in recent years. Without a doubt, this one final scene of Moana slowly walking down the split Ocean road toured the ragging monster just gave me chills all over. It was shot beautifully, it got me right in the “feels” and … Oh, it’s just one of my favorite Disney movie moments. 

   All in all, “Moana” combines everything I love into one highly entertaining animated experience. It has great music, the atmosphere of its magical setting is consistently enticing, and even the moral was very meaningful without shoving the message down your throat. Of course, Moana herself just seemed to combine all the best Disney princess into one perfect package, while still feeling like an original character who could stand apart from the crowd. All in all, I loved this film, and love it more with repeated viewings. While I also loved previous 3D princess movies like “Tangled” and “Frozen”, this one just really got to me, and felt special. I’d easily put “Moana” among Disney’s best Princess offerings, in fact it’s now my personal favorite and considering how big their lineup has been … that’s really saying something.

 I give “Moana” a solid 5 stars out of 5.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Hotel Transylvania (2012) (Movie Review)

     Way back when I first started reviewing movies on my Blog site, one of my first Halloween reviews was of the 2006 animated film “Monster House”. In that review I described it as not only one of my favorite films to watch around October, but a very special discovery as it was a movie I didn’t pay any attention to when it premiered, and initially I had no interest in seeing it at all. Through a series of events I ended up watching it, loved it, and now I view it annually for Halloween. More to the point, I love it when a film sneaks under my radar and then takes me by surprise. Years later, the exact thing happened again with yet another animated Halloween movie. In fact, it was upon purchasing the DVD for “Monster House” that it came paired with a DVD of the 2012 animated film “Hotel Transylvania” and a new favorite was unintentionally discovered. I remember seeing the previews for “Hotel Transylvania” and just being very disinterested in the whole thing. I thought the character designs and hummer looked too childish, and it wasn’t especially dark or spooky looking like “ParaNorman” or “Coraline”, which were right up my ally. Never the less, sense I had it paired with “Monster House” I decided to sit down, give it a chance, and in all honesty, I fell in love with this film almost immediately. While I still prefer the scarier style Halloween films aimed for kids, “Hotel Transylvania” rekindled my childhood love and nostalgia for the season better than most did before.

     The premise goes like this … Count Dracula fears that all monsters are in danger from the looming threat of human kind. So, he builds a giant castle resort to keep all the classic monsters and most importantly his doubter Mavis safe from the pitch forks of humanity. She in turn has grown restless of her castle prison, wants to make a life for herself and venture out into the larger world beyond Transylvania. On the eve of her birthday, a human boy discovers Dracula’s monster retreat, and through a series of events ends up winning the heart of the counts doubter. Dracula naturally is quiet displeased with his intrusion, but he also can’t deny that for once his doubter seems to be happy. So, he lets the boy stay under the disguise of a Frankenstein type monster named "Johnny-Stein". From there it’s just a wild series of events with Johnny-Stein bringing modern age entertainment to the monsters while Dracula just tries to keep peace in his castle. On paper this sounds like a very one-note premise with lots of recycled ideas from other films, but the creative team behind this movie just put their all into it, resulting in one of the most well realized renditions of a familiar formula.

     I should note that I’ve never been a fan of Adam Sandler. At worst his stinkers tarnish what makes a good comedy, and even at his very best I could sit down and have some laughs, but nothing would really stick with me either. 

I bring this up because in my opinion “Hotel Transylvania” is his best movie project and subsequently his portrayal of Dracula is my favorite role he’s ever taken. Not only is Adam Sandler funny, he’s also very charming and brings an honest sense of passion to the role that I’ve never really felt in any of his other films. I actually have to remind myself that it’s Adam Sandler supplying the voice because the character just comes to life on his own. Not only is the voice work great, but the performance in the animation is outstanding. Every single expression, whether it be over the top silly, cheerful or sentimental always clicked. It’s hard to describe, but it might just be one of my favorite “animation performances” I’ve ever seen. All the other classic movie monsters are present including Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, The Bride of Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, The Mummy and tons of other popular monster alumni. All of them perfectly recognizable, just with enjoyably cartoonish makeovers and all voiced by various talents (mostly from SNL) including Kevin James, Steve Buscemi, Ceelo Green, Molly Shannon and David Spade. One minor nit-pick is that the Creature from the Black Lagoon is reduced to a small background character, which is ridiculous because he should be a lead along with all the other classics featured in this film. While none of the other monsters are as lovable as the count, they are still very charming and fun in their own respected ways. I actually found myself enjoying most of the smaller side characters like that pair of cranky skeletons who are on a romantic retreat, the Witch maids, the shrunken heads that make sure no-one is disturbed, the suits of armor who make the reports, the pumpkin headed coachman and the old Gremlin lady who “didn’t do that”. The Wolf Man also has this massive litter of uncontrollable cubs, and has one girl pup among them named Wendy. Despite her small amount of screen time, she is one of the most lovable characters in the films roaster.

       Now even with all that said, for me personally, the biggest break out character of the film is Dracula’s doubter Mavis, who I think belongs right up there with Jack Skellington as one of the great iconic animated Halloween characters. She’s voiced by Selena Gomez, and just like with Adam Sandler, I’ve never been a fan, but she’s great in the role. Also, just like with Dracula, the performance through the animation is excellent. She conveys all the right emotions, and Mavis herself is just irresistibly cute. I’d go so far to say that she surpasses more than half of the Disney Princesses, both on the cute scale, and for just being an enduring character. This is a girl with a contagiously cheerful personality, but the character is also layered with personal conflicts and subtle drama that make us sympathize with her in just the right amounts. Granted her back story is nothing original, in fact it almost feels like a cut and pace of “The Little Mermaid” half the time, especially with the overbearing parent refusing to let her child explore the larger world and is forbidden to make contact with humans. Regardless, the familiar backstory works in this film because she has absolute perfect chemistry with her father. The relationship between the two mixes charm, zany fun and subtle touching humanity all in one excellent package. Speaking of family ties, Adam Sandler worked his real-life family into the movie in a couple ways. During the flashbacks, Dracula’s wife Martha is voiced by Sandler’s wife Jackie Sandler, and little girl Mavis is voiced by one of Sandler’s daughters Sadie Sandler.  

      The only character I didn’t care for was the human boy Johnny, who’s silly quirks got kind of old. The hummer associated with all the monsters felt mostly timeless whereas the hummer from Johnny feels like a dated 90’s product. Andy Samberg is at least committed to the role, and despite his many annoyances, the character himself at least has some redeeming qualities. Obviously his relationship with Mavis is at the heart of the film, and while I think Mavis is far too good for this guy, they at least share some really good scenes together. I love the moment when Johnny cleverly shows Mavis a beautiful sun rise, which she never had the privilege of seeing before. That image of the sun’s glow reflected in her eyes is such a great visual, and it’s just those little details that really make me love this movie. I also love the term “Zing”, which is a refreshing and cute play on the time warn love at first sight gimmick. Speaking of human relationships with Vampires, this movie makes a very funny stab at the “Twilight” series, which might just be one of my favorite jokes in the film.

    Now this movie is a production of Sony Animation studios, and while I’ve never really loved this particular cartoon studio, I still must confess that the animation on display in “Hotel Transylvania” is right up there with the best of what either Pixar or DreamWorks have delivered. Seriously, everything about the animation in this film just pops on the screen. The details are absorbing, the colors are great and I especially love the depth of field on display as the characters can really move around in the environment. More than anything, I love the energy in this animation. The timing is amazing, and it’s some of the quickest movement I’ve ever seen in an animated production. One of my favorite scenes is when Dracula and Johnny are setting up tables in a dining room. These tables all have cute ghost face covers and can fly or move on command. This leads into an especially fun and cheerful scene where the two go from stressful party planning to a fun game that allows both Dracula and Johnny to bond. The whole movie flows with this quick and energized pace, but again there’s still enough time dedicated to the characters and their emotional moments. Count Dracula for example is given a surprisingly tragic backstory that stands as one of the films best emotional highlights, and this one final image of Dracula standing silhouetted against a burning caste is a thing of beauty to say the least. Usually in most movies these different tones just can’t mesh, but I think this film paces the events so well that we can transition from cartoony antics to softer character moments without it coming off as jarring.   

     Now typically in animated Halloween films of this sort, there’s always a big climax with lots of mayhem and monster action, but that’s not the case with “Hotel Transylvania”. The ending is about as simple, yet satisfying as they get with Dracula finding new faith in human kind, and our young couple get together. There isn’t even a villain that needs to be thwarted, it’s just a series of events with these great characters that reaches perfect finality, and I really respect that approach. The closest we get to a main antagonist is the Hunchback of Notre dame who’s voiced by John Lovitz, and even he comes off as just a mild nuisance more than anything else. The music in this film is also really good too, although it’s admittedly not the traditional spooky fun music I typically like to see in Halloween specials. The songs in this film are more colorful and bouncy, but it works within the context of the film. The closing “Zing Song” is an especially upbeat and catchy tune. There’s a song called “Problem (The Monster Remix)” performed by both Becky Gomez and Will.i.am, which typically isn’t my kind of music but sense it’s connected with this film I can’t help but enjoy it on some level, and even have it bouncing in my head after I’ve listened to it. 

     Before I get to my final thoughts on the film, I quickly want to talk about the series that followed. The DVD of “Hotel Transylvania” came complete with a traditionally animated short film titled “Goodnight Mr. Foot”, which revolves around Big Foot trying to get some sleep in his hotel room but is constantly disturbed by an overly excited Witch maid. It’s a cute little short, well animated and gives a small taste of the expanded potential for the “Hotel Transylvania” setting. 2017 marked the premier of an animated “Hotel Transylvania” TV series that focuses on Mavis in her younger teenage years at the hotel. While I love the movie, I admittedly have no real interest in watching this show. Although I did watch their special Halloween episode titled “The Legend of Pumpkin Guts”, and that was kind of amusing. In a clever twist, Halloween night is a dangerous time for monsters, but Mavis and company are eager to venture out and discover the joy of trick r treating. Participating in a human pass time for Halloween is where all the trouble comes in as it unleashes a giant pumpkin creature hellbent on transforming all other monsters into Jack O’ Lanterns. It’s about as crazy as it sounds, but still kind of clever, and bursting with decorative Halloween animation.  

In 2015 there was the first theatrical sequel titled “Hotel Transylvania 2”, and I found this to be a half-way decent sequel that recaptured some of the charm from its predecessor, but not all of it. Following the events of the first film, Mavis and Johnny get married and have a new baby boy named Little Denise. Sense he’s the child of a human and a vampire, there’s a clash between Dracula and Mavis as to whether Little Denise should live among people or monsters. In the plus column, this is a proper progression of the story, and the characters haven’t lost an ounce of their charismatic charms. Unfortunately, while this sequel still has funny scenes, not all of the comedy clicked with me this time, in fact it almost got too silly for its own good. Also, while this sequel still captured the heart of the first film, it for some reason failed to get me in the mood for Halloween like its predecessor did. I think a lot of that has to do with the characters being outside of the hotel for most of the movie. Personally, I think the best parts of “Hotel Transylvania 2” come at both the opening and closing acts of the film, while the middle half just seems to meander around and get lost in some cringe worthy jokes. Even though I personally don’t like this film as much as the first, it still had more than enough highlights. I love the opening wedding scene, especially this one moment in which Dracula and Mavis share a father/daughter dance on the ceiling by a giant chandelier. I also enjoyed the climax in which we see humans and monsters team up to battle an army of evil Gargoyle looking creatures.

My favorite thing I took from this movie was actually Little Denise’s sweet relationship with the little Werewolf girl Wendy. While their scenes are brief, every moment they share together is absolutely precious, and it’s just great to see more of that little Werewolf girl. I also liked the inclusion of The Phantom of the Opera, who was sorely missing from the first film, and I really liked the addition of Mel Brooks as the voice of Dracula’s father Vlad. I grew up loving Mel Brooks comedies, and ever sense he stopped directing I always look forward to him making appearances in other comedy projects like this film. Although for some people having Mel Brooks voice a Dracula-esk character may bring back bad memories of his final comedy and biggest critical failure “Dracula Dead and Loving It”. A third film titled “Hotel Transylvania 3” is set for release in 2018, so I’ll have to updated this post with my thoughts on that film when it arrives, but let’s center our attention back to the first movie for my final verdict.

     All in all, I think “Hotel Transylvania” can easily be regarded as one of the great new Halloween classics. The characters are lovable, the jokes can be very funny, the animation is top notch, the setting alone encompasses a perfect Halloween atmosphere and more then anything, there is a beating heart at the center of this film. Unfortunately, I’m not sure if this is a movie for everyone as the loud and giddy tone might turn some adults away before they give it a chance. Yes, the film gets silly and over the top, but I never felt like it went too far. Personally, I think that the film is much smarter and much sweeter then it’s cartoony look and attitude suggests. Sure, even the script is very basic, and it doesn’t have the same adult appeal as something like “Coraline”, but this still makes for a great alternative to watch. “Hotel Transylvania” is a terrific reminder that some of my favorite Halloween specials as a kid were more light-hearted and fun. While I still prefer the darker, spookier and admittedly more adult family films like “ParaNorman” and so forth, I also love having films of this sort as a refreshing little offset to what we usually get. “Hotel Transylvania” has become something that’s only gotten better with me for repeated viewings, and I just can’t imagine an October without viewing it at least once. If you haven’t seen it yet, maybe check it out this Halloween season and get a pleasant surprise like I did on my first viewing.

I give “Hotel Transylvania” 4 stars out of 5.

             The End