Thursday, October 19, 2017

Hotel Transylvania (2012) (Movie Review)

(NOTE: This 2017 post has been updated for 2019 content)

     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. It initially was a movie I didn’t pay any attention to when it premiered, and 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, 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”. 

     In 2017 there was yet another shot film simply titled “Puppy”, which revolved around Dracula getting a giant dog for his grandson. It had an animation budget equal to the movies, and even brought back the full cast. More to the point, the short ended with Dracula stating that “he needs a vacation”. In short, this was a set-up for yet another theatrical sequel, which premiered the following summer of 2018 titled “Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation”. 
I was very concerned when I saw the adds and marketing for this film, as I feared the series may be going the rout of the “Ice Age” movies, and just produce sequels with no thought or care. Well, I still gave it a chance and thankfully to my surprise, I really didn’t hate this film at all, in fact it was perfectly passable. Granted, this film did even less to put me in the Halloween mood than its predecessor, which is no surprise considering that it’s summer themed, but the same charm and appeal of these characters and this universe is still as strong as ever. I still love the feel of these terrific characters coming together, Mavis hasn’t lost an ounce of her charm, the relation between the two kids little Denis and Werewolf Wendy is still very cute, and Dracula even gets a good character arc falling in love with the doubter of his oldest human adversary. The animation once again looks great, there’s memorable highlights, and some funny gags. The downside is that the plot is very one note, predictable, and like its predecessor this film meanders around with detours that over stay there welcome. In the end, I probably won’t be re-watching this one as often as the first, but I was at least happy that after three films, these characters still hold my attention and it was fun to go on another goofy venture with them.   

      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 for 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 ½ stars out of 5.

also I give “Hotel Transylvania 2” ... 3 stars out of 5.

and I give “Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation” ... 2 ½ stars out of 5.

             The End

My Top 10 Favorite Horror Movie Sequels

Sequels more often than not have a hard time living up the expectations raised by its predecessor, but Horror movie sequels seem to have the hardest time of all. Usually there’s no point to horror sequels and they souly exist to cash in on the success of the original. However, there are some select good horror movie sequels out that not only live up to the quality of the first, but in some cases, surpasses them. So, for this October, I’ll be counting down my own personal top 10 favorite Horror movie sequels that actually do the original proud and may even be better.   

#10 “Dawn of the Dead” (1978) 

Proceeding from “The Bride of Frankenstein” is yet another sequel that escaped the long shadow of its iconic predecessor and has become a classic in its own right. The original “Night of the Living Dead” is the movie that kicked started the Zombie genera, but the sequel “Dawn of the Dead” is what kept it going strong after so many years, and why Zombies are so popular today. This a film that blends nasty Zombie action with social commentary on society and becomes gory poetry in the process. Aside from that, this is just a wildly entertaining film, with great characters, quotable lines and a terrific mall-shop setting. While I can’t say it’s 100% better than the first film, it is undeniably the movie I’d rather watch.    


#9 “The Bride of Frankenstein” (1935) 

This movie is often regarded as not only one of the greatest horror sequels, but one of the all-time greatest movie sequels that stands on its own as a classic. There’s no denial there, this really is a sequel that out dose the original, both in quality and in substance. Despite what the title may lead you to think, the actual bride doesn’t come tile the very end of the film and is only seen for a few minutes, yet she still has a big fan base. Well, it doesn’t matter because the main attraction of this film is the actual Frankenstein monster. Boris Karloff is back in the role and turns on a far more effective and emotional performance. The creature can now talk, and the film exposes both his monstrous side and a rather sympathetic side. There’s a pivotal moment where it makes friends with a blind man who brings out a good side to the creature. It might just be the most touching moment between man and monster to be viewed on screen. There’s also an awesome new evil doctor, a terrific score, some very impressive special effects and some genuine chills. This is one old monster movie that has aged remarkably well and is well worth checking out. 

#8 “The Curse of the Cat People” (1944) 

The original 1942 “Cat People” is my all-time favorite classic Black and White horror movie that still holds up after all these years. It’s 1944 sequel titled “The Curse of the Cat People” surprisingly holds up very well too, but for completely different reasons. This is a rare horror movie sequel that forges the scary thrills of the original and is more of an atmospheric fantasy with subtext. It’s very much a psychologically complex family film told as a ghost story for kids, and it takes the series into a new direction while continuing both the story and developing all the main characters from the first film. It may seem like a bait and switch to go from a legit scary movie to a child hood fantasy, but this film makes that transition work seamlessly and makes this sequel work as a fresh and original experience on its own. I can’t say it’s quiet as good as the first, but defiantly stands apart as a really good film that would still be special even without being connected to the original.  

#7 “Gremlins 2: The New Batch” (1990) 

1984’s “Gremlins” was a surprise hit that has become a small classic in its own right, and while I also think it’s good, I’d also be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy the 1990 sequel 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. Personally, that’s what I like about this film, it’s just non-stop entertainment and even builds on the original. We get a bunch of brand new gremlin creatures that keep things feeling fresh and new, and even the setting has gotten bigger and better than before. If you can get passed its mind-numbing overtones, you might just be able to have a really fun time with this film.

#6 “Evil Dead 2” (1987) 

Here’s yet another horror sequel that really needs no introduction. “Evil Dead 2” is widely regarded as not only superior to the first, but one of the great classic horror movies in its own right. It takes all the basic conventions, atmosphere, visuals and set-up of the first and ups it to 10. Usually too much of a good thing is what spoils sequels, but in this film, the increased special effects and slapstick violence make in considerably more entertaining and even more inventive then the original. Also, it’s in this sequel that Bruce Campbell’s character Ash emerged as one of the most awesome and iconic horror movie anti-heroes of all time. There’s a stand out scene in which Ash battles his posed hand, which is one of the horror genera’s greatest moments. It’s just a perfect mix of action, horror and comedy, with brilliant cinematography and filmmaking techniques on display.   

#5 Annabelle Creation (2017)

If there's one thing that horror movie sequels have proven in this new millennium, it's that there frequently better then their first films, at least the ones that weren't very good. Case in point, the 2014 movie "Annabelle" was terrible and set a new low for the genera, yet this squeal/prequel not only brought back some real scares, but also had a lot of admirable aspects. In general, the Annabelle doll has become a mascot for modern horror cinema, and giving her a detailed origin was a risky venture, but it worked, as her dark secrets make the doll both more terrifying and subsequently more tragic. The film revolves around two orphaned girls finding a new place of residence, but they each in turn find themselves haunted by the mysterious doll, and as well as the secrets revolving around the house keepers late daughter. Putting the focus on two girls was a great start, but it's the performances and chemistry between the two that gives this film it's substance, and it make the scares effective because I genuinely cared about the two. This is also the first time I genuinely felt terrified of a creepy, motionless doll. The film also lends to some terrific haunted house scenarios, spooky action and some memorable frightening highlights.    

#4 “Dracula has Risen from the Dead” (1968) 

Now it’s time for Dracula to make it on my list, and personally this is my favorite movie to feature the titular vampire. “Dracula has Risen from the Dead” is the third entry in Hammers Dracula franchise, and while it’s not as classy as the first film, I honestly find it to be far superior. The plot for this sequel revolves around an atheist who needs to rescue his love from the clutches of Dracula, but sense he doesn’t believe in God, holly objects have no effect on him, and a stake through the heart can’t kill him. Thus, in order to defeat the evil of Dracula, he must go on a spiritual quest to find his faith in order to concur his demons both figuratively and literally. Christopher Lee once again plays Dracula, and he’s awesome as always. However, the real strength of this film comes from our lead hero and an underlining theme of discovering faith in order to concur evil. 

#3 The Conjuring 2 (2016)

Back in 2013 “The Conjuring” made a big impact, launched several spin-off films, imitators and is regarded as a small classic of the modern era. However, while I thought the first was very well constructed, it just didn’t stick with me as either a frightening or memorable experience. By contrast, it’s 2016 sequel “The Conjuring 2” scared me senseless, and has stuck with me as one of the better films in the haunted house genera. The premise is very similar to the first, as it revolves around a family haunted by vengeful spirits, and two paranormal investigators are sent by the church to dispel the demons plaguing their house. James Wan proves once again to be one of the greatest horror filmmakers of our time, as he takes old haunted house clichés and gives them a tense new edge. If you think too hard, you’ll find plenty of details to pick at, but as an experience, this film builds a relentlessly haunting atmosphere, tells a very competent ghost story and is chalk full of memorable visuals, like the rocking chair, and characters like The Crooked Man. It’s one of those scary movies that still leaves a cold chill in the air after it ends. The most unsettling moment of all is a nightmare involving a painting of a scary nun. The performances are all solid, especially from child actress Madison Wolfe, who’s portrayal of the real life Janet Hodgson is one of the best the horror genera has to offer. In my opinion, her performances rivals that of the original Exorcist, which I don’t say lightly.    

#2 “Aliens” (1986) 

For the record, this is actually my favorite sequel on the list, and one of my personal favorite movies. The only reason it’s not on the number one spot is because I always look back on “Aliens” as a Sci-Fi action movie before horror. Still, it’s been groped with horror movies before, and it truly is one of the best sequels the genera has to offer. At first it just seems like a traditional fun monster movie with people trapped on an Alien planet populated with terrifying monsters, but it feels like a much smarter film. The characters are all great, and you never want to see any of them get killed. These are people that you really latch onto, and the space marines themselves are so cool with all kinds of fascinating futuristic technology, weapons and vehicles. Sigourney Weaver gives her usual great performance that’s natural, full of nerves energy, and she proved once and for all that woman can kick as much ass as any leading action star. The atmosphere is great, it can get really intense and suspenseful, lots of thrilling action scenes, awesome visuals and terrific characters help make this B monster movie an A+ masterpiece.

Before I reveal my #1 favorite, here are some quick Honorable Mentions … 
Silence of the Lambs” (Yes, that movie was actually a sequel to a film called “Manhunter”)
Creep Show 2

The Mummy Returns

A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors

"Son of Frankenstein

#1 “Wes Craven's New Nightmare” (1994)

 This is the seventh entry in the “Nightmare on Elm Street” series and a rare sequel that I honestly think out matches the original. This film actually steps outside of the horror universe and focuses on the actual film crew and actors as there making a new “Nightmare on Elm Street” film. Heather Langenkamp plays herself while also playing the role of Nancy. During production of the film, lots of strange things start to happen to her and she begins to wonder if the character of Freddy Krueger is actually coming to life, or maybe she’s going insane after staring in so many of these Freddy films. It’s an interesting study of how acting in a horror film can leave a twisted impact on the actors or the crew involved. Rather than focusing on a cast of disposable characters, all the attention is on Heather Langenkamp who carries this film beautifully. The character of Freddy Krueger has also never been more frightening or more interesting then as portrayed in this film. His makeup is much scarier, and the dream sequences are haunting spectacles. While the original “Nightmare on Elm Street” is obviously a classic, I personally think that its seventh sequel “New Nightmare” is far superior, and probably the greatest horror movie sequel ever made.

The End