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Review: “Hotel Transylvania 2” – Why Modern American Families are Monsters

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Hotel Transylvania 2I became a parent a little more than six years ago, and one thing that both my parents and my in-laws agreed on immediately was that modern parenting was very different from how they did it. Gender roles are the most visible change, with fathers expected to take on a much more active role in child rearing, but parents are now also expected to be much more involved in their kids’ lives. The overarching culture in America has also changed greatly, becoming more heterogeneous and less defined by the straight white Christian suburban norm that most current-day American adults grew up with. The result is that boundaries are much more heavily blurred between parents and their kids. Nickelodeon president Cyma Zarghami cited research at the 2013 upfront presentation that the millennial generation of kids is much closer to their parents and more likely to consider their parents as friends. I loved my parents unquestioningly, but they weren’t “friends” in the way that my peers were. At best, these blurred boundaries means parents won’t condescend to their kids and can share more in their core formative experiences. At worst, they turn into helicopter parents incessantly meddling in their kids’ lives (ironically, often in the name of making sure their kids are ready for the “Real World”). I don’t think I’m alone in feeling like the rules of modern parenting are hard to discern and perpetually changing, which just makes the tough job of parenting even more stressful.

The best thing I can say about Hotel Transylvania 2 is that it’s the first kids’ movie I can think of that tackles the paradoxes of modern parenting in substantive ways, but at the expense of making a better sociological statement than a movie. It’s not a bad movie, but its flaws are endemic and non-trivial.

Hotel Transylvania 2 Genndy Tartakovsky Michelle MuroccaAt the end of the first Hotel Transylvania movie, papa Dracula had finally reconciled his daughter Mavis’ affection for the normal human Jonny, learning that the human world had changed when he wasn’t looking. The movie begins with Mavis and Jonny beginning their new life together, first as bride and groom and then as new parents to young Dennis. The culture clash between humans and monsters anchors on Dennis, who seems like purely human and doesn’t seem to fit in too well with the Transylvanian monster culture. This distresses Dracula to no end, as he is expecting Dennis to carry on the family’s vampire bloodline, while also pushing Mavis to wonder whether her new family should relocate to the human world. At this point, Hotel Transylvania 2 splits off into two separate plot threads, sending Mavis and Jonny on an exploratory trip to Jonny’s stereotypical suburban childhood home for a break from parenting, while Dracula and his cronies secretly take Dennis on a trip to “get his fangs” before his 5th birthday (at which point he will presumably stay human forever).

Hotel Transylvania 2 is packed with extremely well-worn material that’s usually (but not always) livened up by the execution. The over-simplification is that humor from people talking probably comes from co-writers Adam Sandler and Robert Smigel (with Mr. Sandler reprising the role of Dracula), while its sight-gags probably come from director Genndy Tartakovsky and his animation crew. Mr. Sandler tones down his misanthropic act for something with a bit more heart to it, and turns in a performance that’s infinitely more entertaining than anything he’s done for at least a decade. He and the rest of the cast (including Andy Samberg, Kevin James, Steve Buscemi, David Spade, and newcomer Keegan Michael Key replacing Cee-Lo Green as the Mummy) can often wring more laughs out of a line than it might deserve, as when Dracula tosses off video chat as the thing “with the phones and the buttons and the agony.” Notably excluded from that list is Selena Gomez as Mavis, who has to be the straight woman to her goofier father, husband, and monster uncles. This is not to say that she’s bad in the role, but just that she (and almost all the other women in the cast) aren’t allowed to be as funny as the guys. Megan Mullaly as Jonny’s mother is the exception, but she doesn’t do much more than fulfill the stereotype of the daffy mother.

Hotel Transylvania 2 Genndy Tartakovsky Michelle MurdoccaVisually, Hotel Transylvania 2 derives a lot of its humor in stillness and in hammering a joke repeatedly enough to push it into absurdist comedy, both hallmarks of Genndy Tartakovsky’s work in the past. It’s humor that’s best experienced, since it’s hard to explain exactly why Dracula puzzling over a shirtless Frankenstein is so very funny. On the other hand, there is a lot of Looney Tunes physical comedy slapstick, the funniest of which often centers on Blobby, a sentient lump of Jell-O returning from the first movie with an expanded role. Like the first Hotel Transylvania movie, Hotel Transylvania 2 embraces the heavily squash-and-stretch exaggeration that marks most hand-drawn animation, and usually stands in strong opposition to the photo-realism of most CGI. The results are delightful, especially in those Looney Tunes slapstick scenes or when they make Dracula dance.

Unfortunately, Hotel Transylvania 2 suffers from a lack of focus. The surface reason is because it’s bigger than its predecessor, which already had trouble fully utilizing its large cast. Hotel Transylvania 2 adds still more cast members and splits them across two thinner plots, which means that ideas go under-developed and a lot of comedic talent doesn’t get the screen time it deserves. It also takes almost 20 minutes for the movie’s story to get going, and it’s telling that the rough plot synopsis above can safely omit the fact that Mel Brooks guest stars as Dracula’s VERY old school father. While he’s in his usual irreverent form, he also appears way too late to make much of an impact.

Hotel Transylvania 2 Genndy Tartakovsky Michelle MurdoccaHowever, the roots of Hotel Transylvania 2‘s lack of focus go even deeper. Absent parents are common in most kids’ films, and when they are present, they are often irrelevant, if they are not obstacles to be overcome (such as Stoick in the How to Train Your Dragon movies) or even outright antagonists (such as numerous evil step-parents in many Disney Princess movies). The first Hotel Transylvania was unusual for a movie aimed at children because it made Dracula the lead character rather than Mavis, who would have been the norm. It’s the rare kids film that gives a parent distinct, interesting motivations and character traits. Dracula had reasons for not trusting humanity, but the movie is really about his growth and development as a person (or monster as the case may be). These kinds of kids movies are rare: The Incredibles did the same thing, but after that I run dry after 101 Dalmatians and The Secret of NIMH. If Dracula is still the major obstacle for his daughter to overcome, Hotel Transylvania was unusual for setting this conflict from his perspective rather than his daughter’s. It was as if Disney told The Little Mermaid from King Triton’s point of view.

All of Hotel Transylvania 2‘s bigger themes center on parenthood as well, and many of those themes seem to fit the Brave New World of parenting I described above. The family unit presented here is closer than it is in traditional animated kids fare, and there’s a non-trivial culture shock when the prior generation encounters the parenting practices of the current one. But Mavis’ conflict over where Dennis belongs can be viewed through the prism of those disappearing boundaries between parents and children. She is a helicopter parent because that’s what she’s been told to be. Further, the conflict she has over whether Dennis truly belongs with humans or with monsters is one that should ring true to any minority population in America, where that tightrope act is often a regular part of our daily lives. I can fully sympathize with Mavis’ snippiness when Jonny’s mother keeps using the word “normal” when she really means “human,” just as I can get snippy when people use the word “American” when they really mean “white.” Pushing this point further, I think the straight white Christian suburbia that has been the unstated “normal” in America for decades is slowly unraveling, meaning the population formerly considered the norm is suddenly being forced to walk the tightrope that minorities and marginalized populations must walk as unconscious second nature. As a consequence, I view the general unease afflicting large portions of (white) American society as discomfort over having to navigate this tightrope that they’ve never had to be aware of before and they haven’t figured out how to do it yet. We’re all going to be minorities in America before long, so Mavis’ sense that she and Dennis don’t belong with humans OR monsters is exceptionally relevant, as is her dilemma over how to balance her heritage against her present-day realities.

Hotel Transylvania 2 Genndy Tartakovsky Michelle MurdoccaUnfortunately, the conclusion of all that woolgathering is that Hotel Transylvania 2 really should have been centered on Mavis, rather than splitting its time between her and Dracula, because her conflict is by far the more interesting one. Dracula’s journey in Hotel Transylvania 2 is mostly just a repeat of the first movie, but with Dennis rather than Mavis. This is the major reason why I am left with a vague sense of disappointment with Hotel Transylvania 2‘s pat resolution to all these larger themes, because it ultimately glosses over complicated questions with superficial, overly-simplistic, feel-good answers. I don’t think these questions have a simple pat answer (and I believe that anyone who suggests that they do is ignorant, lying, or both), but this might just mean that this is a topic better suited for longer-form storytelling than a movie. Perhaps these themes can be better explored in the upcoming series.

Even so, allowing Dracula to have his say as a grandparent continues this franchise’s attitude that parents are interesting characters in themselves and have motivations and drives that kids don’t often really consider or dismiss too easily. If one views Hotel Transylvania 2 as a movie trying to make sense of modern parenting, the fact that it makes a mess of it can be a manifestation of those missing rules and boundaries that prior generations had. Modern parenting feels like a giant improvisational act that stretches out for years. Maybe it always did, and I have a different view of things now that I’m a parent myself. Or maybe Hotel Transylvania 2 is the same kind of helicopter parent that Mavis is, unable to avoid forcing itself into its children’s lives — behavior which we criticize in principle even as we do it to varying degrees in practice. In many ways, the perspective of the modern parent can inform the structure of Hotel Transylvania 2, for better and for worse.

Hotel Transylvania 2 Genndy Tartakovsky Michelle MurdoccaIt’s no surprise that Hotel Transylvania 2 looks great on home video; I think it would be unusual if modern digital animation didn’t look good in high-definition with the usual multi-channel sound. The bonus features on the DVD and the Blu-ray are anchored by two commentary tracks: one by director Genndy Tartakovsky and one by co-writers Adam Sandler and Robert Smigel (joined midway by executive producer Allen Covert). Mr. Tartakovsky’s commentary focuses more on technical aspects and the evolution of the film and the franchise; while it has a few notably long stretches of dead air, it still provides lots of interesting behind-the-scenes information. The second commentary is a lot less serious, as the participants will happily digress to clown around or talk about their kids, but the entertainment value can compensate for any missing information. The next best bonus feature is a Blu-ray exclusive focusing on sound effects, hosted by foley artist Robin Harlan. It’s easy to forget that foley is as critical to animation as anything else in the process, because drawings and puppets and CGI models don’t make any noises of their own that can be used in the final product. The demonstration of how everyday objects craft extraordinary sound effects is always fascinating to hear. The other Blu-ray exclusives include a featurette on how to make your own monster party decorations and treats, two featurettes on the newer additions to the cast (one focusing on character and one on design), a slate of deleted scenes (many of which were repurposed in other parts of the movie), a sing-along songs feature I couldn’t sit all the way through, and one featurette on how to draw the movie’s characters with Dennis’ voice actor Asher Blinkoff and production designer Michael Kurinsky. Bonuses that appear on both the DVD and the Blu-ray include a music video for the poppy “I’m in Love with a Monster” song and a sketch gallery. As is the norm these days, the combo pack includes both the Blu-ray and DVD, along with a digital download code in UltraViolet format.

I should be clear that I thought Hotel Transylvania 2 was very funny and enormously entertaining, and is quite worth watching for those reasons alone. However, I find I appreciate it more than I really love it. It brings a number of fascinating ideas to the table, but doesn’t address any of them in more than a superficial way — something even more disappointing in the wake of Inside Out‘s success at making mass entertainment that also tackled weighty subjects in a substantive manner. The superficiality of Hotel Transylvania 2‘s pat answers are a disappointment no matter how much it makes us laugh.

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Last pup of a dying planet, a young German Shepherd is rocketed to Earth, where he is bombarded by cosmic gamma rays emitted by a radioactive spider. Crash-landing in the forgotten land of Hubba Hubba, he is discovered by the Who-You-Callin'-Ancient One and his lovely wife Pookie. Instilled with their traditional American values, he spends his young adulthood roaming the globe, learning all the secrets of Comic-Fu. Donning battle armor fashioned from spilled chemicals splashed by lightning, he becomes the Sensational Shield of Sequential Art ACE THE BATHOUND! Look, it sounds a lot better than the truth. Born in Brooklyn, moved to Queens at 3 and then New Jersey at 10. Throughout high school, college, grad school, and gainful employment, two things have remained constant: 1) I am a colossal nerd, and 2) I have spent far too much time reading comics, and then reading and writing about them. Currently working as a financial programmer in New York City, while continuing to discover all the wonderful little surprises (and expenses) of owning your a home in the suburbs. Shares the above with a beautiful, wonderful, and incredibly understanding wife named Frances (who, thankfully, participates in most of my silly hobbies) and a large furry dog named Brownie (who, sadly, does not). Comics, toys, Apple Macintosh computers, video games, and eBay