A Preview of Sony Animation’s Hotel Transylvania

There’s an interesting and somewhat exciting trend coming in the second half of 2012 and that’s the number of horror-related animated movies being released, obviously meant for kids, but with lots of in-jokes that older fans should appreciate as well.

Sony Pictures Animation’s Hotel Transylvania has a couple advantages over the others, first because it stars some of the most famous monsters from moviedom including Count Dracula, Frankenstein and the Wolf Man, but also because it’s the feature film and computer animation debut of Genndy Tartakovsy, best known for cartoons like “Samurai Jack,” “Dexter’s Laboratory” and the excellent original “Star Wars: Clone Wars” series.

Tartakovsky was already developing a couple ideas for Sony Animation when they called upon him to take over the project that they’d been developing for four years and he came on board to develop the three-page outline they had, which grew into an all-star animated comedy featuring the voices of Adam Sandler, Selena Gomez, Kevin James, Celo Green and many more.

You may already have seen the new trailer last week, but before its debut, ComingSoon.net/ShockTillYouDrop.com had a chance to see some footage from the animated movie presented by Tartakovsky and the film’s producer Michelle Murdocca, who has been with Sony Animation since its inception ten years ago.

After a brief introduction by Murdocca, Taratkovsky came out and introduced us to the various characters and showed us a bunch of clips from the movie. In the movie, Dracula, as voiced by Sandler, is portrayed as the overprotective father of a hundred and teen daughter named Mavis, voiced by Selena Gomez. He has built the Hotel Transylvania as a place where she can be safe from humans as only monsters are allowed. The staff is made up of zombies, except for the cleaning ladies, who are witches, and the halls of the hotel are filled with dozens of monsters from moviedom. Other characters include Kevin James as the voice of Frankenstein and Fran Drescher as the Bride of Frankenstein, both of whom we’d learn were cast before Sandler. Steve Buscemi provides the voice of the werewolf with Molly Shannon playing his wife and he’s completely worn out by the number of werewolf litters they’ve had. David Spade provides the voice of the Invisible Man while Celo Green is Murray the Mummy and then Jon Lovitz is Quasimodo, the hotel’s chef who is always looking for new delicacies to feed the guests, always accompanied by Esmerelda his pet rat.

Tartakovsky wanted to take advantage of all the funny people they had on the project by having them recording a lot of their parts together rather than doing all of them individually, so some of the earliest sessions had all of them in a room together.

The first clip has Dracula going to talk to Mavis on her birthday about her desire to go out into the world, since he said that on her 118th birthday, she could do whatever she wants, so he heads to her room to have the inevitable discussion that they have every year about her leaving the hotel. As Dracula walks through the halls to Mavis’ room, shrunken heads on the doorknob say things like “Do Not Disturb” and such. Dracula gets to Mavis’ room where she’s prepared to give him a big speech about why she should be allowed to leave the hotel, and as they start having the usual discussion, she starts her speech ready for her father to say the same things he always says, but instead, he tells her that she can feel free to go where she wants. It takes her a split second to grab her packed bags and switch clothes, saying she wants to go to “Paradise,” a place she knows from a postcard she found where her father met her mother. (It’s actually a postcard from Hawaii, which she calls “Ha-wah-wah?” when she first hears about it and then “Ha-wee-wee” the next time.) Her father convinces her to just go out to somewhere in the general vicinity and start slow, but what she doesn’t know is that her father has created a nearby town filled with zombies with the intention to scare her into not wanting to leave the hotel.

The plan only works partially since she goes back and tells her father she never wants to leave but the zombies are followed back to the hotel by a hitchhiker named Jonathan, voiced by Andy Samberg. The second clip starts with Dracula coming down into the lobby of the hotel and his first encounter with Jonathan, the first human to ever find the Hotel Transylvania, and Dracula freaks out and drags Jonathan into a closet. In this scene, we get to see some of the monsters with a brief appearance by Frankenstein and Quasimodo, and we can see the likes of a Yeti and a flying brain and tentacles, but none of it phases Jonathan, who is a laidback California surfer-type who seems to be thrilled by this new experience. After a bit of an argument, Dracula dresses Jonathan up to fit in and he comes out of the closet as “Johnny-stein.”

Tartakovsky told us that after this scene, we see that all the events Dracula has planned Mavis’ birthday party get screwed up by Jonathan’s presence and nothing has gone as planned. Dracula has had enough of Jonathan at that point and in the next clip, he takes him to a cemetery to try to get rid of him. He tries to hypnotize him to leave and forget everything he’s seen, but it doesn’t work, which he finds out is because of Jonathan’s contact lenses, and Dracula is freaked out by Jonathan trying to poke around in his eye to take them out (a gag that’s seen in the latest trailer.) Dracula also has learned that his daughter really likes Jonathan, which gives him another reason to want to get rid of him.

The last clip involved a bonding moment between Drac and Jonathan as they work together to arrange the tables in the grand hall for Mavis’ birthday party. Dracula tells Jonathan to arrange the tables but it’s taking him a long time so Drac uses his powers to command the tables to move to different places. Jonathan sees what the tables can do and he gets on one and commands it to go “Up!” and he then starts flying around, which Dracula responds to by jumping on a table himself and chasing Jonathan first around the ballroom and then out into the long halls of the hotel. This scene gave us a taste of the action that Tartakovsky showed off in “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” and other things he’s done. Apparently, the hotel’s chef Quasimodo has always wanted to cook the most prized delicacy among monster chefs—human—and when he learns of Jonathan’s presence, it puts him in danger.

The animation and story both look solid although we may be a bit too jaded from seeing far too many of these clips presentation dog and pony shows to full-on rave about anything we saw, though we have confidence that at least the action and humor will work from what we saw.

After the presentation, we had lunch at the exclusive Sony Club with the filmmakers and because we were seated right next to Tartakovsky, we got to talk to him a bit more about the movie.

Tartakovsky had just finished up “Sym-Biotic Titan” and realizing they weren’t going to continue, he was looking for more work and Sony Animation offered him the project, which seemed like a dream gig considering that he could play around with some of the classic movie monsters. The reason why they could use the likes of Frankenstein and Dracula in their movie, even though Universal Pictures still owns the movie rights to both character. See, both characters are generally in the public domain but Universal has rights to certain aspects of the characters which they created like Frankenstein’s specific coloring and the bolts in his neck, as well as Dracula’s cape couldn’t have an inner red lining. As long as they stayed away from those elements, they could use the characters to their heart’s content. Tartakovsky admits to being more familiar with the characters from the Abbott and Costello movies he grew up with and being more of a fan of comedy than horror.

Part of the trick to making the movie was to remain somewhat Gothic but not go too far into horror and finding that right balance with the tone of the humor was definitely tougher than doing television cartoons since audiences are much more forgiving of a weaker episode because there’s always another one coming and “hopefully it’s better.” Tartakovsky realizes that with features you get one shot and that’s it, so he had to approach it differently to fill out 85 minutes to sell the characters and the story, rather than having a number of episodes to win over viewers.

“The pressure is totally different,” he told us, “so when I got into it, I knew that the project had been around for a while and the project could go anywhere since it’s just about monsters, so for me, this was the story they gave me, I’m going to put it on these train tracks. The one thing about doing so much product is that for good or bad, I have an instinct about it, and I trust my instincts. This is the movie we got, I like it, here it is, and I wrote a version of the script and the company tweaked it as I wrote it and that was the train.”

Some of the characters were already established visually when he came in but he did have a hand in designing Dracula and Jonathan and said that when the characters are animated, they really pushed how far they could go in terms of stretching their expressions and movements beyond what normally can be done using computers.

He also is well aware his movie is coming out right in between two other horror-related stop motion movies, LAIKA Studio’s ParaNorman and Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie, though he’s not worried his movie will get lumped in with them since his movie is different. “We purposefully didn’t do kid’s scary. We just did broad comedy with monsters rather than scary fun for kids, and I think that’s what Paranorman is more.”

“We never thought we were doing kids’ animation,” he continued. “Our sensibility is youthful, so kids can like it, adults can like it hopefully. I don’t really know what kids like, I know what my kids like but they’re not necessarily representative of the whole gamut of children, so if we make something we think is funny and it’s appropriate, we can believe that other adults and kids will find it funny.” 

Fortunately, Tartakovsky already has experience straddling that fine line with his cartoon work although Hotel Transylvania is likely to reach a much bigger audience. “You want to be commercial, there’s nothing wrong with that, but my biggest concern going into this is if I’m going to lose my voice completely. With animation, you don’t know who directs what. You can’t tell that the director of ‘Shrek’ directed this other animated movie, but it’s also all about the timing sensibility and pacing and some of the humor that we do, and I really didn’t want to lose my voice. It’s a big pet peeve of mine. Love or hate Michael Bay, you know that’s a Michael Bay movie, and all the best directors have their own signatures, but in animation, you really don’t have that. There’s studio branding, like something that feels like a Pixar movie, so with this movie, I wanted to have an imprint so you’d go, ‘Well, only Genndy can make this.’ It’s hard, especially with CG, but I feel there’s a lot of moments that feel that they’re very me, so hopefully it’ll feel different enough that it has a signature to it.” 

Obviously, Sony Pictures Animation must be happy with the results as they just announced they’ve just hired Tartakovsky to reimagine the classic cartoon character Popeye as a feature film. One imagines it will probably be his home for a while since separating ways with Cartoon Network after changes that made him feel like he didn’t have a place there.

During the lunch, Tartakovsky also regaled us with stories of the planned feature films based on Samurai Jack, including an animated movie he was hoping to do with J.J. Abrams (an admitted fan) and Paramount, though that fell through as Abrams moved onto other things like a little movie called Star Trek. The animator knew that no one else was going to make it if Abrams didn’t get behind it, so for now, the idea of doing those movies is dead. “I definitely want to finish it, I have the story,” he said about the chances of returning to the characters whose adventures ended rather abruptly when Tartakovsky moved onto “Clone Wars.”

You can see how Hotel Transylvania turned out, when it opens on September 28th.