It turns out that “Brave” isn’t the only animated feature this year devoted to a parent-child relationship. Beneath the monster mash antics of “Hotel Transylvania,” lies a father-daughter dynamic about letting go between control freak Dracula (Adam Sandler, who also serves as exec producer) and free-spirited teenager Mavis (Selena Gomez). And like Pixar’s latest, Sony’s latest also had a female director once attached (Jill Culton from “Open Season”), who was eventually replaced by a male director (the celebrated Genndy Tartakovsky of TV’s “Samurai Jack” and “Dexter’s Laboratory”).
Earlier this week, Tartakovsky and producer Michelle Murdocca unveiled a few scenes for a group of journos, in which Drac quickly loses his grip on his 118-year-old daughter when a 21-year-old quirky human enters Hotel T for the first time. Even after trying to masquerade Jonathan (Andy Samberg) as Johnnystein, Mavis falls for the fun-loving guy, who shakes everything up for Frankenstein (Kevin James), Wayne the Werewolf (Steve Buscemi), Murray the Mummy (Ceelo Green), Griffin the Invisible Man (David Spade), and their families and friends.
Fittingly, after taking 10 years to make, “Hotel Transylvania” gets a September 28 release in honor of the 10th anniversary of Sony Pictures Animation. But getting Tartakovsky was crucial in turning the project around from a familiar “Romeo and Juliet” riff to a more meaningful father-daughter face-off.
“I wanted my first movie to be an original,” Tartakovsky insists, “and as soon as I read that it was Dracula the dad, maybe it was just me being a father, but I found it interesting. I thought I could twist all those myths about Dracula, exploit them, and make them different as a parent’s point of view. The big test for me with any kind of concept is if I can have a lot of ideas right away without thinking hard and so I went home and wrote four pages of ideas and they kept flowing out. I’ve always wanted to do the Tex Avery style. Being funny is exhilarating.”
Yet introducing the broad-featured, bug-eyed Looney Tunes style was not easy to execute. It broke the Sony models and so the ambitious director requested more pliable rigs. And like Glen Keane on Disney’s “Tangled,” Tartakovsky drew over the CG animators’ work to get the right expressions and poses, but not before altering the design of Dracula, Frankenstein, and Jonathan to make them quirkier, especially the frizzy-haired human.
“Some of the animators you could tell were caged, but as soon as I opened the door, they were [liberated],” the director suggests. “Tex Avery’s style is all about control. Fur going at 100 miles an hour, everything gets washed together. So the secret is to do it when it’s called for and then really know how to hold back. In some ways, Dracula has humanized monsters with his hotel. It’s very controlled and not too crazy, and when Jonathan comes in, he takes it to a whole new level with monster fun.”
Sony is already pleased with the results because Tartakovsky will now segue to the animated “Popeye,” which will allow him to apply his hand-drawn aesthetic to another iconic pop culture figure.
But what sets “Hotel Transylvania” apart from Laika’s stop-motion “ParaNorman” (August 17) and Tim Burton’s stop-motion “Frankenweenie” (October 5) is its laugher quotient: “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein” meets “Young Frankenstein.” Then again, its Oscar potential rests with the emotional appeal of its father-daughter story.
“As a mom, I know what it’s like,” says producer Murdocca, who’s shepherded “Hotel Transylvania” from the beginning. “Ten years ago, I was drawn to this project because of the Universal monsters that I grew up with — I love Frankenstein — and I always knew there was a story here. We went through many variations, including scary. Five years ago, it was a different story; five years ago it was a different time, so it evolves. And I think we landed in a great place.”