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Director books unique animated tale with 'Hotel Transylvania'

By Tim Lammers, StrictlyCinema.com
Published On: Sep 26 2012 04:30:22 PM CDT
Updated On: Sep 27 2012 10:25:24 AM CDT
Genndy Tartakovsky

"Hotel Transylvania" director Genndy Tartakovsky.

It's only appropriate that acclaimed animation director Genndy Tartakovsky be at the helm of "Hotel Transylvania," because in a way, the 3D computer-animated film is a monster mash of old and new sensibilities.  

A 2D, hand-drawn animator who's found massive success with such television series as "Samurai Jack," "Dexter's Laboratory" and "Star Wars: Clone Wars," the last thing Tartakovsky wanted to do with his feature film debut was create something that looks like it could have been done by any number of animated directors in the field.

"Especially with 3D animation and computer generated animation, it's so hard to stand out," Tartakovsky told me in an interview Monday.  "I call the computer the 'great equalizer,' because it finds a way to make everything look the same. It's not like you're drawing by hand and each artist draws so uniquely that it's hard to really mimic each other, because it's so personal. Somehow, when everything gets soldiered through a computer, it finds a way to make everything look a little bit more of the same because everybody is using similar programs."

To separate his work from the others, Tartakovsky said he simply kept a tight hold onto where he came from.

"I tried not to change my sensibilities a lot," said Tartakovsky, 42. "I thought of the film as something I'd try to get in a hand-drawn feature. I wanted it to expressive and cartoony, and more caricatured and unrealistic, like you were opening up an issue of Mad magazine. I wanted it to feel like a big, broad comedy."

Opening in theaters Friday, "Hotel Transylvania" includes the most iconic monsters in movie history, from Count Dracula (voice of Adam Sandler), Frankenstein's monster (Kevin James) and the Werewolf (Steve Buscemi), to the Mummy (Cee Lo Green), the Invisible Man (David Spade) and the Bride of Frankenstein (Fran Drescher). There's even a She-Wolf, voiced by Molly Shannon.

At the heart of the tale is Dracula, however, who is struggling with the pains of fatherhood and his little girl, Mavis (Selena Gomez), who at age 118 (it takes longer to mature when you're one of the undead) is yearning to get out and see the real world. Tricked by Dracula into thinking all humans are evil, Mavis seems content to return home to her father's hotel in Transylvania.

But throwing a wrench into Dracula's well-constructed plans is Jonathan (Andy Samberg), an adventurous human who checks into the hotel, not realizing it is occupied by monsters. Not wanting his otherworldly patrons to panic or his daughter to take special interest in the hip human, Dracula paints  Jonathan to look like a cousin from the Frankenstein family.

The problem is, there's a spark between Dracula's daughter and the righteous dude that's instantaneous, and its Dracula is panicking to find a way to stop their budding romance before she finds out the truth.

While "Hotel Transylvania" concentrates on a father-daughter relationship, there's plenty of monster mayhem going on to appeal to fans of the genre.

Tartakovsky, a Moscow native who moved to Chicago with his parents when he was 7 years old, said he was inspired to do the monster comedy by a pair of legendary comedians he'd watch in certain Universal Studios monster movies on the tube growing up.

"I was scared of the regular monster movies, but I'd watch old black-and-white repeats like 'Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein,'" Tartakovsky said. "That's how I got to know the monsters, through Abbott and Costello. Because of that, 'Hotel Transylvania' was perfect for me to do."

These days, Tartakovsky is being schooled in monster comedies by Sandler. The filmmaker said since Sandler was an executive producer on the film, he didn't book a reservation at "Hotel Transylvania" to simply do a voice role.

"We definitely had a unique situation on this film, because if you're working with Adam, he's very involved, creatively," Tartakovsky said. "If he doesn't like something in the script, he's not going to say it. So, he was definitely involved in the writing process and the jokes."

Plus, Tartakovsky said, having Sandler in the creative mix means his familiar troupe of players will come with him for the ride. And by this time, Sandler and company have their process down to a science.

"I at first thought, 'Oh my God, with all these comedians in the film, I'm going to have six hours of improv that I'm going to have figure out what to do with," Tartakovsky joked.  "But in all actuality, it was quite the opposite. Once they like something that's in the script, and they know the joke works, they'll bend over backward to make sure it works. They'll do five, 10, 15 takes, to deliver that joke and not change it. "

Even more of a benefit to Tartakovsky was the Sandler and his crew were able to record their dialogue together -- a rarity in the animation film business because of conflicts in the actors' schedules.

"From my background, we always get the actors together in one booth to record. It's so much easier and better because you get to feel the chemistry of what you're recording," Tartakovsky explained.  "They play off of each other and you can see if the jokes are reading or not."

Tartakovsky said Sandler assumed he'd have to record his dialogue separately, but the director did the best he could to make the group session happen.

"I told Adam, 'We can get the schedules all lined up and you can be together.' So, we flew Andy down from New York, and we were able to have him, Adam, Kevin James, David Spade, Molly Shannon and Cee Lo Green all together in one room," Tartakovsky said. "It was fantastic because the chemistry was there. The timing between Jonathan and Dracula was so much better than if they were separate."