Every Saturday, Check the Reel features Trailer Trash, a close look at previews, trailer, and sneak peeks for films not yet released. What does the rest of the year promise for theatres and Netflix accounts? Which are the masterpieces? Which are the flops? Serbian Filmmaker reaches into the future and tells you what to expect from Hollywood’s up and coming.
Any time you look back at 90s animation and say, “Kids now don’t have it like we did,” you can thank Genndy Tartakovsky for making yours the superior childhood. He created Cartoon Network’s first original cartoon, the hilarious Dexter’s Laboratory, and followed it with Samurai Jack, a God amongst animated plebeians. It captured the stoic intensity of a samurai film, twisted it into a demented, fairy-tale dystopia shaped by world folklore, and paved the way for other landmark animation, including Greatest Cartoon Ever Avatar: The Last Airbender. (Also featuring the voice of Mako!) Watch all three if you haven’t already.
Tartakovsky hasn’t slacked off since: he’s given us a Star Wars miniseries more captivating in five-minute fragments than half of Lucas’s film saga; Sym-Bionic Titan, a sweet, short-lived fusion of John Hughes and Gundam; the storyboard for Iron Man 2; and now Hotel Transylvania, a screwball monster-comedy hitting theatres just in time for Halloween.
Hotel Transylvania has traded hands at Sony Animation for five years until Tartakovsky signed on in 2011. He’s apparently rewritten the script from scratch and had major input on the animation style, so if you’re worried Tartakovsky’s just a figurehead to execute the studio’s fart jokes and dated pop culture references, rest easy. If you’re worried the film will disappoint… You’re right to worry, but for now I’m optimistic.
The trailer makes it clear, regardless of celebrity voices like Adam Sandler (augh) and Selena Gomez (AUGH), Tartakovsky has the last word on the film’s feel. The animation distinguishes itself from the meticulous detail of a Dreamworks production or Pixar’s warm, enticing simplicity, drawing more on hand-drawn techniques familiar to fans of Genndy’s TV work: the characters’ faces run a wider range of expression than we see in CGI, and their bodies slide down halls and fall through air with the breakneck flexibility of a cut-out on a flat surface. That’s not an insult; animation exists to give the unrealistic a world realistic to them. Its rules, harder to conceive in a physical, 3D space, seem inevitable when created with a pen or paintbrush. Tartakovsky does his best to extend that logic to computer animation and he looks to have succeeded.
There’s no pop culture joke or toilet humor in sight, already a step above drivel like Open Season, Shark Tale, and The Smurfs. Even the celebrity actors seem to have gotten Tartakovsky’s intentions, as they try to create characters instead of translating their regular schtick to the screen (It’s hard especially to recognize Sandler without knowing it’s him). Certainly the plot treads familiar ground, from an ensemble of public domain ghouls to Monster’s Inc.’s “all monsters hate humans” / “daddy’s girl” conflict spiced up with young love. I worry the trailer might have exhausted the film’s best gags, and I can’t see Hotel Transylvania matching the genre-blending genius of Samurai Jack; at the least, it’ll be a feature-length Dexter’s Lab: irreverent, smart humor animated well, reminding twenty-somethings of yesteryear’s entertainment.
The key to understanding* Tim Burton: his normal characters are just as weird as the “freaks.” They may mock the palest loner; damn, shun, and ostracize them; but they have the same grotesque features, wear the same Hot Topic corsets, and live in the same world of garish, Gothic design choices.
* Not appreciating, necessarily
Take Frankenweenie: a boy misses his dead dog and decides to bring him back, Frankenstein-style. He gets the idea from a science teacher with Vincent Price’s face, Bela Lugosi’s voice, and Herbert West’s materialist philosophy on reanimation; a hunchback named “E. Gore” finds out about the dog and tells everybody else. The children’s first instinct is to bring their pets back as monster-critters, while the parents respond rationally by grabbing torches and forming a mob. And of course it’s in black-and-white (Would you expect otherwise?)
Burton’s films all deal with living in a freaky world, but he expresses his psychological hang-ups most clearly through stop-motion, a medium I’ve argued best lends itself to childhood macabre and Brothers Grimm-esque fairy tales. Unsurprisingly, these have also been Tim Burton’s greatest films. They sidestep the distracting aesthetic he’s fallen into with live-action and cut straight to the humanity underneath: Jack Skellington is the bored, restless child, The Corpse Bride a world of characters weighed down by love and adulthood, and now Victor the most familiar of kid traumas: the death of a pet. And yet animation never lets us linger in self-pity or, heaven forbid, mourning. These films barrel forward with sick glee, reveling in their death fixation; their joy, like Bubonic Plague, is infectious.
That’s what Burton needs now with Frankenweenie after turning on cruise control for Dark Shadows, Alice in Wonderland, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. It comes from a personal place–it’s a remake of an early Burton film from 1984– and brims with love for horror history, well-trodden though these references may be (Of course the Asian kid has the Godzilla pet). Better yet, Bonham-Carter and Depp are nowhere to be seen (Great actors, but increasingly a crutch for Burton’s creative choices). I’m a little scared the film’s main appeal–Victor reconnecting with his dog–will be lost in the falling dominos of monsters, mobs, and gross-out gags, reducing the story to more morbid slapstick; Burton tends to choose either characters or excitement with each film, and the time has come for him to nail both down the middle.
Affectionately nicknamed “Avengers with Santa Claus”–Jude Law even serves as poor man’s Tom Hiddleston–Rise of the Guardians turns childhood’s biggest mythic figures into a team of superhero badasses who not only give kids pennies for their teeth but protect them from the forces of evil. Guillermo del Toro produces, and bless the man’s soul after being kicked off so many films (The Hobbit, Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness) and still working in Hollywood because it means we’ll get to watch more family films like Rise of the Guardians.
Guardians’ main appeal is its grand scope. Though there’s nowhere near the same prestige as accompanied The Avengers’, the animation treats the combined forces of Santa, Sandman, Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy like a solar eclipse or centennial comet: you won’t see this everyday so don’t fuck it up. Dreamworks shows no signs of treating the concept like a joke: they truly believe Santa Claus is a glorified, magical Cossack soldier, backed by elves, yetis, and a mechanized death-sled; the Easter Bunny not only has an Australian accent and fights with a boomerang (Really?), its seems perfectly reasonable that he should – the line “I’m a bunny” has never been said with more conviction and agreement that, yes, he is a bunny, and don’t touch the tail unless you want an easter egg hidden where only a surgeon’ll find it; and even a decision that should sink the film, the addition of loose-cannon Jack Frost (Chris Pine), fits right in. I’ll admit, I was skeptical; why put in an audience surrogate when Avengers proved we could split our sympathy among many heroes? But Jack Frost’s story arc looks to cross with others – I get a hint that Sandman will be a more important character than the trailers let on, the villain being his polar opposite – and he’s less Robin, more Nightwing: brash, hotheaded, a young man who thinks he knows himself.
So far, I can’t fault Rise of the Guardians for anything. The advertising is perfect: it makes it clear just what to expect and I expect something breathtaking, as much cause for fist-bumping as any great superhero film. Animation has been treated as a step below real life, its facetious younger brother who mimics live action’s every move with a goofy limp or swagger. This is stupid and false. Animation can make me laugh, cry, ponder, and cheer like the rest of them, and if Rise of the Guardians delivers, this year’s animation revival just might become a full-blown Second Renaissance.