Friday 14 June 2013

Double Feature: Rise of the Guardians and Hotel Transylvania, reviewed by Jacob Edwards

Double Feature: Rise of the Guardians / Hotel Transylvania. Accentuate the positives. Whether from the last, clutching vestiges of British Empire, the nearer, star-strangling embrace of Uncle Sam, or merely the white-capped tyranny of distance, Australian accents seem particularly susceptible to being subverted and then cinematically or televisually remodelled. House’s Jesse Spencer just about held his own as Chase (although, given that producer Bryan Singer didn’t realise at first that Hugh Laurie wasn’t American, the “Australian-ness” of Spencer’s character equally could have been recognised only after the fact, and so necessarily made more subtle than the quintessential Ozzie Norm), but for the most part there have been only Rolf Harris and Crocodile Dundee-styled tyre marks to follow, and so Australian personas have tended to be about as true to life when depicted abroad as are the on-screen dead-pigs-in-pokes that seems to constitute your average writer/producer/director’s conception of an intellect-defining game of chess… Brisbanite Janet Fielding, for instance, drawling the short straw as Tegan Jovanka in Doctor Who (Seasons 18.7 through 21.4); or crocodile hunter Steve Irwin as— well, okay, he really was like that; but now Hugh Jackman, his born-and-bred Australianness belied by an injection of “strewth” serum and the poor man being forced to wrap his Adam’s apple in coloured foil as a rough-as-guts Easter Bunny from Down Under.

Rise of the Guardians, directed by Peter Ramsey, tells the story of Jack Frost, the boyish and invisible (to people), at times merry, at times melancholy spirit of winter, who is chosen by the Man in the Moon to aid the four Guardians of Childhood in protecting the kids of the world from Pitch the Bogeyman’s nightmarish assault on innocence and wonder. In his pseudo-Russian depiction of Santa Claus, Alec Baldwin may perhaps be just as stereotyped as Jackman’s Bunny (though at least vodka-swigging merry, which is authentic), while Isla Fisher is unobtrusive as the Tooth Fairy, Chris Pine plays Jack Frost with a timeless, teen sincerity (and a nod or two to Peter Pan), and Sandy the Sandman (unvoiced; ergo, no actor) steals the show, communicating via a living, sparkling array of golden sand pictures. Jude Law looms unambiguously evil as the Bogeyman, and would indeed have to go hide under the bed if caught on camera, and not just microphone, giving voice to such villainous hyperbole (however so well the ipso of a Bogeyman matches the facto of his delivery); yet it is Hugh Jackman’s Myxomatosis-proof outback rabbit voice that catches in the throat – and even more so because, merely one screening away, Adam Sandler (who, let’s face it, is not generally known for his subtlety of performance) has conjured up a suave and, believe it or not, nicely understated portrayal of what could very easily have been an oh-so-over-the-top Count Dracula!

Voice acting is a tricky business – particularly where there is an exotically disemvowelled stereotype lurking in our group consciousness – and often there lies but a fine, crooked line between boorish, tongue-in-fist strangulation and a more artful, tongue-in-cheek drollery. Consider (if readers will pardon another lengthy digression) the House episode “The Socratic Method” (season 1.6), where Hugh Laurie as Doctor Gregory House, having struck up a late night epiphany playing faux Chopin, telephones a colleague for information, wakes him, and in extemporised subterfuge pretends to be calling from England. To reiterate: that’s Hugh Laurie (Cambridge educated, former president of the Footlights) playing an American who in turn is putting on a dodgy, plum-in-the-mouth Hugh Grant accent and doing so in such a way that it sounds decidedly false. David Tennant managed something similar in Doctor Who’s “Tooth and Claw” (series 2.2), his Estuary-English-speaking Time Lord contriving to greet Scotland not with Tennant’s own West Lothian accent but rather an irreverent, off-the-cuff stab at the more often parodied Edinburgh brogue – and this while warning Billie Piper’s Rose against her even more immoderate attempts at the same. From these two rare instances (contrasted with countless travesties where such motive was undercut either by means or by opportunity in abeyance) it seems possible to conclude that the extra degree of separation – a lingual dream within a dream – is vital in presenting audiences with a waggish parody rather than just the epiglottic nightmare of some accentual stereotyping run rife. A character, conventional wisdom suggests, must sound how audiences think that character should sound: hence, English actress Luan Peters’ over-the-top “Aussie trollop” accent in the Fawlty Towers episode “The Psychiatrist” (series 2.2), necessitated, lore would have it, by a dearth of Australian actresses who could “do the proper voice”; and if reality doesn’t quite measure up to those expectations… well, then reality can just grin and bear it – just ask Ridley Scott, his take on Gladiator being that many viewers would consider certain historical facts “too unbelievable” (!) and so, for the sake of remaining credible, such facts had to be thrown away, or drowned in slop and doled out soup-kitchen style to the more fickle and discerning of the masses. Enough said.

But then again, just as one may damn with faint praise, equally it is possible to praise with damnably long rants about cork-hung accents and a faintly abused sense of national identity; for though Hugh Jackman’s bunny drawl most assuredly does lower the tone of Rise of the Guardians, and while Adam Sandler conversely and most unexpectedly brings a degree of culture to Hotel Transylvania, these pretty much constitute the only bad and good points able to be raised by the respective prosecution and defence critics. Yes, Rise of the Guardians has been decried by at least one reviewer as plumping spectacle over substance,[1] and yes, Hotel Transylvania has garnered quiet praise for its less modelled, more old school animation (a homage, of sorts, to Warner Brothers great Tex Avery), but in both instances the conclusions reached are indicative of the tip, not the bulk, of the cinematic iceberg. Guardians does at times present the viewer with a visual extravaganza (beautifully realised by Roger Deakins, well known for his work on Coen brothers films, as well as How to Train Your Dragon), but this is hardly the product of whimsy or mere spectacle for its own sake (à la Walt Disney’s betwixt wars epic, Fantasia); rather, it springs with a refreshingly natural ebullience from playwright David Lindsay-Abaire’s (yes, an honest-to-goodness writer for stage) having crafted a screenplay in which plot and character hold sway, but where the sensory experience is given its own space, and exists to complement, rather than distract from or stand in place of, the story.

Hotel Transylvania (directed by Genndy Tartakovsky), conversely, for all that its animation might fondly call to mind the cartoons of old, uses the relative simplicity of its visuals to mask a far-from-meritorious facileness of plot, under guise of which Robert Smigel (formerly a writer of short sketch comedy for Saturday Night Live) and Peter Baynham (who co-scripted Borat) blitz their shell-shocked viewers with cut after cut after should-have-been-cut of unremitting and largely unconnected gag humour. Hotel Transylvania tells of the eponymous getaway resort, which was built by Dracula to keep his daughter Mavis safe from human violence and prejudice, and now serves as a yearly gathering place for their extensive adopted family of unjustly villainised monster friends. With Mavis about to turn 118 years old, Dracula’s elaborate ruse to keep her from leaving home leads instead to a bohemian young backpacker’s finding his way to the hotel; and despite the clever animation of Sandler’s Dracula, and the fact that the whole caboodle comes across a bit like the old Scooby Doo cartoons (much beloved by all), objectively, what ends up on screen is a revamped take (no pun intended) on something that wasn’t all that funny to begin with, and which never was likely to translate well into feature length treatment, no matter how much Smigel and Baynham may have sat around, chortling at the innumerable one-liners they could extract from the joined scenarios of “over-protective father of ageless teen daughter” and “haven for nice monsters, suddenly threatened by exposure to humans”.

Where Rise of the Guardian focuses very much on its lead (Jack Frost), with rounded support characters (the four Guardians) and some well-measured cameos (in particular, Santa’s helpful yeti), Hotel Transylvania comes across as little more than a travelling melee, its plethora of Silly-Putty-moulded characters flinging themselves about with capricious disregard, content in the knowledge that no great diligence will be required to sight and duly tick off each signposted plot point on the rollicking road to trite. There are too many characters; too many one-off distractions; and while the casting of Adam Sandler turned out to be a masterstroke, nonetheless it seems fair to suggest that this was less the result of inspired prescience than a fortuitous by-product of an otherwise spurious conceit. Sometimes the best in animated voice characterisation comes when stars act in variance with what cinemagoers might expect to hear from them (Mel Gibson in Chicken Run, for instance), but in Hotel Transylvania the actors appear almost without exception to have been asked along not so much because their parts required any particular quality or nuance, but rather because on some primal level it was hoped that fans (or in this case, maybe just the filmmakers) would associate their voices with previous incitements of great mirth: Andy Samberg (from “Jizz in My Pants” comedy music act The Lonely Island) as Mavis’s love interest; Kevin James (The King of Queens) as Frankenstein; with David Spade (Just Shoot Me!) playing the Invisible Man; Fran Drescher (The Nanny) a werewolf; even Brian George (Seinfeld’s Babu Bhatt) as a suit of armour… in fact, of the belly-laugh-bloated and distended line-up – signed up en masse, for want of a better explanation, from a poolside Saturday Night Live reunion – the only non-comedians are Selena Gomez (but only because Hannah Montana sitcom star Miley Cyrus pulled out) and Steve Buscemi (who in any case looks, and therefore might be expected to sound, a bit funny). And so, whereas Rise of the Guardians comports itself as a serious, at times emotional film, which nevertheless embraces humour wherever possible, Hotel Transylvania instead stakes its audience’s investment solely in the undiversified (and somewhat dubious) twin funnies of rapid-fire patter and chortling through dint of osmosis.

Both movies are rated PG, and so have been designated suitable for whatever constitutes “family” viewing these days – the gist being, perhaps, that each is inherently tuned to appeal more to one side of the sophistication gap than the other. In terms of music, for instance, Rise of the Guardians makes full emotive use of a classically cinematic score by French composer Alexandre Desplat (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Parts 1 & 2), whereas much of what Mark Mothersbaugh (of Devo fame) brings to Hotel Transylvania is lost in the mayhem, and gives way eventually to a ghastly hip hop song performed in character by Sandler & Company. Perhaps tellingly of a storyline that peters out with such predictable meekness, this rendition also marks what the writers must have considered a fine end to their cleverly stitched-up narrative. (Harking back to his Monty Python days, someone like Terry Gilliam would probably have settled for a rapid-deflating, squelched raspberry sound and simply squashing the puddled plot underfoot.) Hotel Transylvania will bring joy, then – music video rapture; a celebration of angst and tunelessly progressive gusto – to the confused cygnets of Gen Z, and to those of the Gen Y ex-ducklings who now opt (with the callousness of long habit) for exaggerated emoticons and text message banality, rather than any real sense of empathy or closure; and as for the rest of us dodos (big beaked and self-important, not an Angry Bird in sight…)

…Well, we’re a dying breed, to be sure, but so long as there remain on show films the quality of Rise of the Guardians – animated features of substance, their scripts and cinematography leaving us something in which to believe – we’ll still be here, reminiscing about Jaffas and drive-in theatres and that should-have-been-Oscar-nominated bunny rabbit that leading man Robin Williams carries for a brief cameo in What Dreams May Come. What’s more, we’ll be keeping a keen ear out and cringing happily as Hugh Jackman sports the latest range in “fair dinkum” accents; for where a single blemish is discerned, is there not then implicit something near-flawless? Or as we (don’t, in fact) say in Australia: better a fly in the ointment than a sick sheep with a festering wound and no salve to speak of… mate.

1. Justin Chang, variety, posted October 11, 2012

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