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A Different Toon 

Hotel Transylvania: Transformania, Belle and alternate ways of looking at feature animation

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click to enlarge SONY PICTURES ANIMATION
  • Sony Pictures Animation
2.5.jpg

You learn a lot about the different ways feature animation can be viewed if you're willing to look outside the boundaries of the United States. Here, "animation" is treated as a genre, with the implicit meaning of "stuff made to appeal to children." There's a reason that our Academy Awards include a separate category for Best Animated Feature: We treat it as somehow separate from real filmmaking. If you look on the small screen, it's easy to find examples—from The Simpsons to South Park to BoJack Horseman—that show how animation can be used as a storytelling technique for grown-ups; if the big screen is involved, on the other hand, you better be talking to youngsters.

It's a very different proposition, however, in Japan, where the long history of anime and creators like Studio Ghibli means that feature animation isn't presumed to be kid stuff. And two new features this week—the CGI studio sequel Hotel Transylvania: Transformania, and the Japanese animated feature Belle—offer radically different perspectives on the kind of storytelling feature animation can deliver.

The fourth installment in the now-decade-old Hotel Transylvania franchise continues to hemorrhage members of its original voice cast, with Adam Sandler's Dracula now replaced by Brian Hull in a tale about Dracula considering retiring from the hotel business and passing it on to his daughter Mavis (Selena Gomez) and human son-in-law Johnny (Andy Samberg). When he believes that only his human-ness is keeping him from being welcomed into the family business, Johnny tries an experimental ray gun to change himself into a monster, inadvertently resulting at the same time in changing Dracula and several of his monster pals into humans.

Series creator Genndy Tartakovsky (who gets a story and co-screenwriting credit here) had a wonderful history with inventive animated TV shows like Powerpuff Girls and Samurai Jack, yet only his visual imagination ever made the transition, with goofy, loose-limbed character animation serving bland cookie-cutter narratives about acceptance and being yourself and so forth. Transformania is generally fun to look at, but it's also borderline exhausting even at just around 80 minutes before the lengthy credits. The filmmakers here are never willing to pause long enough to let any of the potential jokes land about Dracula now being a normal guy with a dad-bod and a receding hairline, or the puppy-dog enthusiastic Johnny now exploding out of a dinosaur-esque frame. The pace has to remain relentless, lest anyone under the age of 12 find themselves even momentarily distracted. It feels not just like all the other Hotel Transylvania movies, but like a hundred other studio-financed animated features of the past 20 years.

GKIDS FILMS
  • GKids Films
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BELLE
Kaho Nakamura
Ryô Narita
Rated PG
Available Jan. 14 in theaters

That's not remotely true of Belle, despite its roots connected to one of the greatest studio-financed animated features of the past 30 years. Writer/director Mamoru Hosoda tells the tale of Suzu (Kaho Nakamura), a shy, motherless girl in contemporary Japan who signs up for a virtual world called U where people create anonymous avatars. There Suzu unexpectedly finds her voice as a superstar singer called Belle, becoming a global phenomenon while keeping her online identity hidden in the real world.

Suzu's virtual identity also connects to this story as a spin on the classic Disney version of Beauty and the Beast, with some familiar visual touchstones in a scary, monstrous figure living in a dark castle, and a ballroom dance. Yet Hosoda uses that familiarity simply as a foundation, branching off into fascinating directions as he explores the appeal not just of becoming a different person in virtual worlds, but in finding connections that are harder to find in the real world. It's a complex vision of social media that recognizes both the damage of cyberbullying and the appeal of feeling less alone, while having the confidence to include moments when emotions are conveyed through characters remaining completely still.

It's another telling factor to note that, while COVID still rages and family films struggle at the box office, Hotel Transylvania moved to an online-only premiere, while Belle opens in theaters—despite both being PG-rated films perfectly suitable for audiences of most ages. One of these movies is putting on a show to keep kids amused, while the other one is actually interested in telling a story that's thorny and even a little unsettling. Feature animation can do both of those things, but it feels more unusual and noteworthy when it tries to do the latter.

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