Ship of Ghouls: Genndy Tartakovsky books a monster cruise for 'Hotel Transylvania 3'

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Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation finds our tight-knit monster clan sailing on a mega cruise-liner. Early on in their voyage, Wayne the werewolf (the voice of Steve Buscemi), and his wife, Wanda (voice of Molly Shannon), drop off their enormous litter of pups at the ship’s “Kids’ Club.” They are told they can leave their rambunctious brood with the Club’s attendants while they go off and do “whatever they want.” Wayne and Wanda are stunned. Whatever they want? Their eyes widen. Their grins petrify in disbelief. It’s been a running joke through the Hotel Transylvania films that the ever-pregnant Wanda and her hubby are hampered by their seemingly countless offspring. Wayne in particular is the sleep-deprived, resigned stereotype of a parent with energetic little ones. Whatever we want, they chant in demented unison. Whatever we want!

It’s a dream that has particular meaning for the film’s director and co-writer, Genndy Tartakovsky, best known for his classic cartoon series “Dexter’s Laboratory,” “Powerpuff Girls” and “Samurai Jack.” After HT3, Tartakovsky hopes to do more of whatever he wants. But with this, the latest installment of a Sony Pictures Animation franchise that has garnered $831 million worldwide to date, the filmmaker has already succeeded in injecting into the story more of what producer Michelle Murdoca calls “the Genndy flavor” than ever before.

“For me, it’s my favorite” of the three films, says Tartakovsky of the July 13 release. “Not because I wrote it,” along with Austin Powers screenwriter Michael McCullers, making this the only Hotel movie on which Tartakovsky has a writer’s credit. “It’s got a different energy, very visual… We got to do so many more extreme, physical things. The physical comedy’s a lot more. There’s a little bit less dialogue. And so it’s more of my sensibility that I really like.”

In the first Hotel Transylvania, we met Drac (the voice of Adam Sandler), the vampire proprietor of a hotel for monsters. Drac had some trouble letting go of his daughter, Mavis (the voice of Selena Gomez), when Mavis fell for a doofy human (voice of Andy Samberg), though Drac, too, warmed to Johnny in the end. In Hotel Transylvania 2, Drac was forced to accept that his grandson Dennis might not be a monster. Now, with Hotel Transylvania 3, tables have turned: It’s Mavis who must come to terms with the fact her widowed father wants and deserves a partner of his own. Although it’s cause for some concern when Drac’s choice lands upon a woman of dangerous lineage, the captain of their cruise-liner (the voice of Kathryn Hahn).

The cruising angle was Tartakovsky’s idea, inspired by a New Year’s trip he took with his family several years ago. “I’ve cruised before,” he says. “I’m not a big fan, in general, of it. I lived in Europe and so I like being not in tour groups—not being controlled. Just doing what I want, and it’s a little like a cattle-call-type scenario on a cruise.”

Still, he admits that cruising is “a very bonding experience. I think that’s why, more and more, I started to make the connection. And for the movie, we wanted just not to do a normal cruise. We definitely wanted to monster-fy it. So it becomes a caricature of a cruise.”

To that end, the stops the cruise ship makes “are all completely crazy.” While Tartakovsky and his team were still framing the story in its early stages, “we had a lot more buffet jokes and stuff like that.” But that approach felt small for the monster world. So they made the excursions the things that were “monsterfied”: Snorkeling round an underwater volcano. Contending with a giant whale. Visiting Atlantis, a Vegas-like locale with a singing kraken (the voice of Joe Jonas). Spending a day at the beach on a deserted island—“like a little mound, with palm trees.”

“The effects on this movie are just, or even more complicated than in some live-action films,” says Murdoca, who, as a former visual-effects producer whose credits include Stuart Little and Air Force One, would know. “We’ve got a ton of water. We have just lots of effects that we didn’t have in the previous two films. The previous two films, since they were at the hotel, they had a little bit of destruction at the end, but not nearly as much. In this one, we have a ton of destruction, a ton of water, fire. We’ve got a little bit of everything.”

Including the comedic effects of two new additions, Hahn and Jim Gaffigan.

“You know, she is exactly who she is in those movies for the most part,” says Tartakovsky of Hahn, who has made a career of playing likeably zany characters. “She’s really funny, really quick. And she fit in like a glove.”

The father of Hahn’s character in the film is Van Helsing, a.k.a. the sworn enemy of vampire-kind. He’s voiced by Gaffigan, of whom Tartakovsky is “a huge fan.” The filmmaker knew the right man had been cast straightaway. The day before Gaffigan was scheduled to begin recording in New York, Tartakovsky flew in from the West Coast. With 24 hours to spare before their first session, the filmmaker traveled to Long Island for a round of golf.

“So I took the train there, and I got out, and Jim wants to talk about doing the voice. So I’m like, ‘OK.’ As I got on the phone, the train whistle sounded, and then Jim right away started riffing: ‘Are you calling me from Transylvania?’”

With the ice broken, the two men settled into a comfortable back-and-forth. “With Van Helsing, it was about how big to go with him,” explains Tartakovsky. “Because he’s a very extreme character,” one whom the filmmaker says is driven by his anger. They wanted to make sure he remained funny, so Gaffigan “had to figure it out a little bit.” Was Van Helsing going to have a thick accent? How big was too big?

Striking the perfect balance between too big and too buffet-joke small, between funny and dull, has taken some tinkering. Tartakovsky recalls one joke, about Dennis’ gargantuan new puppy, Bob, in particular. In order to sneak Bob onboard ship, where pets are not allowed, Dennis dresses his pal in trench coat and hat. Greeting a suspicious ship attendant, Dennis prompts his pup, “Say hi, Bob.” The dog duly repeats: “Hi, Bob.”

“In the screening, that bombed,” Tartakovsky says of the joke. At the time, the animation was still in “storyboards,” a rough phase in which the shapes are flat and still look like sketches. “There was not even one laugh. And you sit there and you think, ‘Oh my God, should I just give up on this?’ Even though I believe in it.”

Not one to readily abandon his vision, though he wondered whether “we should take it out,” Tartakovsky considered the possibility that he was simply “presenting it wrong. So I keep working on it, reworking it, and then it all feels not right. ‘No, I believe in this joke!’” he remembers thinking. ”And so we animated it and then all of a sudden the animators are laughing. It’s the energy of the animation that’s really gonna sell it. And in the next screening it was great. And the best thing about it was, after it came, there were some kids sitting behind me, and they started going, ‘Hi, Bob. Hi, Bob. Hi, Bob.’ And we have it as a runner through the movie.”

The “Hi, Bob” joke is textbook Tartakovsky: a bit of humor that succeeds on the brio of his animating style. It’s the same visual creativity that has made such a fan and critical success of the fifth season of “Samurai Jack,” which was released last year, over a decade after the series’ fourth season. Tartakovsky lights up when he discusses this more “adult” project for which he “could flex a different muscle” and “be more abstract in my storytelling and the way I wanted to do things, and trust the audience to understand more. And they did, and I was like, ‘Oh, I should do more of this.’”

The thrill of that achievement has seeped into HT3. Tartakovsky likens a dramatic action sequence early in the fifth season of “Samurai Jack,” in which Jack acts with surprising violence, to a third-act sequence in this most recent Hotel Transylvania.

Without divulging specifics, Tartakovsky asserts, “It’s unlike anything we’ve ever done in the Hotel movies. It’s really maybe intense in some places, but it’s still super fun and jokey. But it’s bigger than life. I’m really excited to see how the audience reacts to that. And it could be the next kind of level for me.”

Not every attempt Tartakovsky has made to infuse a project with his distinct “flavor” has propelled him forward, however. Several years ago, he suffered a very public misfire when the Popeye film on which he was working for Sony (the studio that also produces the Hotel movies) fell apart.

“I agreed to do Popeye on one condition: that it could be Popeye. It’s not a hat-and-sunglasses type of Popeye. And the studio agreed with me, but I think when they saw it, and saw how genuine it is, that it is Popeye, even though it’s set in the modern world, I think they wanted it to be something else. Cause they think when you bring back an old character, that’s what you’re supposed to do, is reimagine it.

“While for me, the complete opposite philosophy is: If something exists this long, there’s got to be a reason why.” Tartakovsky draws a distinction between what the studio wanted—to “reimagine” the character—versus what he wanted—to “contemporize” Popeye.

He asserts he has no interest in resurrecting the project or attempting to “contemporize” another beloved character. “I promised myself I would just do original ideas after this.”

Such as?

“I do have a couple things” in the works. “Yeah. But I can’t tell you.”

His views on the animation industry might provide some clues. “You know, I’ll probably do a [live-action] feature eventually, but I do love animation. I feel that it’s an art form that’s in its beginnings.”

Asked to expound, he replies, “If you look at all the movies being made for animation, they’re all the same, for the most part. Pixar does it more emotional, maybe; we’re trying to be more silly, like a Mel Brooks film, perhaps. But it’s still very—you know, they call it like ‘four-quadrant’ [a movie that appeals to all demographics], all-family. And then there’s Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs, which is independent. That’s definitely different, but I feel like there could be an action movie, there could be a science-fiction movie, so much more, because it shouldn’t be a different genre. It’s just a different toolset, a different pencil.”

Already, he says, the imaginary line separating animation from non-family films is blurring; he cites the photorealistic animation of Avatar as an example. Still, “I feel like there’s more to do, and I keep wanting to push it: different animation, different stories, different styles, and all that stuff.”

Given his desire to experiment with story and form, Hotel Transylvania 4 is not at the top of his list. “Three is one thing, and if it wasn’t for this idea [of a family cruise], I wouldn’t have done it. But four, it’s a big ask. Hopefully this one does really well and the franchise keeps going…but I have to move on.”

The lure of leaving the projects that were once his babies behind him, in favor of exploring and perhaps founding unknown shores, appears too strong to ignore. He leans forward as he alludes to future projects. His speech quickens. It’s been a running thread through our conversation that Genndy Tartakovsky is hungering to grow.

“I have a very high regard for animation and I want it to be more than it is. And even though it’s so successful, you just want it to be more. And I want it to say more things. And I will one day.”