With another $26.5 million in box office receipts in its second week of release and enough positive word of mouth to push the final total well past $100 million, Hotel Transylvania has clearly won the 2012 Family Fright Film Wars - animation category. It bested previous throne pretender ParaNorman ($54 million and falling) and non-entity newcomer Frankenweenie (barely breaking $11 million for its three day bow). More interesting is the clash between critical response and such obvious audience appreciation. Norman walked in with a Rotten Tomato aggregate of 87% (123 out of 142 critics loved it), while Weenie earned an equally impressive 85% (104 out of 122). Transylvania, on the other hand, sits at 47%.
Viewers, on the other hand, have mucked things up a bit. Transylvania earned a 79% “liked it” from the site. Weenie ranked higher, pulling in an 83%. Norman pulled in similar numbers, sitting at 78%. It’s the same kind of result that other sources, using their own scoring criteria, seem to emulate. And yet there is a commercial disparity which questions such consensus. Right now, unless something radical happens, Burton’s “return to form” will probably end up being one of his lowest grossing films ever, while Norman is already viewed as a disappointment. On the other hand, suits in studio suites are trying to determine how best to approach the inevitable Transylvania sequel.
Now, we aren’t going to get into a big discussion about art vs. artifice. It’s clear that, in terms of aesthetic ambition, Norman and Weenie outpace Transylvania. The former are films that want to push the boundaries of what a kid-oriented fright flick can be. They push the limits of likeability while working within recognizable tropes and genre tricks. The latter, on the other hand, is all about pandering. It uses the anti-Pixar policy of stunt casting and passive pop culture references to provide the necessary 90 minutes of electronic babysitting the post-millennial parent set demand. They don’t want challenge or choice. They want the recognizable and the routine.
No, clearly what motivates moviegoers is the same thing that inspires success - a combination of the already established and the slightly more specialized. As mentioned before, Pixar tends to concentrate on story and setting, creating worlds and working within them to tap into universal themes (love, honor, duty, friendship). A film like Transylvania takes an entirely different tact. It’s like a sleazy Las Vegas stand-up routine…practiced, professional, and barely palpable. It aims directly at the middle of the mainstream, no matter the Tex Avery inspired pronouncements of director Genndy Tartakovsky, and offers nothing of true substance. It’s merely fun for film’s sake, a salve placed on the otherwise short-attention span of the underage demographic.
By comparison, Norman and Weenie tell stories - actual ghost stories - and therein lies the retail rub. There is literally nothing unsettling about Transylvania (unless you consider the concept of Ceelo Green using Autotune while singing sacrilegious), no moment requiring the placement of hands over frightened eyes. It’s all good natured and fun. Heck, Frankenstein even farts! Norman gives us zombies that (SPOILER ALERT) avoid flesh eating while hoping for some eternal rest. In Weenie, the entire town of New Holland is like a leftover from a ‘50s horror film. All the kids are creep icon inspired, all the townsfolk have torches and pitchforks ready when terror takes hold. Besides, Burton doesn’t shy away from the shivers. There are nightmare moments o’plenty in both films aimed directly at the macabre novices.
Which leads to the real reason why Transylvania is tops: overprotective parents. In 2012, youth is no longer king…it’s GOD! We worship at the altar of biology and bristle at any attempt to undermine the pristine childhood of our genetic gemstones. So if something is too scary, too controversial…heck, even if it’s just slightly outside the regular routine, guardians balk…and balk big time. They won’t allow children to experience things that may challenge and educate them. Instead, it’s a hermetical seal structured out of TV shows, video games, and the occasional foray into the home video/motion picture paradigm.
It’s a false sense of security, but security in the mind of the mindful, nonetheless. All that has to happen to something like ParaNorman is that one kid goes home and, after dreaming of the hero and his haunted life, wets the bed. That becomes a talking point on Facebook, and part of a review on websites which specifically breakdown content for the clueless yet concerned. Soon, the movie is labeled “too intense” for a certain section of the viewership, and since little Margaret can’t be subjected to such specious material, the rest of the family unit suffers as well. Before long, an accord is reached - Transylvania inspires few night terrors, Norman is nothing but - and the box office responds. One earns millions and marches toward an inevitable franchise. The other falls away, hoping for a rebirth on DVD.
Frankenweenie has an even steeper hill to climb. It has to contend with all the parental handwringing as well as an audience ready to dismiss its director as a repetitive hack. Burton has bandied about this reputation before, only to reinvent himself as the creator of confusing epics. Thanks to his weird, wild, take on Alice in Wonderland, he got the commercial clout to do whatever he wanted. The result? The kitsch camp complacency of Dark Shadows, and now this. Even with some solid critical support (Sweeney Todd), he’s viewed as a one trick pony whose goofy Goth routine is wearing thin. For years, pundits have been complaining about his creative consistency. Now, it appears, his fans are fleeing the scene as well.
All of which makes Hotel Transylvania prime for placement at the very top. It won’t inspire a future of fear factors, nor does it represent anything more than the usual cinematic suspect spiking interest in weary, worn out parents. Sure, it’s bright and colorful, filled with the kind of noise and nonsense that places pabulum like Ice Age and Shrek at the top of Year End tallies. Yes, ParaNorman and Frankenweenie are much better films and overall entertainment experience, but none of that matters in today’s marketplace. We want familiarity and a friendly reminder that celluloid can often do what quality time and actual parental concern can’t. It’s the winner by default, which makes it a hollow victory, to say the least.