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Tim's Toons: A Genndy Tartakovsky Primer

This weekend sees the release of 2015's latest animated feature, Hotel Transylvania 2, and it is somewhat hard to get excited for it. Being an animated sequel will do that. 

Being a movie where all the shots were being called by Adam Sandler will do that, too. Being an animated sequel under the control of Adam Sandler in the same calendar year that witnessed the deeply repugnant Sandler vehicles The Cobbler and Pixelswill do that most of all. But let me put on my bravest face and try to tell you about the thing that is noble and interesting about Hotel Transylvania 2 despite all the obvious ticks against it: it's a Genndy Tartakovsky picture.

"And who is Genndy Tartakovsky?" you may now be asking yourself
. I very much hope you are, since answering that question is the reason we're here now. The simple answer is that Tartakovsky is one of the great stylists in contemporary American animation.

His signature aesthetic, of angular figures with giant oval eyes, all outlined in thick black lines, has been one of the most reliable contrasts to the "make it more realistic!" impulse behind the Disney/Pixar-driven approach of damn near all theatrical animation made in the States, and a huge influence on television animators of the Cartoon Network tradition.

For it was at Cartoon Network that Tartakovsky made his first big splash. He was the creator of Dexter's Laboratory, and directed several episodes of The Powerpuff Girls, created by his CalArts classmate Craig McCracken (who wrote and storyboarded Dexter's Laboratory, because that was pretty much the way these things went on those turn-of-the-century CN shows). While not identical – Tartakovsky's designs had much sharper corners than McCracken's collection of circles – the two shows were part of a generation of brightly-colored, simplified cartoons which set a basic stylistic template that continues to be mined by animators looking for a freer look than Disney's fussy precision (ironically, Disney themselves adopted the style in their new series of Mickey Mouse shorts).

The success of Dexter's Laboratory enabled Tartakovsky to create what is surely his signature work, the 2001-2004 series Samurai Jack. The fantasy/sci-fi/samurai/action hybrid is a one-of-a-kind marvel, blending design elements from Japanese anime and the Cartoon Network house style, and running both through an aesthetic that reduces objects and people to almost abstract arrangements of geometric shapes and color. While it never sacrifices its essential nature as a bright action cartoon for kids, Samurai Jack comes powerfully close at times to being graphic art. The content is more than a little batty, and the genre certainly doesn't seem like it should be everybody's cup of tea, but the potency and originality of the style are more than sufficient to secure the series a position at the very peak of contemporary animation.

Hot on the heels of Samurai Jack, Tartakovsky was nabbed for the high-profile job of producing a series of micro-narratives set in the Star Wars universe: the first iteration of a Clone Wars cartoon series, first produced in 2003 to fill the gap between 2002's Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones and 2005's Revenge of the Sith. It's easily – objectively, even! – the best thing to come out of the whole dubious project of the Star Wars prequels, owing above all to its smooth, gliding style, and Tartakovsky's gift for boisterous cartoon action sequences, as honed by Samurai Jack. While the constraints on the series as a narrative, and as a top-down corporate object, both keep it from reaching anything like the heights of Tartakovsky's earlier work, Clone Wars is, in its own right, the equal to any other TV cartoon of its decade.

Following this, and for no apparent reason, Tartakovsky's career downshifted. His next major project wouldn't appear until 2010, in the form of Cartoon Network's Sym-Bionic Titan; this was unceremoniously cancelled after one season. He made his debut in theatrical animation two years later, but in the most inauspicious way possible: he was called up to fix Hotel Transylvania for Sandler after previous directors had no clue what to do with it.

Tartakovsky did the best job of it one could imagine: while the script for Hotel Transylvania is an absolute waste of trite, Romeo & Juliet boilerplate, it's one of the very few CGI animated features that actually resists the arch-realistic impulses of the post-Pixar tradition. Indeed, the animators almost seem to have taken it as a challenge: given the realistic lighting and textures of CGI, how far is it possible to push the stretchy cartoon extremes of character faces and body shapes?

Reasonably far, is the answer. Hotel Transylvania is hardly the most visually impressive animated feature of recent vintage, but the characters are at least a real triumph: elastic, highly expressive, with the giant ovoid eyes of Tartakovsky at his best. It's a rare example of a major animated feature that comes from the tradition of goofy cartoons, exulting in the loopy, unrealistic excess which that art form, at its pinnacle, can do so well. And in Hotel Transylvania 2, he pushed his animators to go even further in that direction, trying to find some way to put a personal stamp on a film that Sandler fought him on.

This is not, of course, reason enough for me to insist on all of you rushing out to see the film. But it's enough that I'm not going to root against it, and hope that it finds enough success to get Tartakovsky's inexplicably off-track career (as outlined this week in a wonderful Cartoon Brew interview) back to where it deserves to be.

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Reader Comments (6)

I had no idea who Tartakovsky was, let alone that I was a big fan of his work! What a lovely piece. So important to remember, for the sake of artists attached to less-than-classic movies, how much they are often up against in trying to realize a creative vision. Damn Sandler.

September 25, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMargaret

I loved Dexter's Laboratory. It just hit me in that perfect spot where it bypassed layers of conscious thought into pure amusement.

I really like Genndy Tartakovsky . I liked lots of parts of the first Hotel Transylvania and I so agree that such a clever mind and craftsman shouldn't be shackled to someone who doesn't care about craft.

September 27, 2015 | Unregistered Commenteradri

This video goes into what happened to Tartakovsky between 2004 and 2010:

Basically, CN was going through a dark period of management shifts (this was around the time of their ill-advised foray into live-action kidcoms/reality shows), Genndy left to form his own studio which did some commercial work but couldn't get a feature financed in the recession, then storyboarded a bit on Iron Man 2, was attached to direct Walking With Dinosaurs before executive meddling kicked in, then Titan happened and unfortunately got lost in the shuffle with more shifts in management at CN, now he's stuck at Sony trying to convince them to let him direct something without Sandler.

September 27, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterRubi

I had no idea these Hotel Transylvania flicks were Tartakovsky films! I hope he's lining his pockets with money and gets a personal project off the ground soon. He deserves so much better than Sandler-vehicles.

September 27, 2015 | Registered CommenterManuel Betancourt

Manuel: His first instinct was a half-way compromise of an animated Popeye feature, a franchise he seems passionate about, before moving forward with an original creation.

October 4, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

Tim: I know this is off topic, but have you ever thought of doing one of these articles on the two Hoodwinked! films? The original is...well...if you can excuse the low quality animation (less than $8 million for about 75 minutes of CGI) and the very dated hyper specific references ("I see you have three Gs tattooed on the back of your neck"), I'd actually say it works a little better than even the first two Shrek movies, let alone anything beyond Shrek 2. The sequel, though? Yikes. 4x the budget. ($30 million to originals less than $8 million.) Looks 10x worse, making you think the majority of the spending was on laundering the cocaine budgets for the name actors they got.

October 4, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

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