For some reason (and we’re convinced it was a cosmic misunderstanding), the various studios are releasing three horror-themed animated films in three consecutive months. Last month, we got the marvelous (and unfairly marginalized) “ParaNorman,” next month we have Tim Burton‘s triumphant “Frankenweenie,” and this week we have “Hotel Transylvania,” about a gothic safe haven for all manner of things that go bump in the night. To set itself apart from the pack, “Hotel Transylvania” has opted to forgo any intentional spookiness and focus purely on comedy – mostly of the broad, physical variety. And while “Hotel Transylvania” doesn’t have the eeriness or resonance of the other two films, it is admirably energetic – a pinball machine of a movie, one that’s painted with cartoon monsters and really, really loud.
In a prologue set a hundred years ago, we see Dracula (Adam Sandler, his accent just this side of Opera Man), coddling his newborn baby daughter Mavis (later played by Selena Gomez) and assuring her that he would create a place where she’d be safe, away from the torch-carrying mobs of the human world. He sets about to create a paradise hotel for monsters, located in a large gothic castle, guarded on two sides by a haunted forest and a graveyard populated by some surprisingly spry zombies, and as the real story begins, monsters from all over are coming to the hotel for Mavis’ milestone 118th birthday. In short order, Frankenstein (Kevin James), Murray the mummy (Cee-Lo Green), Wayne the werewolf (Steve Buscemi) and his pregnant wife Wanda (Molly Shannon), and Griffin the invisible man (David Spade) are all at the hotel. That’s right – all of the classic monsters are here, and they sound a whole lot like the cast of “Grown Ups.”
And honestly, the casting is a major sticking point, at least early in the movie. At least initially this project seemed to be borne from the idea of taking the Sandler crew and putting them in the iconic monster roles. It’s not that the actors’ voices are distracting, it’s quite the opposite – they are so unbelievably bland that they kind of blur into the super-busy background. That feeling lingers, too, especially after Jonathan shows up, a 21-year-old human who stumbles into the hotel while backpacking. Jonathan is played by Andy Samberg, who just co-starred with Sandler (as his son) in the odious “That’s My Boy” and while there clearly won’t be much of a crossover audience between the crass R-rated comedy and a springy animated children’s film, it still feels like too much too soon.
Mavis, it goes without saying, yearns for life outside the castle, and so Jonathan’s arrival is a major threat to the perfectly-calibrated life Dracula has cultivated at Hotel Transylvania. An overly protective father, Dracula sets up an elaborate ruse to show Mavis how awful the human world is, and conceals Jonathan’s humanity in a kabuki smear of make-up. Jonathan, for his part, has the laid-back attitude of a trust funder who spends the first few years after high school just like, exploring himself, and stuff. (His overstuffed backpack is his most prized possession.) With his natural looseness, Jonathan does much to shake up the stuffy atmosphere of both the castle and its vampiric overlord.
As far as plot goes, that’s about it. There are moments when the movie becomes hopelessly convoluted, only to recede to expose surprisingly poignant moments, like a scene where Jonathan and Mavis share a sunrise, perched atop the hotel. At some point a ghostly suit of armor barks at Dracula that there is an emergency, which he neglects because he’s busy tricking Mavis, and that emergency is never addressed again. Yes, it’s a children’s movie full of bright, busy scenarios but still… it nags.
Since 2006, no fewer than five directors have attempted to get a handle on “Hotel Transylvania,” only to find the material too elusive, complicated, or unmanageable. It was finally (successfully) corralled by Genndy Tartakovsky, a genuine genius in the realm of modern animation. Tartakovsky created the sweetly surreal “Samurai Jack” before directing the initial set of “Star Wars: Clone Wars” micro-shorts for George Lucas and Cartoon Network (which made both the prequels and the current ongoing series seem like amateur hour in Dixie). He also did storyboard work for “Iron Man 2,” having gained a reputation as a maestro of bloodless mayhem (the final fight sequence, with Iron Man and War Machine facing off against Whiplash in an Asian-themed World’s Fair pavilion, is 100% pure Tartakovsky).
However, it’s harder to spot his influence on “Hotel Transylvania.” The design work is, as always, top notch, with Tartakovsky placing a premium on easily identifiable silhouettes – the slinky teardrop of Dracula, the blocky presence of Frankenstein, the round bulb of Murray – and sharp compositions that exist somewhere in between a comic strip and a Brian De Palma movie (lots of foreground/background depth). But the main thing that Tartakovsky brings is a feeling of elasticity, with characters bending and whipping and snapping back like they’re made up of a cluster of rubber bands, clearly indebted to the work of animator Tex Avery and the early “Looney Tunes” shorts, where a premium was put on frantic fullness in each frame. In “Hotel Transylvania,” everything is moving, all the time.
And while “ParaNorman” went for an ’80s vibe, somewhere between John Carpenter and John Hughes, and “Frankenweenie” pays homage to the horror movies of the ’50s and ’60s, “Hotel Transylvania” uses the genre as wallpaper. You can spot some really nerdy details (there are floating brains, straight out of the schlock classic “Fiend Without a Face“) but you kind of get the impression that Tartakovsky and his collaborators (most notably Peter Baynham and “Saturday Night Live” TV Funhouse mastermind Robert Smigel) don’t have much reverence for the original material (and, during a presentation earlier this year, Tartakovsky told us that some legal struggles led them to jettison some classic imagery/character traits). Instead, they look at it as really colorful window dressing to tell the story of an overprotective father and his young daughter. In that sense, “Hotel Transylvania” is very different from its contemporaries. You just wish that, with so much emphasis on chaos, they could have spent a little more time on character. [B]