Yet another instance of a decent, potentially thorny premise bogged down in a mess of treacly sentiment and tedious moralizing, Hotel Transylvania attempts to encroach on Pixar territory with its high concept and foregrounding of family dynamics, while also jumping on the “cute monsters” trend in mainstream animation, debuting between the releases of ParaNorman and Frankenweenie. Sadly, it lacks the creative discipline of studios like Laika and Pixar; its complexity and characterization quickly goes out the window, replaced by an excess of hollow mendacity.
Adam Sandler—the horror!—voices the story’s tragic hero, Count Dracula, injecting a considerable dose of Zohan into his East European vampire. We open in 1894 with Drac building a hotel in the Transylvanian wilderness, intended to double as safe haven for the world’s perennially persecuted monsters. Mainly, lovable overprotective father that he is, he wants a gilded cage in which to keep daughter Mavis (every-teen Selena Gomez) shielded from potential tragedy-by-pitchfork. Cut to present day: Eternally castle-bound Mavis is turning 118 and the extended monster family is turning out for a grand birthday party, but trouble approaches in the form of American backpacker Jonathan (Andy Samberg), who’s about to stumble where no human has ever stumbled before, bringing to Mavis the twin allures of teen romance and the outside world.
It’s frustrating to see Hotel Transylvania run away in a cloud of dust and glowing flatulence from the film it could have been. From a creative standpoint, a hotel filled with the more enduring products of the human imagination could have provided an embarrassment of narrative riches. As it stands, the pedigree of director Genndy Tartakosvsky (creator of Dexter’s Laboratory) isn’t entirely lost, with plenty of visual inventiveness on view. An opening tour through the hotel lobby showcases an array of inspired character designs, including blobs, zombie classical composers, and hydras. Principal among the supernatural menagerie are riffs on the Universal creations: werewolf Wayne (Steve Buscemi doing his best) and his exhausting litter of cubs, the mummy Murray (CeeLo Green), the Invisible Man (David Spade), and Frank the Frankenstein Monster (Kevin James). These supporting characters are expertly animated in energetic retro-pop style. Amusing details abound: shrunken heads doubling as “do not disturb” signs, a towering yeti whose feet are only ever in frame.
Sadly, the screenplay is a by-the-numbers schlockfest whose every thudding beat is telegraphed by the saccharine pre-credits sequence. Coherent plot progression is nonexistent, and the endless sub-Tex Avery chases through the castle’s hallways are a poor replacement. The skeletal screenplay lurches from scene to scene with an unwieldiness that suggests a project that never got beyond an initial storyboarding phase. And as befitting a Kevin James/Adam Sandler joint, the toilet humor abounds as a lazy shortcut to (non-)laughs, such as the excruciatingly prolonged “Frankenstein farts” sequence.
Most egregious is the mashup of condescending clichés and Saturday-morning-cartoon message-making. Can’t we all get along?! You know it’s true love when two teenagers “zing”! Humans are the real monsters! But wait, “this is the 21st century,” argues a plaintive Jonathan. “People are different now.” Post-racial America, eat your heart out. You know a film such as this is in trouble when a child in the audience responds with an incredulous “no!” to a rhetorical question about whether monsters would be accepted wholeheartedly into contemporary society. That exclamation got more laughs from the theater than anything on screen. If we’re trading clichés, “out of the mouths of babes” feels like an appropriate one.