A wise, fresh prince once said, “Take it from me, parents just don’t understand.” I have a feeling that Count Dracula’s princess, Mavis, would have to agree, in the new release, Hotel Transylvania. It’s Mavis’ 118th birthday, and her father is throwing yet another party at his titular resort castle in the countryside, where all the werewolves, mummies, Frankensteins, gremlins, and even big foots (big feet?) can come to relax, safe from being pitchforked or torched by intolerant humans.
However, this year, Mavis’ birthday is supposed to be different: this is the day that her father promised she could finally leave the hotel and venture out into the dangerous world beyond the 400 acres of haunted forest and zombie graveyard that surrounds the castle. The danger outside doesn’t lie with other monsters or even the burning rays of daylight, but the humans who, the Count believes, will never understand Mavis, and will only respond with violence. Admittedly, the Count has good reason for his bias, as Mavis’ mother, the Count’s one true love, was killed by intolerant villagers over 100 years ago.
But there’s nothing the Count can do when the outside world comes to the Hotel Transylvania. An adventure-seeking backpacker named Jonathan wanders into the castle and the Count must not only save his establishment’s reputation for being human-free since 1898, but must also prevent his daughter from seeing that maybe humans aren’t so bad after all. He could, naturally, kill Jonathan, but as the Count says, vampires never feed off humans, because the blood is so fatty, and there’s no telling where it’s been. Besides, he doesn’t want to perpetuate the stereotype of monsters killing humans.
Things only get worse when Mavis and Jonathan accidentally meet and experience what monsters refer to as “The Zing”, what we mortals might call love at first sight. What’s a blood-sucking father to do?
The primary theme of Hotel Transylvania is looking past preconceived notions and seeing the person for who they really are. I must admit that I was no better than Count Dracula when I walked into this movie, simply because of the name Adam Sandler. I liked a few of Sandler’s movies well enough back in his heyday (i.e., Happy Gilmore, The Wedding Singer, Big Daddy), outright hated more than one (i.e., pretty much everything else that I’ve bothered to see), and even thought he might have had a promising future (i.e., Punch-Drunk Love). However, his recent output has been anything but inspiring, so I had low hopes. Sadly, Hotel Transylvania only perpetuates the Adam Sandler stereotype.
The story spends much of its running time with people standing around talking. This inevitably leads to a lot of the same conversations over and over again, especially as new emergencies arise and Dracula must leave to attend to something else. It absolutely kills the momentum of the movie and the story goes nowhere fast.
The biggest mistake of the story, though, is that, like Mavis, we’re trapped in the castle for much of the film. Seeing monsters in their own environment isn’t terribly interesting after the first 10 minutes. In fact, after the initial introductions of the spooky guests, the most dynamic and fun scenes are when Jonathan, in costume as “Jonny-stein”, is allowed to interact with the monsters. Although the dubstep-infused music and easy-going attitude could easily be seen as pandering to the audience, it works because it’s in such sharp contrast to the BINGO and charades-playing world of the monsters before his arrival. Had we ventured outside more often, the fish-out-of-water factor would have made things a lot more fun and fascinating.
The characters are generally well-defined, but they’re mostly one-note. For example, Jonathan is an easy-going, backpacking slacker who just wants to have a good time and see the world, man. Dracula is an over-bearing, control freak father. Mavis is an oppressed, angst-ridden teen who just wishes her dad would trust her. And they play these roles without wavering much at all…until the very end, of course, when there’s a lesson to be learned.
But is it funny? There are moments, but they are few and very far between. I have a feeling that a lot of these jokes seemed really hilarious on paper, or when describing them in a brainstorming session, but in the final execution, they simply fall flat. Whether that’s due to poor direction from Genndy Tartakovsky, poor acting from the voice artists, or from a script that was written and rewritten under six different directors, it’s hard to say. But in a theater filled with kids who will laugh at anything, it was very, very quiet throughout most of the movie. When you consider that the film was directed by the same guy who created Dexter’s Laboratory, Samurai Jack, directed many episodes of 2 Stupid Dogs, Powerpuff Girls, and was the genius behind the Star Wars: Clone Wars microseries, boring and unfunny are about the last words you would have expected to hear about his feature film debut. But for whatever reason, the magic just wasn’t there this time. Hopefully his next film, an animated adaptation of Popeye, will bring back some of his quirky, quick, adventurous charm.
Now this isn’t to say the movie is a total waste of time. The character designs are almost universally great, often going against the cliched looks we’ve all become accustomed to over the years. The exception, of course, is Dracula, who looks like Adam Sandler dressed up for Halloween, but the animators had some fun making the Count’s body move with snake-like fluidity anytime his cape is wrapped around his body. Where designs are more old fashioned – the witches, the zombies, even Frankenstein to some extent – it’s ok, because their looks are either iconic or they’re such minor characters that it’s not a huge disappointment to take visual shortcuts. Unfortunately, great character design isn’t really reason enough to sit through the lackluster story (but check out my review of The Art and Making of Hotel Transylvania, which is actually more interesting than the movie itself).
There are also some really clever ideas here as far as how characters are used. Between the zombie bellhops and the lightning-fast witch housekeeping crew, the staff is generally rather inventive. In addition, the werewolf family’s pack of wild children make for some great sight gags, and Frankenstein arriving in separate packages with some assembly required was the highlight of the character introductions. It’s not that there was no creativity in the film – quite the contrary. These wonderful moments and unique characters were simply letdown by a totally uninspired script.
In the end, Hotel Transylvania is just flat, flawed, and lifeless. The jokes rarely hit, the story is too slow to develop, and the main character personalities just aren’t all that interesting to keep the train rolling. So, basically it’s like every other Adam Sandler movie, except this time it’s animated.