Remember how in Monsters, Inc., the monsters were all terrified of human beings and would only visit the human world to harness the energy from our children’s screams? Pixar’s premise was charming, original and may even have quelled some bedtime fears over the years. The new animated family movie Hotel Transylvania is like that, minus the fresh premise and the charm. And I’m not sure it will help with bedtime.
The star is controlling hotelier and over-protective single dad Count Dracula (voiced by Adam Sandler), who runs a hotel in Transylvania catering entirely to monsters. It’s a human-free zone, where the persecuted creatures can feel safe from the human menace. Drac’s daughter Mavis (Selena Gomez), the dainty-fanged product of a vampire union, doesn’t much appreciate the safety zone though. She longs to visit the human world, particularly the place where her father and long-dead-undead mother met, Hawaii, or as she thinks it is called, Ha-wee-wee. (Ew-wee.)
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The hotel is packed for Mavis’ annual birthday celebration. She’s turning 118, which in vampire years apparently marks the entrance into the young adulthood. Daddy Dracula, who really does love his little girl—he crooned “let me wipe all your poop away” to her when she was a baby—is pulling out all the stops. Frankenstein (Kevin James) is there, along with a bunch of other monsters, introduced in a shrill, busy sequence that made me want to claw the walls and should leave kids dizzy. Director Genndy Tartakovsky, a successful television animator making his feature film debut, has a lot of voice talent at his disposal, including comics like Molly Shannon, Chris Parnell, David Spade and Jon Lovitz. But they’re frittered away; with the exception of Steve Buscemi’s harried werewolf dad, the monsters are indistinguishable and bland.
In the midst of all this noise and monster flatulence, an interloper walks through the door. It’s a human, an oafish backpacker named Jonathan (Andy Samberg) whom Dracula hastens to banish. He’s unsuccessful, which is bad news for all of us, but particularly Mavis, poor deprived little vamp, who takes a liking to this Peter Pan-esque 20-something. Jonathan is a drippy slacker with a backpack full of smelly clothes and limited interests, mostly musical (“I’ve got tickets to six Dave Matthews concerts,” he cries in protest when he thinks Dracula is going to do him in). This is about as exciting and dramatically inexplicable as watching Scooby Doo’s Shaggy play the love interest.
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But I don’t know why I’d expect anything more a family movie that includes almost entirely lewd jokes for adults. Like the one about the Invisible Man getting defensive about “shrinkage” after a dip in the pool, or the monster being reprimanded for trying to make off (and out) with a mannequin. The lowest point involves monster construction workers leering at a passing female zombie. (Monsters, they’re just like us, including the grosser aspects of our society.) The movie is so derivative of the Pixar films (Dracula has a lot in common with Finding Nemo’s Marlin, Mavis looks like The Incredible’s Violet Parr), why couldn’t they have borrowed some of Pixar’s good taste as well?
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It’s a shame, because Hotel Transylvania isn’t a complete stinker. Sandler, speaking in a pitch close to his Opera Man routine from his days on Saturday Night Live, is less obnoxious than usual. The visuals are consistently enticing—the castle/hotel is artfully rendered, especially in a scene where Mavis gets her first glimpse of a sunrise from the safety of the shadows. And there are some bright and funny lines. Jonathan wants to know whether it is true that a wooden stake to the heart will kill a vampire. “Well who wouldn’t that kill?” Dracula answers airily. I won’t spoil the best line in the movie, so that parents who have nothing better to do this weekend have something to look forward to, but it involves Dracula’s tart response to a glimpse of Twilight’s Bella and Edward on a television screen. If only the movie showed more of that kind of fang throughout.
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