Seventeen years ago, Pixar Animation Studios ushered in a second Golden Age of Animation when it’s first feature-length film, Toy Story, arrived to the awe and wonderment of moviegoers everywhere.
Imitators followed, including DreamWorks Animation, Blue Sky Studios (the Ice Age franchise), and Sony Animation Studios. Sony wasn’t and still isn’t synonymous with quality animation, but in the span of seven years they’ve produced one near-classic, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (a sequel will arrive in two years), several commercial misses (The Pirates! Band of Misfits, Arthur Christmas), a live-action/CG hybrid, The Smurfs, that proved doubters wrong, at least financially, and Hotel Transylvania, a monster mash-up comedy that arrives in theaters this weekend.
Directed by Genndy Tartakovsky (Samurai Jack, Dexter’s Laboratory), Hotel Transylvania centers on Count Dracula (voiced by Adam Sandler). After the tragic, mostly offscreen, loss of his one true love, Dracula has retreated to an isolated castle to raise his daughter, Mavis (Selena Gomez). In part to protect Mavis from the outside world and in part to create a sanctuary for other monsters, Dracula’s turned his castle into the hotel of the title. With Mavis’ 118th birthday fast approaching, however, she wants out. She wants to see and experience the world. Terrified of the outside world (i.e., humans) and naturally overprotective, Dracula creates elaborate ruses to keep Mavis at the hotel, with varying and, ultimately, diminishing success.
Despite the hotel’s isolation, an adventurous human backpacker, Jonathan (Andy Samberg), arrives at the door. Dracula fails to convince Jonathan to leave and, hoping to avoid a panic from the hotel’s guests, hides Jonathan in plain sight, dressing him in baggy clothes and smothering his face in blue-tinted makeup, the better to pass for Frankenstein’s (Kevin James) long-lost cousin. Predictably, the cover-up tends to be worse than the “crime” as Dracula becomes increasingly desperate to hide Jonathan’s true identity and/or get him to leave before Mavis falls for him and follows him outside the hotel’s confines. Befitting the PG rating, a chaste romance emerges between Jonathan and Mavis, creating an additional layer of modest tension to the proceedings.
The real conflict, of course, is between Dracula, the over-protective father and Mavis, the rebellious daughter. Neither the father-daughter conflict nor Jonathan’s human identity are sufficient for a 90-minute film, so Tartakovsky, working from a screenplay credited to two writers, Peter Baynham and Robert Smigel, and a story credited to Todd Durham, Dan Hageman, Kevin Hageman, takes a kitchen-sink approach to visual gags and verbal humor. Most of the visual gags lean toward the obvious and the familiar, unsurprising given the target audience, while the verbal humor leans toward broadness, crudity, and racial stereotypes. To cite just two egregious examples, Fran Drescher adds her shrill, whiny voice to Frankenstein’s wife, Eunice. In another, the singularly named Luenell voices a stereotypically African-American shrunken head.
While competently rendered, the animation rarely rises to the level of originality or novelty. Although Hotel Transylvania includes a few clever sight gags, they’re too few and far between to be of anything except passing note. On the plus side, Sandler reins in his worst tendencies as a performer (a must, given the rating) and for all her navel-gazing complaining, Mavis emerges as Hotel Transylvania’s singularly compelling character, in part due to Gomez’s vocal range and facility. That alone, however, isn’t enough to raise Hotel Transylvania into “recommendation” range. Hopefully next week’s kid-friendly, Halloween-themed entry, Frankenweenie, will.
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