Adam Sandler, Selena Gomez, Andy Samberg, Kevin James, Fran Drescher, Jon Lovitz, Cee Lo Green, Steve Buscemi, Molly Shannon, David Spade
(Columbia Pictures; US theatrical: 28 Sep 2012 (General release); UK theatrical: 28 Sep 2012 (General release); 2012)
During the ‘50s and ‘60s, the horror genre discovered a whole new, novel source of audience appreciation. While teens tended to tune out the schlocky productions projected across their favorite outdoor drive-in screen, their younger siblings, stuck at home in front of the TV, were tuning into seminal offerings like Shock Theater and Creature Features. It was there, amid the muddy black and white signals of ancient UHF broadcast technology, that kids discovered that the fiend was really their friend. They embraced the fear, forming an alliance that hasn’t really wavered in nearly 60 years.
Throughout the decades, there have been many spook shows geared towards the wee ones, be it The Groovie Goolies or Goosebumps. Even early stop motion animation pioneers Rankin and Bass based one of their most popular titles, The Mad Monster Party, on the love of Universal and its signature frightmares. We mention the men behind such memorable TV fare as Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and Santa Claus is Coming to Town as an awkward frame of reference for the latest underwhelming Adam Sandler vehicle, Hotel Transylvania. Even with the stellar skill set offered by sitting director Genndy Tartakovsky (The Powerpuff Girls, Star Wars: Clone Wars) and the likeable character design, this is another in a long line of lame family films which believes stunt voice work and passing pop culture references make for a memorable experience.
Instead, this is nothing more than a disposable product, a pale puff piece that will momentarily engage, only to be forgotten a few hours after. It is yet another example of animation being used in the most mediocre, mainstream way possible. This is not Pixar. This is pathetic. Sandler plays Dracula. The famed vampire has been in mourning since the death of his beloved wife and has vowed to raise his daughter Mavis (Selena Gomez) as far from the hateful influence of humans as possible. So he spends years building the title retreat, a place where pals like Frankenstein (Kevin James), the Wolfman (Steve Buscemi), the Mummy (Ceelo Green), The Invisible Man (David Spade) and their ilk can come, relax, and feel safe.
With Mavis’ 118th birthday rapidly approaching, Drac is in a panic. The hotel is full and everyone expects to have a grand old time. Wouldn’t you know it, into their midst walks Jonathan (Adam Samberg), a 20-something slacker backpacker with an uncanny ability to overstay his welcome and stick his curious nose into places where it doesn’t belong. Mistaking the populated palace for a hostel, he decides to stay. When he falls for Mavis, Drac must do everything he can to save his child, and his beleaguered business. After all, his model is based on a strict “NO PEOPLE” policy, something his creepy clientele relies on.
Looking over the history of this production, it’s not hard to see where many of the problems actually lie. Originally, this was a project helmed by the group in charge of that comedy classic (wink, wink), Open Season. Tartakovsky was actually the sixth option, and even though he swears he rewrote the script and added in more “Tex Avery” inspired lunacy, the final effort is as stale and inert as the previously mentioned bear and deer show. Oh sure, it’s all bright colors and shiny 3D imagery. You’ve got to give the parents their perceived matinee money’s worth. In fact, the film is overwhelmed by its desire to show off depth and detail. The arrival of Buscemi and his puppy clan contains enough ‘comin’ at ya’ anarchy to fill several cinemas. Witches and gargoyles fly around haphazardly, all while making sure to careen directly toward the viewer’s wary POV.
Given the needs that this specific kind of property requires (read: a little Ice Age, some Madagascar, and a bit of bottom feeding Saturday Morning circa 2012), it’s amazing that Tartakovsky brings anything exciting or original to the mix. In fact, there are times when you can see the storyline struggling, where it wants to avoid the various conveniences and coincidences the studios and suits demand for something more outrageous or inventive. This is a movie that references pseudo music superstars LMAFO not once, but twice within the first ten minutes, so Tartakovsky clearly has his work cut out for him. You can see his touches around the edges, in the funny faced zombie staff, in the quirky character traits of someone/thing like Frankenstein (who literally falls to pieces a few times).
But with someone like Sandler at the center, you know the humor is going to be both broad and burlesque. Yes, we get monster farts. And urinating werewolf children. There’s more than enough creature entendres and half-baked puns to make a Halloween full of first graders smile…and that’s the movie’s biggest albatross. Whenever you gear something specifically for a particular viewership, you automatically alienate others in attendance. Even worse, when dealing with a demo as immature as the grade school crowd, you don’t have to try very hard. So Hotel Transylvania skirts by, knowing that few will care that it does nothing you haven’t already seen a hundred times before. Unlike, say, ParaNorman, which twisted terror tropes into a terrific example of the kiddie coming of age saga, we just have bat and boo jokes.
For many, that will be more than enough. They don’t expect brilliance, just a conservative commercial effort, and Hotel Transylvania delivers just that…no strings…no frills…no fancy filmmaking finery. Instead, you expect very little and get it in abundance. For the most part, this is a mindless diversion, something of limited substance while avoiding the IQ lessening qualities of its cousins. Sixty years ago, horror was relegated to the passion pit, the Late Late Show, and schlock variations of same. Today, even the most horrific bloodsuckers have been rendered fang-free by the tired tenets of Tinseltown. Hotel Transylvania should have been better. That it’s not is no surprise.