In Hotel Transylvania, A Comic Dracula Still Kills
Casting a tapered, vase-slender silhouette and speaking in a Transylvanian accent with a touch of Borscht Belt, Hotel Transylvania’s defanged Count Dracula is introduced in an 1895-set prologue while serenading his infant daughter. No menacing carnivore, this Nosferatu has sworn off fatty human blood, is more scared of humans than we are of him, and desires nothing more than a spot hidden away from ever-ready-to-mob villagers in which to raise his tyke—his baby-voiced, Weekend Update croon at the cradle's side ID’s no one less than Adam Sandler as the Voice Of.
To such an end, the Count breaks ground on Hotel Transylvania, meant to become a haven for the entire monster squad of persecuted and despised Universal Studios contract players. When we rejoin the Count a century or so later, we find his establishment’s rooms booked up by Wolf Man and family, Frankenstein and Bride, Jell-O mold the Blob, and so on. It’s the eve of daughter Mavis’s 118th, which, in Dracula years, makes her a restless teenager pacing up her bedroom walls. Although Mavis is going through a goth phase—perhaps inevitably, given her lineage—she’s really just a sweet Selena Gomez–voiced kid who wants to see something of the outside human world that her hyper-protective dad has forbidden to her. (As with Basil Fawlty, the job of hotel manager seems to attract domestic fascists.)
Despite the Count’s best efforts, guess who’s coming to—and possibly going to become—dinner? Distinctly pink and fleshy Jonathan (Andy Samberg), a young, mortal backpacker, stumbles into the hotel’s lobby and into Mavis’s heart, after the Count disguises Jonathan for his own safety as a reanimated cousin of Frankenstein’s monster so he can thereby “pass,” to use the language of clandestine racial identity.
Hotel Transylvania is full of lines with the double-meaning elasticity to serve the film’s flexible metaphor, equating monsterdom with the Us versus Them segregation of your choice—though it’s funniest when it just slaps its cards on the table. “Are these monsters going to kill me?” a quivering Jonathan asks the Count. “Not as long as they think you’re a monster.” “That’s kind of racist.” “Mavis could never be with someone of his kind,” old-fashioned Dracula harrumphs before finally venturing into the world to fight for his daughter’s happiness, where he gets a glimpse of Twilight—the franchise that made the world safe for human-vampire mixed couples—and balks, “This is how they represent us?”
Hotel Transylvania is, in brief, a tract against parochial xenophobia, the Count’s lofty getaway a catchall filling in for gated community, ethnic ghetto, or hick backwater—whatever you like. The idea that insular communities might have any intrinsic value does not enter into Hotel Transylvania’s script, content as it is to endorse the great melting pot of pop monoculture, for which Instagram tourist Jonathan is the missionary, pushing aside zombie Beethoven and his decaying songbook to take over as Mavis’s birthday entertainment. When the monsters do finally emerge from seclusion, they discover that they have gained acceptance with the humans through the vehicle of entertainment, as the great-great-grandchildren of the torch-and-pitchfork-wielding yokels who once spurned them are now profiting from a “Monster Fest” at the foot of the Carpathians. The nearest Hotel Transylvania comes to criticizing the compact with pop commodification comes when the Count is plugged into Jonathan’s smartphone and, hearing LMFAO’s “Sexy and I Know It,” gasps “It’s taking my soul!”
Although it doesn’t worry itself with dialectic complexities, Hotel Transylvania succeeds on the level of entertainment. The screenplay is credited to Peter Baynham and Saturday Night Live/You Don’t Mess With the Zohan writer Robert Smigel—though who can remember who contributed what during the film’s six-year, six-director gestation—and mercifully voids most of the bodily function jokes early on, making room for a steady pelting of one-liner asides and cleverly designed sight gags, many relying on in-depth 3-D composition.
Given its confusing provenance, the coherent visual identity of the final Hotel Transylvania must in large part be thanks to the contribution of director number six, Genndy Tartakovsky, a Cartoon Network vet who has worked principally in “flat” animation (Dexter’s Laboratory, Samurai Jack), here making his feature-film debut. The computer animation is not of the nigglingly detailed, photorealistic sort that preponderates today, but is rather clean, graphic, and almost hieroglyphic, and able to be read, understood, and enjoyed in a moment. Some of the biggest laughs come from simply hitting the audience unawares with irresistibly hysterical establishing shots: a somnolent gremlin bingo caller who bears a passing resemblance to Angela Lansbury; the Wolf Man (Steve Buscemi), with red, saucer-round, insomniac eyes, piled sleepless under his pack of disobedient pups in the early a.m. The character design is uniformly delightful, including an Invisible Man (David Spade), whose tortoiseshell glasses arch their “eyebrows”; a bumptious peanut-shaped Mummy (Cee Lo Green), evoking Nightmare Before Christmas’s Oogie Boogie; a nattily dressed, well-spoken Human Fly (Chris Parnell) with binocular eyes. The charming closing-credits sequence imagines all of these characters in 2-D, proving that Mr. Tartakovsky’s aesthetic loyalties are not so easily swayed, while giving grounds to hope that he will negotiate the ranks of feature CG animation with soul intact.
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