Review: “Hotel Transylvania”

Dracula and Jonathan, voiced by Adam Sandler and Andy Samberg, respectively, are the stars of "Hotel Transylvania"“Hotel Transylvania,” the latest piece of CGI animation to be pumped out of a studio that isn’t Pixar, is a so-called family film that will not appeal to any member of the family: adults will be tortured by the unfunny humor and plain-looking animation and children will just want to go home and watch something similar on Nickelodeon instead. That’s really all the movie is: a television-grade production gussied up with pointless 3-D effects and expensive celebrity voices. Director Genndy Tartakovsky has won multiple Emmys for his work on the small screen–he is one of the minds behind Cartoon Network’s “Dexter’s Laboratory,” “Star Wars: Clone Wars,” and “Samurai Jack”–but he clearly has no idea how to create the scope required of a feature film.

That said, the blame doesn’t rest entirely on Tartakovsky’s shoulders; Peter Baynham and Robert Smigel’s script was dead-on-arrival. The premise is cute enough: Dracula (voice of Adam Sandler) keeps his daughter Mavis (Selena Gomez) pent up in the eponymous ‘Monsters Only’ hotel due to poor past relations with humans, so her world is rocked when a charming backpacker named Jonathan (Andy Samberg) unknowingly stumbles upon her 118th birthday party. But Baynham and Smigel take the story in entirely predictable directions: Mavis falls for Jonathan, not knowing he’s human; overprotective Dracula does everything he can to cover up this fact, identifying the young man as a relative of Frankenstein (Kevin James); and the truth eventually comes out, threatening Mavis and Jonathan’s budding relationship. This is, of course, all just a set-up to preach tolerance of others; monsters and humans may be separate races, but there is no reason that they shouldn’t get along (gag).

Baynham and Smigel’s attempts at comedy are just as uncreative as their plotting, mostly centering around the monster equivalents of human conventions. Examples include Dracula telling Mavis, “You’re old enough to drive a hearse, now you can go [explore the world]” and monsters lining up for the omelette bar at Mavis’ party, which includes cockroach paste and bubonic plague as toppings. These jokes are especially bad when one considers that they were intended for the adults in the audience, as kids certainly won’t understand them. In fact, the only “funny” material aimed at younger viewers involves the characters’ general goofiness, like Dracula’s resentment of humans’ impersonations of him, which invariably include the term ‘bluh.’ (It’s for the best that kids will only focus on the silly sound of ‘bluh’ and not pick up on the Bela Lugosi jab, which is hypocritical given how Lugosi-inspired Sandler’s characterization is.) Oh, and there’s a big ‘ol fart joke, because what Sandler movie would be complete without one?

Director Tartakovsky does little to help the lacking material (or the purely paycheck-seeking voice cast, for that matter). Visually, “Hotel Transylvania” is the ugliest studio-produced CGI animated feature in recent memory. Most of the characters are devoid of texture, with overly smooth, round features that would have looked better had they been hand-drawn. A few of the monsters are exceptions to this rule–Wayne the Werewolf (Steve Buscemi) and Murray the Mummy (Cee Lo Green) boast striking design–but on the whole, the stone walls of the hotel are more interesting to look at than the characters because they at least have definition. To add insult to injury, the 3-D effects add nothing to the film’s aesthetic other than increased darkness, robbing “Hotel Transylvania” of desperately needed color.

There is one moment at the very end of “Hotel Transylvania” that suggests things may perk up for just a moment, offering a reprieve from the film’s overriding blandness. Samberg’s character initiates a rap in a similar style to many of the songs that he performs with the “Saturday Night Live” parody band The Lonely Island. For a fleeting few seconds, this critic thought that perhaps the filmmakers convinced that talented musical group to do a PG-rated version of their usual schtick, to end the film on a creative note. Instead, the lyrics quickly revealed themselves to be nowhere near Lonely Island quality and, then, Sandler and Gomez joined in singing. Yes, you’re reading this right: After one conventional story-point after another, “Hotel Transylvania” has the gall to end on a standard-issue musical number — the same way that dozens of other animated family movies have. The film is an uninspired money-grab from start to finish. If you must use it as a babysitter for your kids, wait for video to do so — they’ll thank you.