God knows I’m not the biggest fan of Adam Sandler, and anything as painfully pandering as Hotel Transylvania normally gets my hackles all in a bunch. And yet something about it rises above its distressingly mundane fundaments, if only slightly. It keeps a light and frothy air about it, it focuses on the jokes instead of the stars, and it packs up its bags the moment it wears out its welcome. It won’t fill your kids with magic and wonder, but you can be reasonably assured of diverting them for a few precious hours without permanently warping their minds.
Also credit Hotel Transylvania for knowing just where to draw its inspiration. It pulls a fair amount from the old stop-motion Rankin-Bass piece Mad Monster Party (a movie to which The Nightmare Before Christmas owes a great deal as well). Dracula himself (voiced by Sandler) sets up a resort in his (ahem) neck of the woods, where all of his monster buddies can kick back and relax without mobs of torch-bearing villagers harshing their mellow. Director Genndy Tartakovsky quickly establishes a steady patter of sight gags, mostly centered around Drac’s buddies Wayne the Wolfman (voiced by Steve Buscemi), Murray the Mummy (voiced by Ceelo Greene), Griffin the Invisible Man (voiced by David Spade) and Frank(enstein’s monster)(voiced by Kevin James), who have all arrived to celebrate the birthday of Drac’s daughter Mavis (voiced by Selena Gomez)
That last bit provides the weakest part of the whole affair, positing Drac as the overprotective father and Mavis the teenage girl eager to get out and see the world. The lazy scriptwriting touches all the moth-eaten tropes at precisely the predicted times, buoyed only fitfully by the arrival of a clueless human backpacker (voiced by Andy Samberg) who threatens to steal Mavis’s heart and destroy Drac’s dream of a permanent monster haven in one fell swoop. The whole thing blows (or bites if you want to continue with the puns), and watching the characters go through their tired, predictable paces acts as a serious load on the storyline.
Tartakovsky rallies with individual jokes and little details. He has a good sense of timing and the expected barrage of yucks carries enough legitimate wit to get us past the slow parts. Early bits evince a disquieting fixation on body humor, but they soon move past that to stronger material. (You officially get one fart joke per picture; after that, you lose your license.) The character design shows a lot of flair as well, and the colorful settings benefit from a general peppiness in the tone. Though stuck playing Bela Lugosi as a sitcom dad, Sandler still scores a few points every now and again, and even finds an emotional core to his character’s dilemma that we can believe in.
Figures like Buscemi and Samberg form a further bulwark against the bouts of frat-boy cruelty that periodically plague the script. Buscemi has the best of the supporting cast, as his schlubby lycanthrope dad struggles to maintain his dignity amid a passel of literally howling kids. Samberg, for his part, brings a helping of heart to the mix, and he and Sandler play off each other marvelously. That helps Hotel Transylvania find the elusive sweet spot between kiddie entertainment and adult cleverness. Once it hits the right balance, it holds onto it for most of the running time, aided by decently funny material, a nice crisp look, and plenty of energy to keep our attention fixed. The shortcomings are there, but they don’t quite overwhelm things the way they should. It may be that Sandler has sunk so low that any success feels like a home run. It may be that he kept his nastier tendencies in check this time. Whatever the reason, it makes Hotel Transylvania… well, far from immortal, but at least worth a matinee ticket that won’t shame you for buying it once the final credits roll.