For many entertainment fans, Genndy Tartakovsky is best known for his work directing the hand-drawn Star Wars animated spin-off series, Clone Wars (but not the CGI follow-up The Clone Wars). The art style of the animated show successfully brought a fresh design to iconic Star Wars characters like Yoda and the Clone Troopers; as a result, when fans heard that the filmmaker was set to helm DreamWorks’ latest CGI film, Hotel Transylvania, many were equally interested to see what the director could do with horror staples like Dracula and Frankenstein.
Despite serving as the sixth director on the long-in-development project, early screenshots showed that the movie did feature interesting Tartakovsky visual aesthetics and those familiar with the director continued to be optimistic. Now that the film has released, has Tartakovsky, along with a cast of well-known vocal talent (including Adam Sandler, Selena Gomez, Andy Samberg, Kevin James, Molly Shannon, and David Spade, among others), delivered an animated feature that’s on-par with prior Dreamworks Animation projects (Shrek and How to Train Your Dragon) – a fun but heartwarming film for moviegoers of all ages?
Unfortunately, outside of the sharp animation style, Hotel Transylvania is hard to recommend to anyone but parents looking to distract their kids for a few hours with a hyperactive movie experience. Adults will find a few chuckle-worthy gags and children will have plenty of colorful monsters and lowbrow antics to keep their eyes busy but, in spite of the film’s thin attempt to strike at something deeper, very little of the onscreen action is unique or memorable. Some viewers will, no doubt, write off any potential criticisms with the oft-referenced argument that “it’s just a kids movie”; nevertheless, animation studios (DreamWorks included) have shown that animated films can work on a number of levels – with as much to offer adults as their younger counterpart. However, unlike those films, Hotel Transylvania is overstuffed with on-the-nose humor and an underwhelming storyline that each borrow heavily from other animated films, especially Finding Nemo, without offering anything new or compelling to the mix.
The familiar story follows overprotective Dad, Count Dracula (Sandler), who is convinced that humans are dangerous – and, as a precaution, builds an enormous castle (and hotel) where monsters can take refuge… and the count can hide his vampire daughter Mavis (Gomez) away forever. Convinced that humans are not to be trusted, scary creatures from all across the world come to vacation behind the safety of the castle walls – while, at the same time, Mavis dreams of leaving the compound, traveling, and visiting “Paradise” (aka Hawaii). However, just when Mavis has given up on venturing into the outside world, Jonathan (Samberg), a human, inadvertently party crashes Hotel Transylvania – forcing Dracula, after 118 years of fearful hiding, to face the possibility that humans might have moved past their torch and pitchfork anti-monster days.
While the narrative does lock into an almost heartwarming track by the end of the film, the first fifteen minutes of Hotel Transylvania serve as a very clear indicator as to how the majority of the ninety-one minute runtime is going to play out – a gag per second mishmash of fart jokes, slapstick violence, and eye-rolling one-liners. The focus shifts quickly from one gimmick to the next, with no time for jokes to resonate, resulting in an overwhelming stream of gags – as if the filmmakers weren’t particularly sure which ones would actually land. Even more problematic, the movie never attempts to present any of the characters, even Dracula and Mavis, with enough sincerity to make the final act, which attempts to be heartfelt and profound, actually payoff. Instead, viewers are left with yet another overly-generalized story about “true love” – without grounding the story in genuine character moments.
Samberg’s Jonathan is the most egregious example in the batch – since, in spite of Tartakovsky’s attempts to sell him as a love interest for Mavis, the character is more often presented as a brainless drifter with poor hygiene – who, faced with impending death, obsesses over the fate of his backpack. Aside from a few thoughtful gestures, Jonathan is nothing more than a thin and downright irritating counter-balance for nearly every main character to playoff. Mavis is isolated, so Jonathan is an adventurer, Dracula is uptight, so Jonathan is free spirited, Cee-Lo Green and Selena Gomez are in the movie, so Jonathan performs a couple of musical numbers. If Hotel Transylvania didn’t spend so much time trying to say something profound about love, it’d be easy to overlook a character like Jonathan but it’s hard to take anything the movie says seriously when the filmmakers regularly rely on slapstick comedy instead of engaging characters to keep audiences invested.
Similarly, very little is actually done with the great character designs of the various monsters inhabiting the film – forcing the iconic creatures into revisiting the same gags over and over ad nauseam. Even with a cast of familiar voices, most of the monster moments are so dull that typically energetic performers like Steve Buccemi and Fran Drescher are simply lost in the shuffle. That said, none of the other monsters have to utter dialogue that is quite as half-baked and unfunny as Sandler’s attempt to marry his Dracula impersonation with “surfer dude talk.”
Hotel Transylvania is playing in 3D as well as 2D theaters and, as is usually the case with animated films, the effect is noticeable but this time isn’t used in a particularly compelling or unique way. It’s unfortunate, considering the added dimension does make certain characters a little more interesting to look at (such as Murray the Mummy), but similar to the characters and story, the 3D visuals are mostly forgettable – and don’t add enough value for the overarching experience to justify an upgraded ticket.
Hotel Transylvania includes some interesting standalone design choices, such as Tartakovsky’s keen visual aesthetic, but there are a lot of conflicting ideas at play in the movie – especially the off-putting juxtaposition of near-sincere character moments and lowbrow poop jokes that prevent the film from ever being especially heartfelt or funny. Kids will enjoy watching all of the goofy monsters interact but the film’s head-scratching depictions of “true love” and “accepting others” reveal that the Hotel Transylvania filmmakers might have been spending too much time with Frank N. Stein (voiced by Kevin James) – ultimately delivering an awkwardly proportioned and poorly stitched together movie experience.
If you’re still on the fence about Hotel Transylvania, check out the trailer below:
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Hotel Transylvania is Rated PG for some rude humor, action and scary images. Now playing in 2D and 3D theaters.