Sporting a host of amusing G-rated monsters and an overt Aesop about overprotective parenting, Hotel Transylvania is a successful and relentlessly silly comedy that might also have been a winning family movie with a stronger script. In lieu of that, the movie makes the most of Adam Sandler’s surprisingly effective performance as Count Dracula, which captures his essence as well as anyone possibly could when he’s reimagined as a doting dad missing the most menacing aspects lore attributes to him. He does not suck human blood–after all, who knows where it has been! Should you encounter the Count and do anything to vex him, fear not. He will not kill you, for that would “…set monsters back hundreds of years!”
Dracula runs a luxurious five-star resort in Transylvania, meant to be a refuge for monsters looking to stay safely away from a human society that they’re sure hates and fears them. For the count himself, his core motivation for this expansive mansion was a personal one: He wanted a place where his baby daughter, Mavis, could remain safe and protected, as he pledged after the passing of his wife. Inevitably of course, for all his love and the company of the many monsters that come to Dracula’s expansive castle, Mavis reaches an age where she wants to decide some things for herself and finally see the outside world. Rather than resist this outright, the savvy Dracula promises to mark her 118th birthday by allowing her to visit a nearby human village before her birthday party, only to set up the entire place as an act put on by disguised creatures employed by the count. The ruse successfully reinforces the anti-human prejudices Dracula always expressed and discourages Mavis from leaving home again, but everything backfires when Dracula’s minions end up leading Dracula’s worst nightmare to Hotel Transylvania: Jonathan, a male human Mavis’ “age” who has been backpacking through Europe and seeing the world.
From there, it’s a comedy of errors and lies. He disguises Jonathan as a distant cousin of Frankenstein to keep his guests blissfully unaware that a human is in their midst; Jonathan thinks it’s all part of a grandiose costume party until he probes a living skeleton and freaks out. This only lasts until he runs into Mavis before Dracula can manage to find an excuse to quietly get him out of the hotel, and the two hit it off. Dracula fibs that Jonathan is there to plan the birthday party as a pretense to keep them separated, only for Jonathan to win the approval of the guests and Dracula’s closer friends when he takes it all in stride and livens up the festivities in ways that the centuries-old, straight-laced, “control freak” Dracula could never conceive of. All this is complemented by an array of running gags wherein undead zombies serve guests not-so-efficiently, monsters casually enjoy gross things, and we see such things as a papa werewolf overwhelmed by dozens of kids and an invisible man sensitive about looks that no one can actually see. These gags are secondary to Dracula proving himself his own worst enemy as he fails to manage Jonathan, though.
Mercifully, the movie refrains from a tiresome one-sided narrative wherein Dracula is the overbearing, unreasonable parent and the children are there to make him see how wrong he is. At first Dracula simply resents Jonathan’s presence at every turn as his plans backfire and the young man fearlessly exchanges banter with him, but in time he earns some respect. In response to Mavis’ continuing efforts to bond with Jonathan, rather than lash out Dracula explains the fate of his wife and why he feels the way he does about humans and the safety of his daughter. Mavis herself is perfectly willing to stand up to her father about his promise to let her leave the castle, but she isn’t stereotypically rebellious and prone to losing her temper, and the movie shows a healthy relationship marred only by the Count’s doomed attempt at deception for what he thinks is her own good. When that house of cards finally tumbles down and Mavis and Jonathan are estranged, Dracula is forced to face the ruin of what he wanted at the start: his daughter, sheltered and protected but miserable with her aspirations shattered. It’s paternal love that motivates him to make an earnest attempt at making things right.
It’s unfortunate that, in a movie where love drives the plot and all the conflict in it, the father/daughter relationship is so tragically underdeveloped. Illumination Entertainment’s Despicable Me and even Dreamworks’ Kung Fu Panda 2 demonstrate that there is room in a film for both humor and heart, yet Mavis is seen less than Jonathan, and so we have her largely defined by her desire to get out of the castle. It’s suggested more than once that this is rooted in feelings she’s having about the mother she never knew; where the Count met his wife was at the top of her list for where she wanted to go. Yet Mavis and the Count both open up about this to Jonathan, never each other. A comedy this is, but a lower quantity of gags would have been a small price to pay in exchange for a film that championed tenderness and honesty along with a rudimentary point about how eventually, every parent has to learn to let go.