Review: "Hotel Transylvania" Needs a "Do Not Disturb" Sign
Hotel Transylvania was directed by Genndy Tartakovsky, and if this movie is Genndy Tartakovsky pouring out his bountiful imagination, creativity and energy, I’d hate to see what happens when he’s just collecting a pay check. Hotel Transylvania is trite, predictable, boring, and why am I even writing about it, because it’s not worth bothering over, even to diss.
Well, that’s if you treat it as a “Genndy Tartakovsky movie”–as something from the prodigy who gave us Dexter’s Laboratory and Samurai Jack. If you treat it on its own, then it’s still a shabby hodgepodge of clichĂ©s, but at least it fills the time without offending.
So, there’s Dracula, and he’s got a daughter, Mavis. Drac is a widower because villagers killed his wife, and so he’s determined to keep Mavis safe. To that end, he builds a vast, hidden castle and forbids her from leaving it. A hundred years pass, Mavis finally comes of age, and Dracula throws a huge party for her. All the monsters show up: Frankenstein and his wife; the wolfman, his wolf-wife, and all their puppies; the Mummy; the Invisible Man; and a bunch of others. The gala gets crashed by Jonathan, a back-packing twenty-something who initially thinks it’s just a wild costume party, and who freaks out when he finds out all the monsters are real. Dracula, for his part, has to keep Jonathan under wraps, because the monsters are as terrified of humans as humans are of monsters. But Jonathan meets up with Mavis, and they connect. Lots of slapstick hijinks ensue until Drac Daddy gets won over by Jonathan’s sweetness, and decides he can let Mavis leave the nest.
Yeah, that summary covers all the spoilers, but are they really spoilers when you can see them creeping up slowly over the horizon like the sunrise?
First, the good, and mostly that’s Dracula. He just dotes on his little girl, and if he’s a little foolish, his heart is obviously in the right place. Fathers don’t seem to get a lot of affectionate attention in movies these days, and it’s nice to see one that treats a daddy seriously even as it goofs on him. A lot of the credit has to go to Adam Sandler, who does the Bela Lugosi act with gusto while still giving Dracula some delicate shading. He can’t quite connect emotionally with his daughter, but his clumsiness is part of his character and not just a comedic schtick. His anguish at the death of his wife is also nicely realized in the movie’s most tender scene when he tells Jonathan of her fate. There are a lot of tired jokes about his control freakery and lame, old-fashioned tastes, but they don’t fully shroud his underlying decency. This is a man (or vampire, I guess, technically) who has been bent and overborne by tragedy, but has struggled manfully to be two parents to one rather oblivious child.
There are some bright spots in the supporting cast as well. I especially liked Wayne the Wolfman, who doesn’t do much but sport the exhausted mien of a conscientious father paralyzed by his too numerous, too rambunctious brood. (I think a dog owner must have worked on his character: I’ve seen dogs watching their own puppies while wearing Wayne’s very pained expression.) Most of the other monsters are etched with pleasant if too-tiny details, and none of them are annoying.
The film’s big problem is its dull predictability and inability to make the human Jonathan and the human-like Mavis very interesting. Jonathan is just a goofball who shifts from laid-back cool to spastic terror as the jokes require. He is supposed to represent “free spiritedness” and “tolerance” and all the other sunny, California-lite virtues, but he has no real character–other than “dudeness”–and doesn’t really acquire any in the course of the picture. Weirdly, considering his stereotype, he mostly resembles those waxwork allegorical figures from Victorian Era fiction and art, only he is stamped “Hipness” rather than “Prudence” or “Chastity” or “Thriftiness.” He is there to represent an ideal, which doesn’t make him any more attractive (except to 21st century philistines) than his 19th century progenitors.
There is even less to Mavis, and she gets even less screen time than Jonathan. She is just the object and occasion for the story, and not a participant in it. Early in the story Dracula lets her run off to visit a human village, and she is promptly frightened back to the castle–because it’s a fake village set up by her father for the express purpose of scaring her back into line. After that, she just pops up every once in awhile to smile at or spook Jonathan or to cause her father a plot complication. The story is, in truth, about her father and how he has to come to terms with her impending adulthood. But she is the pivot over which Dracula and Jonathan seesaw, which makes her passivity vexing. The story is content to treat her mere existence as the problem to be solved, when it should be her own actions–her rebellion, her burgeoning affections, her desire to stay close to but also escape her father–that force the other two to evolve.
But there’s no real point in complaining that Hotel Transylvania hasn’t the subtlety of a Henry James novel when all the shrieking and pratfalls prove it’s not meant to be any more than a sloppy cartoon comedy. This is a very busy picture, full of things bouncing and flying and stretching and shrieking. But it’s only movement, not energy, for there is no tension to any of the bits, and no sense of things building toward climaxes.
About the best that can be said, sadly, of Hotel Transylvania is that it has the wackiness of a DreamWorks feature but without any of that studio’s repulsive cynicism and pop-celebrity knowingness. (The closest it comes to that is with a fine and quiet running joke about how Dracula doesn’t deliver the stereotypical “Bleugh!” exclamation all the time.) It’s a weightless picture, but that gives it a lightness, too, and makes it a reasonably tolerable Saturday matinee kind of entertainment.
Just try to forget that Genndy Tartakovsky had anything to do with it.