Starring (voices only): Adam Sandler, Andy Samberg, Selena Gomez, Kevin James, Fran Drescher, Steve Buscemi, Molly Shannon, David Spade, CeeLo Green, Jon Lovitz
Rating: PG, for mild rude humor and some scary images
“Hotel Transylvania” is generously laden with similar knee-slappers, many piling one atop the next in the rat-a-tat-tat manner of a classic Road Runner cartoon. But this is no seven-minute short; director Genndy Tartakovsky and editor Catherine Apple successfully maintain an exhilarating pace without sacrificing the character elements necessary to hold our interest.
It’s an impressive feat, no less so when considering the involvement of five credited writers: Peter Baynham, Robert Smigel, Todd Durham, Dan Hageman and Kevin Hageman. That many cooks generally spoil the magic potion, but in this case, everybody’s sensibilities mesh nicely. The result is a light-hearted spoof of familiar movie monster traditions, blended with wry takes on young love and an unusually extreme generation gap.
Long, long ago, in a haunted forest far, far away, Dracula (voiced by Adam Sandler) constructed a lavish “five-stake resort” that he dubbed Hotel Transylvania: a posh refuge for monsters and their families to vacation, far from curious — and potentially dangerous — eyes. As has become typical of our 21st century re-evaluations of fantasy creatures, these poor monsters are the world’s maligned and misunderstood, hunted and killed by the humans who fear and hate them.
Bearing that last thought in mind, Dracula’s massive sanctuary also has been designed as a place where his daughter, Mavis (Selena Gomez), can grow up safely. Dracula has particular reason for this parental concern; a century and change ago, his beloved wife — Mavis’ mother — was killed by just such a human mob.
But Mavis is celebrating her 118th birthday, and — just like the tower-bound Rapunzel, in 2010’s “Tangled” — she yearns to explore and experience the outside world. Until now, Dracula has managed to delay her desire, in part through the distraction of ever more elaborate birthday parties.
This one is destined to be no exception, with a guest list that includes Frankenstein (Kevin James) and his brassy wife, Eunice (Fran Drescher); Wayne (Steve Buscemi) and Wanda (Molly Shannon), a couple of loving werewolves who have produced litter after litter of pups; Griffin, the Invisible Man (David Spade); Murray (CeeLo Green), a boisterous, jive-talking mummy; and Quasimodo (Jon Lovitz), the hotel’s temperamental head chef, never seen without his loyal rat assistant, Esmeralda.
But those are only the front-and-center characters; the guest list also includes riffs on every creature known from myth and cinema, from the gelatinous Blob and the Creature from the Black Lagoon, to the multi-headed Cerberus, the Abominable Snowman, an underwater octopoid beast so huge that we never see more than a tentacle or two, and the assorted witch maids, headless drivers, mariachi skeletons, limb-challenged zombies and haunted suits of armor that serve as the hotel staff.
Not that it makes a difference, despite Mavis’ fondness for all these weird uncles and aunts. Holding her father to a promise he made years ago, she demands that he allow her to spread her (bat) wings.
As it happens, though, her desire for travel gets put on hold with the unexpected arrival of one last guest: an energetic, way-cool motormouth dude named Jonathan (Andy Samberg), who can shred a guitar or a skateboard with equal élan. Jonathan has been backpacking his way across Europe, and with the insatiable curiosity of any 21-year-old, he naturally follows up on an oft-heard rumor about a mysteriously spooky castle hidden deep within the Transylvanian woods.
But Jonathan’s presence is a catastrophe for Dracula, who has long guaranteed his premises to be human-free. Concealing Jonathan’s healthy pink complexion isn’t difficult; a bit of make-up and an electrified hairstyle later, the kid is introduced to everybody as Johnnystein, Frankenstein’s supposed cousin (actually, the cousin of the fellow who, ah, supplied one of Frankie’s arms).
But Dracula has a much tougher time dealing with the luminescent goo-goo eyes that suddenly flash between Jonathan and Mavis: love at first sight.
What’s an undead dad to do?
Sandler makes a wonderfully pompous vampire, clearly regarded as the big cheese by all his supernatural friends and guests, but helpless in the face of his daughter’s stricken, disappointed expressions. Sandler gives his black-caped character a wide range of moods and emotions, from unexpected gentleness — always played against a given scene’s apparently ominous mood — to breath-catching flashes of blood-curdling fury. Based on the actor’s track record with recent dim-bulb comedies, I think he’s much better as unseen voice talent.
Samberg’s Jonathan is a stitch. It’s funny enough when this hyper-enthusiastic sorta-slacker first assumes that he has stumbled into some sort of fan gathering, with folks sporting really rad costumes; it’s positively side-splitting when the poor guy realizes that he’s surrounded by (gulp) actual, rotted-flesh-and-putrefied-blood creatures of the night.
Until he (literally) bumps into Mavis, of course. No warm-blooded guy could resist a girl this cute … even if she does have fangs.
Gomez successfully navigates Mavis’ many moods, ensuring that her typically teenage character is headstrong but not demanding, mildly self-centered but never unpleasantly selfish. Mavis isn’t merely the apple of her father’s eye — a weakness she cheerfully exploits to her advantage — she’s also adored by all who visit the castle. And, really, we can’t argue with her desire to escape the constricting confines of her father’s enveloping cloak … no matter how noble his intentions.
Buscemi is a hoot as a beaten-down father never able to hide from his bratty brood, and James gives Frankenstein an intriguing reading as a sort of blue-collar working stiff. Lovitz initially makes Quasimodo an overly solicitous toady, but this character turns menacing in the final act.
Mark Mothersbaugh contributes a vigorous orchestral score, punctuated at key moments by energetic pop anthems such as a reworked cover of Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” — here retitled “Call Me Mavy” — and a climactic rap duel involving Dracula, Jonathan and Mavis, called “Problem (The Monster Remix).” Cute stuff.
You’re well advised to spring for the film’s 3D format, which lends additional depth and dimension to bat flights and pell-mell pursuits through the castle’s darkened passages. The 3D “money sequence,” however, is a ballroom duel of sorts between Dracula and Jonathan, with floating tables as game pieces. This has nothing to do with the story, and could be viewed as a time-filling distraction … were it not so giddily exhilarating.
I hope “Hotel Transylvania” hangs around for at least a month, because it’ll be perfect family viewing for the night before Halloween.
— Read more of Derrick Bang’s film criticism at derrickbang.blogspot.com. Comment on this review at www.davisenterprise.com