“Hotel Transylvania” is a delightful Halloween treat that explores family and the unusual with style

Written by Victor DeBonis

Photo Credit: Sony Pictures Animation

For many animation fans, including myself, Genndy Tartakovsky is a name that is met with much respect and awe. He’s widely known for the delightful zaniness between the brother-sister pair of the late 90’s cartoon, “Dexter’s Laboratory” and he wowed both kids and adults with his surreal action cartoon from the 2000’s known as “Samurai Jack.” Throughout his career, Tartakovsky has proven that he has a thorough understanding of what draws people (no pun intended) to animation in the first place with his bubbly and energized style, his superb sense of timing, and his impressive creativity that provides for some humorous and heartfelt stories at the center of his works.

Another work that nicely demonstrates Tartakovsky’s talents is his 2012 animated comedy-fantasy film, “Hotel Transylvania.” It’s easy to see where this film could fall into a nasty trap. The premise of having a hotel, where dozens of creatures are allowed to stay, is an innovative one, but, in the wrong hands, it could turn out to be either too generic or too weak with its own jokes and handling of its material. However, thanks to Tartakovsky’s phenomenal direction, Peter Baynham and Robert Smigel’s simultaneously hilarious and emotional script, and a steady amount of great characters and heart, the movie ends up not only excelling in its own concept with flying colors but also showing the creators’ love and appreciation for family and the strange in spades. This film is not flawless, by any means, particularly when it can come to some of its occasional hiccups with its humor, but I was rather surprised with how charming and downright sincere “Hotel Transylvania” was with its haunting yet lovable characters and story about looking beyond one’s own fears and past to appreciate new wonders and others different from one’s self.

As one would expect from its director, the animation for this movie is simply astounding. There are plenty of bold colors as well as plenty of shots of areas that are draped in heavy shadows or crisply designed moonlight. The shadows work especially well here because they’re animated with a nice, real-looking texture that marvelously blends in with a mysterious and creepy haven for monsters. The monsters themselves have some terrific designs to them that match their iconic images well, but, similar to the characters from Tartakovsky’s other works, they also possess a distinct motion to them that makes them feel more alive and identifiable. Dracula, for instance, tends to casually glide from one spot to the next, often without seeing his feet in a way that one would expect a sneakily approaching vampire to move around. This movie’s version of Frankenstein often leans or stomps around in a manner that can be awkward at times but still carries an intimidating force that would probably make the audience want to hop away to avoid getting trampled if he existed in reality. Even small touches, such as the Invisible Man’s glasses frowning or angrily leaning forward to show emotional expressions when nobody can see the rest of him, are clever and add to the delightful strangeness of this world.

The animation also possesses some impressive speed. A fair number of scenes consist of the camera casually swooping from the front door to give a majestic shot of a castle or flying down towering corners of a hallway with the ferocity of a freight train. The style is highly reminiscent of other comedic animated films, such as “Cats Don’t Dance” and “The Emperor’s New Groove” in the sense that it understands how the precise timing and speed works wonders in simultaneously heightening the comedy and energy.

Several comedic performers provide terrific services to the characters that they voice. Steve Buscemi’s cynical, deadpan vocals, for example, perfectly match the demeanor of a hunched, severely overburdened werewolf and father of several tiny cubs who make it harder for him to truly enjoy his time. With a thick voice that has an occasionally exasperated quality to it, Kevin James works like a charm as this comedic version of Frankenstein by bringing the right levels of fear or fright to someone who can be an otherwise intimidating presence when the moment is proper. Performers, such as these, bring a genuine sense of camaraderie through their deliveries when they’re reacting to each other and goofing around, but they also add a steady amount of personality to their creatures at the same time.

Other actors who are great include Selena Gomez who evokes the right amount of gentleness and sly curiosity that defines Dracula’s daughter, Mavis. Here is a character who could’ve easily come across as a typical rebellious teen at heart. Instead, she has a quietness and wild spirit that isn’t echoed aloud but is begging to be released as shown through her contemplative expressions. She has a voice that doesn’t force her opinion and, in its place, has a wistful tone that yearns to learn more from the castle that she’s known for her entire life. And then, there’s Adam Sandler as Count Dracula himself. Having played a number of characters in the past that are stuck with irritating voices that do few favors for them or their movies, Sandler would, on paper, be mentioned as a baffling choice for this role. With this character, however, he does great work, possessing an accent that’s not over the top and evokes the precise emotion needed for his moments, whether he’s openly joyous or mad or frightened for the lives of his friends and family. He especially works wonders in the humorous moments that require him to deliver a sarcastic or menacing line. Something about the combination of his bitter voice, complemented by the fluid animation that shows his tall body leaning or flipping back in anger, just puts a big grin across my face. Yet, what makes his performance so good is that, for all of his great comedic moments, Sandler’s Dracula hits all the right notes in more reflective moments that require a softer, more aching mood, and he completely delivers.

Plenty of creative touches pop up in this movie that add to the unique, haunting feel of this ancient getaway for monsters. For instance, there are severed heads tied by their hair to the hotel room doors that serve as sassy, talkative “Do Not Disturb” reminders. In one scene, Dracula briefly explains that, although vampires in their world can drink human blood, they actually consider it as too fatty, which is humorous and seems to make a certain amount of sense that actually translates well to this world. With one incredibly animated sequence, living, floating tables are used in preparation for Mavis’ birthday party. The mere concept of hitching a ride atop one of these tables in this mystical castle is an awesome one, and the movie takes full advantage of this by providing an exciting and furious ride that weaves through corners with a mighty speed and expresses its fondness for fun and the unnatural powers that loom within this dark place. Touches, such as these, bring a pleasantly monstrous and vibrant life that looms from the narrow hallways to the dripping dungeon-like floors.

The humor itself mostly succeeds. In my eyes, the comedy of this film works at its best when it plays off of the monsters’ traits or weaknesses or even their mere reactions to each other. When Dracula gives the Invisible Man a piece of bacon, it is a visually creative and hilarious moment to see a flood of uncontrollable werewolf cubs literally cover him and cause him to topple over and devour the piece of meat in his hands. Some modern jokes and references work nicely, too, such as the human love interest of Mavis, Johnny Loughran, expressing in fear that he doesn’t want to get devoured by a monster because he’ll end up missing six Dave Matthews Band concerts that he’s going to. Admittedly, there are some jokes in the movie that cause groaning and eye-rolling at the same time, particularly whenever there is a flatulence joke or another crude moment of humor that felt as though it was aiming mainly towards 8-year-olds. Also, while aforementioned Johnny is a decent character and given a fair amount of funny moments, thanks greatly in part to Andy Samberg’s performance, it is hard to not picture him as a typical goofball college-aged male character with a surfer’s accent who isn’t the brightest bulb but possesses a caring nature. Johnny’s way of speaking with plenty of dumbfounded “Whoa, man!” phrases can feel as though the audience has heard and seen this type of character before in a number of comedies, but, to the character’s credit, he does evolve into a character that one does gradually warm up to, especially when he shows his quieter side in specific moments.

What probably stood out the most to me about this movie, what separated it from other Halloween-based films aimed at families, consisted of the relationships between the characters and how strong they are. Consider when Dracula is hanging out with his monster buddies among the likes of the Werewolf, the Mummy, and so forth. Throughout the movie, they show how they maintain a rather believable and brotherly bond. They can occasionally poke fun at each other, but they often hang out and stick together through whatever ideas and plans that they have in spite of the insanity that comes their way. Amidst their differences, they have a strong unity, which is perfectly shown through their mixtures of playfulness and loyalty with each other.

Johnny’s connection with Mavis is also fairly nice. While he is a bit clumsy, Johnny still holds a charming and adventurous nature to himself that encourages Mavis to try new experiences all the more as well as find real, romantic interest in him. In a way, the beginning of Mavis and Johnny’s relationship appears as the beginning of an adventure in itself with the former starting to explore the wide world beyond her own in this giant castle and the latter admiring more of what this dark yet intriguing world of monsters consists of.

The strongest relationship in this film easily traces from Dracula and Mavis’ connection with each other. Now, many have seen a grocery list of comedic movies before, such as “Meet the Parents” where the daughter and the father have a strong bond and the father is going to do everything in his power to make sure that his child isn’t hurt and immediately has disapproving feelings towards the boyfriend out of a grumpy, paternal concern. Here, though, the bond between Dracula and his daughter feels incredibly genuine through nice moments, such as when the audience sees him playing a song that he wrote for her on guitar when she is very small or when Dracula is seen teaching her how to fly in a scene where the camera, ever agile, gracefully glides along with his daughter in bat-form and shows the similar joy that any parent expresses when seeing their child take their first steps or achieve their special milestone.

And then, there are the discussions that these two have with each other concerning several ideas that probably hit close to home for many people. Some of them include what it means to embrace others in one’s family, what comes from a family’s past to keep from having an ideal future, and what must happen to move forward from a path that’s become far too familiar to the point that it feels constraining. These are relatable conflicts that any tight, loving family has to deal with through all of their uncertainties and understandable fears, and these two try to work through it with all the love and compassion that real familial units have. The mere fact that this film can echo these dilemmas in such a credible way speaks volumes for how tender this movie’s heart is. So, even if the audience doesn’t completely agree with how Dracula is trying to smother his daughter a little with his overprotective ways, it can understand where Dracula is coming from with his fears about his daughter moving on, especially with a tragic and rather bittersweet backstory of his, and it also sympathizes with Mavis’ eagerness to establish a life of her own.

“Hotel Transylvania” is a sweet, funny, and enjoyable movie that never loses respect for its monsters and what makes them and their bond with each other as memorable as they are. It embraces the vast number of its characters as memorable outcasts and presents them as a giant family that stays close through whatever genuine dilemmas come their way. What could’ve ended up as a routine Halloween family flick instead turns out being a heartfelt ride that knows when to take it slower for its dramatic cues but never loses track of its playful charm and clever humor. The animation direction is phenomenal in every frame, the relationships between the characters feel genuine, and it shows a heavy respect for the weird and monstrous in a number of creative ways. This film may not dive as deep with its themes as many of, say, Pixar’s works can, and not every joke hits its mark, but it’s still a heartwarming and entertaining movie that more and more families are watching every year around October and for good reason. Similar to the bats in the movie, Tartakovsky’s movie floats fairly high and stays going on its path with a steady style and speed of its own.

Grade: B+