Dracula is watching an in-flight movie. A pasty looking hunk is moodily mumbling at a melodramatic teenage girl. They drone on at each other. She wants to be turned into a vampire; he says no. Of course, he’s watching Twilight, and the count is horrified. ‘This is how we’re represented!’ he raves.
You see, the world’s foremost vampire has been away for a while. Over a hundred years ago, he left society behind, and found sanctuary in the middle of a large, haunted forest. There, he set up camp and founded a ghoulish getaway for fellow freaks: Hotel Transylvania. Now, it’s a permanent fixture on the monster world’s social calendar – a Butlin’s for beasties, if you will. Frankenstein, Quasimodo, the Invisible Man, they’re all checking in. But, this year, their quiet retreat is put in danger, when not only does Dracula’s (curiously Hot Topic-styled) daughter, Mavis, express interest in experiencing the real world and hooking up with those horrific humans, but one fine specimen actually comes knocking on their door, in the form of a frat-bro backpacker called Jonathan.
After a bunch of writers and directors had each had a stab at the project, Hotel Transylvania eventually became the first feature-length, computer-generated animation from veteran TV director Genndy Tartakovsky, whose work on the small screen throughout the 90s and early 00s (Samurai Jack, Dexter’s Laboratory, The Powerpuff Girls) ranks among the finest of the artform. As Tartakovsky was part of the Cartoon Network stable that specialised in breaking conventions, it was an odd film for him to take on, especially as it started accruing the usual millstones that hang around the neck of mainstream animation – mainly the presence of Adam Sandler as both executive producer and voice of Dracula himself. Could Tartakovsky, who has created vastly distinctive, boldly unique works in the past, flourish in the studio bullpen?
This conflict looms large over the entire picture. Throughout, the film exhibits some stunning visual flair, especially in the character design work, and some ambitious animation, which Tartakovsky has described as attempting to capture the looseness and madcap energy of Tex Avery cartoons. But while the director has proved to be a master of pacing when it comes to the small screen’s 12-25 minute segments, Hotel Transylvania lurches forward like a broken ghost train. The opening half an hour, while full of cheeky sight gags and some great vocal performances (Steve Buscemi as the put-upon Wolf Man, David Spade as the smarmy Invisible Man), is a relentless, exhausting thrill ride of colour and cacophony. And all in eye-gouging 3D.
However, it doesn’t get better once the film slows down. The script is a muddle and strong jokes become few and far between. The film at first seems to be about Dracula being an overbearing father to Mavis, but it soon becomes a farcical romp as the hotelier needs to hide Jonathan’s presence from the rest of the guests, before once again hard-shifting to a corny, U-rated romance between the two youngsters – because, despite spending merely a few breathless scenes together, they still know that they ‘zing’ with each other.
Unfortunately, Tartakovsky’s expressive animation can’t make up for a script that is based on flimsy concepts and a non-existent plot. Even the rather on-the-nose Twilight gag is thrown away, in the middle of a final act dash for resolution that also wastes a sequence where the characters stumble upon Transylvania’s annual Monster Festival. But this one moment of genre parody is ultimately insincere, as the film has less to say about vampires – or any of the Universal stable, for that matter – than Stephenie Meyer does. Indeed, the film’s central comic collision of recognisable characters and suburban tropes pilfers from both The Munsters and The Addams Family, and it has little to add to the formula.
Hotel Transylvania’s monster mash is utterly hollow, and adds weight to the argument that, through overuse and decades of parodies, these classic monsters now mean absolutely nothing at all. In particular, Dracula has been defanged to the point where, after an hour and a half of ranting about his public image and redressing common misconceptions (he does not, for example, go ‘blah blah-blah’), he celebrates the end of the adventure in that most typical of ways – by rapping along with an auto-tuned pop song. Forget Twilight; in Hotel Transylvania, that’s how he’s represented.
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