Hotel Transylvania: Summer Vacation is cute, charming, and at times surprisingly clever. Free of any real complications it exists to kill an hour and a half. It does give the kids a nice little message about tolerance towards monsters. The bitey kind though, not the humankind.
Almost from the get-go, Hotel Transylvania shows us, while it’s not Pixar, it’s also not Peter Rabbit either. Dracula (voiced by Adam Sandler) and his friends are on a train barely disguised as little old ladies. A pompous blustery man bursts into the cabin. He announces his name is Professor Abraham Van Helsing (voiced by Jim Gaffigan). Dracula’s response of “Not this clown again,” endeared me to the movie almost instantly.
Rarely have I given myself over to a Sandler vehicle almost so completely. It probably has less to do with Sandler and more to do with Genndy Tartakovsky. Tartakovsky is the creator of such shows as Dexter’s Laboratory and Samurai Jack. Along with his co-writer Michael McCullers, the two infuse the Hotel Transylvania universe with the same sort of demented glee.
Tartakovsky and his animators create a world filled with lively colors, sharp angles, and bemusing characters. After all just because a story is about a bunch of monsters looking for love is no reason why everything has to be so dark and grim. The servants on the boat are all fish (voiced by Chris Parnell). They are designed to look like normal fish. Dressed in regular clothes and standing on their tails, they look like anchovies in fancy dress up. One of the fishes, a crooner calmly speaks the lyrics to Macklemore’s Downtown as part of his lounge act.
In many ways, Hotel Transylvania reminds me of Jay Ward’s infamous Rocky and Bullwinkle. While there is a pitiful lack of flying squirrels and even less lovable mooses, there is a sort of inspired lunacy. Dracula’s daughter, Mavis (voiced by Selena Gomez), books a tropical cruise for all the monsters to the Bermuda Triangle. It never occurred to me, until after the movie what a horrible idea a tropical cruise would be for vampires. But Tartakovsky makes it to where we never question why the universe of Hotel Transylvania seems to be in perpetual night.
Hotel Transylvania is the rare kids’ movie that seems as amused and alive as the audience its aimed at. Dracula, Mavis, Johnny (voiced by Andy Samberg), and Dennis (Asher Blinkoff) strut down the ship’s deck, clad in scuba gear. They march in a single file, each making exaggerated synchronized steps in time with the music. Tartakovsky does this for the same reason the opening shot of Yasujiro Ozu’s of Floating Weeds is a sake bottle in front of a lighthouse. It amuses him.
Kids’ movies are often obnoxious and grating with a message wedged into the proceedings to give the sense of moral value. Hotel Transylvania has this as well, but it’s weaved into the story naturally. Movies aimed at kids often feel noisy or visually loud for the sake of distractions. Hotel Transylvania does all of these things not to distract but because it is a loud and colorful movie. The difference, as they say, is all the difference.
While on the cruise, Dracula meets Ericka (voiced by Kathryn Hahn) and instantly falls in love. But her intentions are not good. Far from being the mere captain of the cruise, she is also the great-grand-daughter of Helsing. Except the more, she gets to know Dracula the more her hatred and desire to kill all monsters wavers.
Hotel Transylvania makes pop culture jokes and references but never in a way that leaves the children out in the cold. How many times have we seen the over the top, played for laughs tango dance between two lovers? Yet, Tartakovsky and McCullers give us the same scene but dressed up as a comical and somewhat morbid scene. Ericka intentionally sets off ancient booby traps. Dracula shields her from them, almost showing off, all while the two romantically tango up the temple steps.
Of course, Ericka will eventually see the folly of her beliefs. Dracula and Ericka will live happily ever after. Even Professor Abraham Van Helsing will see the error of his ways. But the kids don’t know that. Plus, Tartakovsky and McMuller pepper in so much that we don’t see coming we forgive everything else.
It’s almost impossible to hate a movie that has a DJ off between the famed monster hunter and the king of darkness. Hotel Transylvania even gets away with kidding the songs they play while never really seeming to be mean about it. The energy is infectious. I work at a theater. More than a few times I’ve walked in during the final showdown only to see the kids in the audience dancing the Macarena along with the characters on screen.
Inventive and surreal Hotel Transylvania never forsakes it’s younger audience members or condescends to them. Tartakovsky and McCuller fill the universe with a morbid sardonic smile the likes Charles Addams would be tickled by. I found myself giggling throughout the entirety of Hotel Transylvania as well as letting out a few loud belly laughs. But more importantly than that, I noticed the kids were doing the same. Since this is their movie, to begin with, I find that a much more convincing barometer.