As the sixth director to take over Sony Pictures Animation’s Hotel Transylvania since it was originally green-lighted back in 2006, Genndy Tartakovsky is in an enviable position: Potentially, everything that works about the film can be credited to him, while everything that doesn’t can be blamed on studio-mandated artifacts from earlier iterations of the movie. Given Tartakovsky’s track record in animation—Hotel Transylvania is his feature directorial debut, but he created the stellar, visually innovative Cartoon Network series Dexter’s Laboratory and Samurai Jack, and directed and produced a hefty chunk of The Powerpuff Girls and Star Wars: Clone Wars—it’s tempting to credit him with the movie’s visual dynamism, and blame others for the wretched script. But Tartakovsky has said he gave that script a thorough rewrite once he came on board, working directly with Saturday Night Live’s Robert Smigel and Arthur Christmas screenwriter Peter Baynham, so he can’t thoroughly dodge the blame. That’s fine; there’s plenty to go around.
Hotel Transylvania makes a strong start, with Count Dracula (Adam Sandler) celebrating the 118th birthday of his sheltered, gothy vampire-teen daughter Mavis (Selena Gomez) at the remote castle he’s converted into a safe space for monsters avoiding persecution and judgment by humanity. While he’s been overprotective, anxious, and controlling ever since humans burned his home and killed his wife when Mavis was an infant, Dracula tries to accommodate her wishes to go out and see the world, but uses clever, ridiculously elaborate methods to intimidate her back into the hotel. Then mellow, irrepressible backpacker Jonathan (Andy Samberg) becomes the first human to arrive at the hotel, and Dracula is hard-pressed to get rid of him before his existence terrifies the hotel’s anthrophobic monster residents and proves to Mavis that humans aren’t as terrifying and murderous as Dracula has always claimed.
Hotel Transylvania is occasionally the kind of fast-moving, gag-a-second film that relies on quantity of humor rather than quality, but in the early going, in establishing Dracula and Mavis’ relationship of honest mutual affection and respect, it builds a strong foundation for a heartfelt, Pixar-esque story. And Tartakovsky gets a long way on wild design and visually daring sequences. His work has always been adventurous, experimental, and conceptually creative, and he hasn’t lost any of his energy or capacity for staging a memorable setpiece. A big cast of bizarro characters, voiced by a stable of talent (Steve Buscemi, Molly Shannon, David Spade, Cee Lo Green, Jon Lovitz, Fran Drescher, Kevin James, etc.) generally keeps the screen full and busy, but the film finds plenty of time for quieter, more personal moments, and frequently slows down the pace to make the film’s relationships more enduring. And Dracula in particular is a richly drawn character, a towering king of the monster world who’s also a needy drama queen. He’s so full of conflicting arrogance, fear, pride, love, and longing that it’s easy to forget the cartoony Sandler has anything to do with him.
But as the film wears on, it relies on increasingly massive narrative shortcuts, the cheapest of which is the way everyone is willing to drop all other considerations when it comes out that Mavis and Jonathan might have experienced “a zing”—Dracula’s wife’s particular shorthand for a love-at-first-sight connection. That possible zing becomes a constantly repeated watchword, a primary plot motivator for the entire cast, and even the subject of a Static Revenger R&B/rap mash-up when the movie wraps with the usual “we didn’t know how else to end this” group song and dance. Suddenly, a story about the difficult balance between protecting loved ones and controlling them is discarded so the cast can monomaniacally pursue a trite cliché summed up with a silly noise. The plot shift throws all the meaningful stakes out the window, which is a bit of irony in a film centering on vampires.