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Hotel Transylvania 2 mixes fun gags and creepy messages

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Although it features the voices of Adam Sandler and a variety of former Saturday Night Live cast members (plus Kevin James) performing a screenplay by Sandler and Robert Smigel, Hotel Transylvania 2 is not technically a Happy Madison production. Like its predecessor, it comes from Sony Pictures Animation (whose parent company has a longtime relationship with Happy Madison), and as a non-ambitious American CG cartoon aimed at families, it requires a certain degree of freneticism. The demands of big-studio animation must have been especially punishing for Team Sandler, who seem to prefer working at a more relaxed pace; just by virtue of plainly trying to entertain children, Hotel Transylvania 2 probably has more actual jokes and gags than the last three Happy Madison movies combined.


Some of them are even funny. To be sure, the antics of hotel operator Dracula (Sandler), his spunky daughter Mavis (Selena Gomez), her goony human paramour Jonathan (Andy Samberg), and their various monster associates, don’t have much edge or wit. As in the previous film, much of the story depends on monster/human culture clash and Dracula’s overbearing fatherly meddling, like if the old Addams Family sitcom had been reimagined to run on present-day CBS. But while the formula doesn’t change much when Mavis and Jonathan have a little son called Dennis, and Drac meddles in an attempt to prove the boy’s vampire bona fides, Hotel Transylvania 2 produces cartoon gags at an enjoyable clip. Most of them are side business: a monster wedding cake that screams as it’s sliced; the rapid-fire destruction in the wake of a litter of werewolf pups; the delight Mavis experiences when she enters a human convenience store for the first time; Dracula’s disdain for the non-scary Sesame Street-style “monsters” that little Dennis enjoys. Gag for gag, the movie may be funnier than its predecessor.

This could be due to the presence of Smigel, who also had a strong hand in You Don’t Mess With The Zohan, a Happy Madison production that showed uncharacteristic liveliness some years ago. It’s just as likely, though, that one house style has been allowed to triumph over another. Sony Animation has established a bouncy visual sensibility that feels a bit like Looney Tunes with the edges sanded down, and returning director Genndy Tartakovsky again takes to the silliness with gusto. He sends his characters through fluid, exaggerated poses that remodel the old animation principle of squash and stretch into something that looks more like swoop and point.


If Hotel Transylvania 2 was just an episodic, energetically animated gag factory, it would be a lot of fun. But it’s an episodic, energetically animated gag factory from the pen of Adam Sandler, and while it’s the best screenplay to bear his name in years (again, since Zohan), it also warps some overfamiliar family-movie concerns until they become unavoidable in their ickiness. It’s understandable that a lot of big-studio animation has thematic undercurrents designed more for parents than their kids; Pixar has worked wonders with a variety of parenting metaphors over the years. The problem is, Hotel Transylvania 2 focuses so intently on parental neuroses—Dracula needs Mavis to remain his little girl and needs his new grandson to conform to his vampire lineage—that the movie itself feels smothering (especially on the heels of the similarly themed original). Early in the new film, a gag about Dracula not wanting Mavis to kiss Jonathan too intensely during their wedding ceremony is supposed to be cute; instead, it’s creepier than any of the actual monsters.

For its sequel stakes, Hotel Transylvania 2 adds in a layer of cranky implications about Mavis’ overprotective parenting style, and rather than registering as ironic when juxtaposed with Drac’s own meddling, it just plays like some middle-aged dudes registering their complaints about the coddling of kids today. Any playful irony is lost in part because Mavis, a charming character, isn’t allowed an active role in the story—and in part because the movie focuses on giving the Sandler character essentially everything he wants in exchange for the bare minimum of lesson-learning. (The movie is content to treat any feelings about tolerance as purely hypothetical.)

The nagging point of view is clearly adult, but the execution is pure childlike impatience. After pleasantly zipping in circles for much of its running time, the movie rushes past the excellent casting of Mel Brooks as Sandler’s own headstrong vampire father on its way to a miscalculated punching-heavy climax, abruptly chased with yet another dance-party ending. Actually, the movie is too impatient to even withhold the dancing until the end; throughout, there are periodic reminders of how hilarious it is when cartoon characters dance to pop music. Tartakovsky can sell this kind of non-gag to kids, no doubt; he has a true animator’s gift for making mere acts of movement compelling. This makes his work both more pleasing and maybe more dangerous than some of the competition. Hotel Transylvania 2 is charming enough for its weakest moments to count as vaguely insidious, preparing kid viewers for lazy live-action Happy Madison productions down the road.