At the very least, Hotel Transylvania, the years-in-Development-Hell cartoon about classic movie monsters all gathered together in a remote castle built by Count Dracula (Adam Sandler) to shelter them from the probing eyes and torch-wielding fists of humans, has pretty fun character design. This I take to be characteristic of director Genndy Tartakovsky's work, consisting of several much-beloved television shows with which I am personally only minimally familiar, all of which involve the same kind of bold, simple lines that make up the best visuals in this film, primarily involving Dracula, who is one of the best examples of old-school rubber hose and squash & stretch animation that the CG boom has yet produced. None of the other monsters quite match him; the other two protagonists, a human and Dracula's own daughter, are indefensibly boring. But Dracula- for this Dracula, I am grateful that Hotel Transylvania exists. He is playful and amusing.

But for no other reason am I grateful. While it looks, all things considered, okay, with its mixture of bright colors and Hammer-speckled locations, Hotel Transylvania tells an insipid story with a script that manages to make that story seem even worse by slathering on weird pop-cultural references, banally infantile jokes, and a borderline-obscene obsession with a slang term that the movie itself invented. If I call it the worst-written major animated release of the last few years, that is maybe just the rage talking; and yet; if Hotel Transylvania could drive one to such an excess of rage, despite being just a frivolous kiddie comedy, then does it not follow that it must be doing something deeply wrong, or indeed a host of somethings?

Broadly, what it does wrong is tell, arguably, the worst imaginable story using its basic conceptual hook. Which is kind of a great one: Dracula's hotel, visited by the likes of the Wolfman (Steve Buscemi), the Frankenstein Monster (Kevin James) - always referred to as just "Frankenstein", a gross mistake that I thought we, as a culture, had outgrown - the Mummy (Ceelo Green), the Invisible Man (David Spade), the Wolfman's wife (Molly Shannon), and the inscrutably over-the-top Jewish Princess Bride of Frankenstein (Fran Drescher), because it wouldn't be a proper Adam Sandler movie without a grotesque Jewish parody. I like to imagine a nearly-plotless conflation of monsters-being-monsters scenes, in the Grand Hotel mode, with Dracula drifting from place to place being the consummate host. For me, the first red flag is that the monsters aren't just vacationing, they're all at the hotel for a big party (raising the question of why it has to be a hotel in the first place), and they're all Dracula's college buddies, or something, which to me spoils everything that makes the concept fun, but it's not film-killing bad.

No, film-killing bad is that the best that Lord knows how many credited and uncredited writers over the course of the film's lengthy, painful development could come up with for this monster hotel was to serve as the setting for yet another retelling of Romeo and Juliet. For real. The event that has everybody in attendance is that Dracula's daughter Mavis (Selena Gomez) is turning 118, and just at this same point, the first human to ever make it through the haunted forest and nightmarish landscape around the hotel (a clueless American, naturally), has shown up: this being Jonathan (Andy Samberg), a backpacker with an innocent streak several miles wide and a charming idiotic adorableness that sweeps Mavis right off her feet, as the two youngsters feel a "zing" of love at first sight, and the word "zing", which at first crops up just rarely as a sweet motif, ends up getting used about 900 by the time the movie wraps up, in every conceivable conjugation - "she felt the zing", "they zinged" "he's zinging", "it's so zing", "ohmigod, keep zinging, I'm about to zing".

But anyway, the human Jonathan is everything that Dracula has been saying humans aren't, for 117 years since his wife died (incidentally, the movie never pauses to wonder how vampires can procreate, or, having done so, why their offspring ages like a normal human child until she hits her teen years and stays there for a century), and the shit will hit the fan if the other monsters find out that humans aren't so bad. Plus, the vampire doesn't want his little girl dating anybody, regardless of mortality. But Comical and indeed Farcical situations ensure that his whole world comes crashing down in the most healthy, constructive way, as Lessons are Learned.

Sure, you can look at it from the angle that this is all just children's movie boilerplate, not worth getting riled over; but it's such a damnable waste of a fun idea, that in addition to wasting an original concept - vanishingly rare these days - on the most stock narrative in the history of Western storytelling, absolutely ruins its monsters by sanding off everything but their visual iconography (Dracula briefly watches, and is offended by, Twilight, a gag for which the word "hypocrisy" is not nearly strong enough), except for one scene in which the wolfman devours a flock of sheep; not accidentally, the only moment where that character is even a little bit funny. Really, the whole thing is yet another dime store "wackily inappropriate pop culture references" movie like every other American animated movie that isn't made by Pixar,* distinguished primarily by Adam Sandler's cheesy (pointedly, I hope) Bela Lugosi accent, which is itself only of interest because, it turns out, Sandler doing a funny vampire accent is considerably less annoying than Sandler talking like he normally does.

A waste of a strong style, a waste of a strong concept, a waste of everything but its dismal voice cast, who give exactly the perfunctory, shallow performances you would anticipate: and it is the waste, rather than its limited quality (for it is, really, just feverishly mediocre, without being aggressively bad), that makes the film so dementedly unpleasant to watch. There are a hundred ways I can think of to fix Hotel Transylvania; there was just the one way for it to be this stupid, and bless 'em, but the filmmakers dove right in and found it.

Reviews in this series
Hotel Transylvania (Tartakovsky, 2012)
Hotel Transylvania 2 (Tartakovsky, 2015)
Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation (Tartakovsky, 2018)

*Though, the way things are going...