In the week before the movie opened, Hotel Transylvania 2 director Genndy Tartakovsky sat for an interview with animation news site Cartoon Brew that's breathtakingly direct in communicating his disappointment with the whole corporate structure in which he's been obliged to work, and his frustration with his writers/executive producers Adam Sandler & Robert Smigel. One needn't have spent years mastering the art of reading between the lines to understand the score: Tartakovsky made a film that he found largely uninteresting, under the command of bosses he found aggravating, to stay on Sony's good books. And for this they nuked his dream project, a CGI Popeye feature marrying computer technology with classical design principles. In lieu of having anything interesting to do with Sandler & Smigel's unbearably trite scenario, Tartakovsky encouraged his animation team to double-down on the aesthetic of the first Hotel Transylvania and go even further with it, reasoning that if he could not make something interesting of the narrative - and he could not - he could at least make something unique out of its character animation.

The result is every bit an impressive exercise in transferring caricatured expressions out of 2-D animation onto the rounded frames of 3-D CGI models. Especially the protagonist, Sandler's Count Dracula, whose lozenge-shaped face mashes itself into ovoid shapes of every description, with his mouth flipping from one wildly exaggerated shape to another in the span of frames, and always leaving it unclear whether it actually has depth or not, in a charmingly eerie way. As a challenge to the prevailing orthodoxy of American animation, firmly entrenched in realistic movements to go along with the apparent tactilty of CG shapes, the Hotel Transylvanias are an absolute triumph, and Tartakovsky, whose angular, flat, bold-colored shapes on Cartoon Network's Dexter's Laboratory back in the '90s helped define the rules of an entire generation of television animation, has committed an act of wizardry in reclaiming computer animation for the angular, physically incoherent logic of classical cartooning.

But as we have noted here many a time "what a great exercise that movie was!" is a very specific, qualified way to praise a film, and not much designed to stir the soul. By all means, what Tartakovsky and co. were able to drag out of the visuals of Hotel Transylvania 2 is impressive. That still leaves us with a faintly dire, intensely boring comedy that manages even more than the first movie to give the impression of a Happy Madison production scaled way, way down to make things kid-friendly (but with just enough shticky gags about sex to keep the grown-ups in the audience awake). It's not actually a Happy Madison property, and even in all its listless mediocrity, it's still leagues better than that company's astonishingly toxic slate of 2015 releases Sandler's The Cobbler and Pixels, along with Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2, starring Pixels and Hotel Transylvania 2 sidekick Kevin James. Incidentally, it's nothing to do with our current topic, but you ever had that thing where you can know something, but until you put it neatly down in print, you don't KNOW know it? Because looking back over all three of those titles right in a row literally made me shudder.

Anyway, Hotel Transylvania 2 picks up reasonably soon after the first movie, with Dracula's vampire daughter Mavis (Selena Gomez) marrying goofy human Jonathan (Andy Samberg), with everybody living happily ever after. And the happiness is only spiked when Mavis announces that she's pregnant; Dracula is ecstatic to be a grandfather, but when the couple's baby boy, Dennis, is born, he looks awfully human. For years, Dracula steadily insists that some kids are just late developers, but as Dennis's fifth birthday looms - the make-it-or-break-it deadline for developing some fangs - and Mavis grows increasingly helicopter mom-ish about keeping him safe from every last potential danger in what is, lest we forget, a monster-infested castle owned by a vampire, the possibility rears its hideous head that the new little family might move out to California, to live among humans near Jonathan's stringently tolerant parents (Megan Mullally and Nick Offerman). As a last-ditch attempt to force some monstrousness into little Dennis, Dracula recruits his friends - Frankenstein (James), Wayne the werewolf (Steve Buscemi), Murray the mummy (Keegan-Michael Key), and Griffin the invisible man (David Spade) - to go on a road trip to all their old adolescent stomping grounds. I will not personally go so far as to call this "Grown Ups with monsters", but I will not take any of you to task for doing so on my behalf.

Something incredibly odd happens at this point - we're a bit less than halfway through the movie when the road trip plotline picks up, and it's right here that Hotel Transylvania 2 spontaneously decides to stop giving a crap about anything. The rest of the movie is alarmingly good at picking up a plot thread, teasing it out, and suddenly resolving it, and then hunting around for another one to treat the same way; it's why I can't in fairness call the film "predictable", since it is in fact almost impossible to guess how many changes in direction the script makes in its last third. A one-line reference to Dracula's father Vlad (Mel Brooks, an obvious but still wholly inspired piece of casting) suddenly provides the rock upon which is built an entire movie's worth of "I was never good enough for my judgmental dad" drama plus a potted summary of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner done up as light farce. And this is started and resolved in approximately ten minutes.

It is, of course, possible to imagine a film that clicks through plots that quickly picking up a manic comic momentum from it (imagine it, hell: we had that film last winter, and it was called The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water), particularly given Tartakovsky's background in the speedily-plotted world of Cartoon Network adventure comedy. Hotel Transylvania 2 isn't that film; it's just a mess, and its final decision to assign a character we've never met before, and whose background is left entirely unexplained, to the role of bad guy couldn't be more transparently arbitrary, or more clearly designed to come up with any sort of ending that would put the characters in exactly the place we supposed they'd end up (namely a random dance party, because vampire movies are all about reviving things you hoped were dead). All of these exertions are just enough to graze the 90 minute mark, after which the film gratefully whumps to a close taking its paint-by-numbers character arcs and hopelessly generic jokes with it. At this rate, I presume that the final act of Hotel Transylvania 3 will literally just be footage of Sandler & Smigel writing plot ideas on cocktail napkins.

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