Adam Sandler ordinarily sleepwalks through his live-action film roles. So it’s amusing that he delivers his liveliest performance in years as a member of the undead.
BY JON NICCUM
Special to The Star
In “Hotel Transylvania,” a familiar-but-entertaining animated comedy, Sandler voices Count Dracula. The star finds a new riff on the horror icon, portraying the vampire as a control freak running a chaotic hotel — more Basil Fawlty than Bela Lugosi. He’s constantly hoping to show his guests a good time, yet the lonely widower is incapable of having fun himself.
Dracula established this five-stake resort in the 1890s as a sanctuary for monsters “hiding from the persecution of humankind.” It has conversely become a prison for Dracula’s daughter, Mavis (Selena Gomez). She’s looking forward to celebrating her 118th birthday because of Dad’s promise to finally allow her to visit human cities. Secretly, Dracula will do anything to prevent this.
The outside world intrudes more when a young American tourist stumbles onto the haven. The breezy Jonathan (Andy Samberg) is more suited for chillaxing at an outdoor music festival than a monster mash, but he becomes smitten with Mavis. His presence threatens the whole balance of Dracula’s enterprise.
While the idea of humans infiltrating a world of scary creatures has been done better in animated efforts such as “Monsters, Inc.,” it’s a premise easily exploited by the amiable “Hotel Transylvania.”
The movie cleverly injects the Universal Horror catalog (and many other fiends ranging from American folklore to Greek mythology) into a variety of mundane settings. The hotel is staffed by zombie bellhops, witch housekeepers and a skeleton mariachi band. And the film adds details such as shrunken heads hanging on room doorknobs who announce “do not disturb” … along with extra sassy advice thrown in.
The screenplay by longtime “SNL” contributor Robert Smigel and “Arthur Christmas” scribe Peter Baynham sticks to the dusty Disney formula of a headstrong teen breaking free of an overprotective dad.
It better shows off its ingenuity in throwaway gags, such as the Invisible Man (David Spade) attempting a game of charades with the multiheaded Hydra. Among the Hydra’s guesses: “Emptiness?”
As with most films aimed at the Monster High demographic, there is a certain pandering to the proceedings. You know there will be poop jokes involving the Werewolf (Steve Buscemi — speaking of “Monsters, Inc.”) and his litter of cubs. There will be lame musical numbers featuring teen pop hits and/or rapping. At least Gomez is a legitimate recording star.
Director Genndy Tartakovsky (creator of TV’s “Dexter’s Laboratory”) keeps the story moving, which already puts it a notch above the thematically similar “ParaNorman.” (Let’s see how it fares against Tim Burton’s “Frankenweenie,” opening next week.) The filmmaker’s retro-pop visual design heightens the humor and softens the scares.
But this is really Sandler’s showcase. He’s up to the challenge for a change, creating an imperious presence that ties the whole zany endeavor together. The comedian almost always plays a slacker man-child reveling in base behavior. It’s refreshing to witness him render an actual adult character who is a bit of a stiff.
Or as the Mummy (Cee-Lo Green) calls him, “Captain Control Freak.”
Dracula corrects, “It’s Count!”
3-D or not 3-D?
The 3-D is crisp and effective. Some images move rapidly — Dracula’s movement, numerous chase scenes — and the process helps clarify the action. For a monster-themed movie, there is a refreshing lack of things jumping out at the audience in an attempt to court cheap scares.
• Michael Rechtshaffen, The Hollywood Reporter: “While director Genndy Tartakovsky’s retro pop sensibilities served Cartoon Network well with the likes of ‘Dexter’s Laboratory,’ ‘The Powerpuff Girls’ and ‘Samurai Jack,’ and ‘Hotel Transylvania’ has an undeniable visually zippy style, the ghost of a script provides him with very little of substance.”
• Peter DeBruge, Variety: “It plays more like a pitch session than a finished project, digressing now and then for unnecessary chases before devolving into an out-of-place dance number.”
• Staci Layne, Horror.com: “Yes, there are some fart jokes and scatological Sandlery stuff I could have lived without, but overall I was entertained from start to finish.”
• Jordan Hoffman, ScreenCrush.com: “Listen: I am a very immature man. When I hear Adam Sandler as a bat go “bluh bluh bluh-bluh” something in my heart sings. I’ll also admit that this movie felt like it was seven hours long. Special is the film that keeps you simultaneously entertained and bored.”