Sony Pictures Animation brings nearly all cinema’s classic monsters under one roof in “Hotel Transylvania,” building a CG castle where Dracula, Frankenstein, Wolfman and the rest of the old-school ghouls can feel safe from pitchfork-wielding humans. But even after years of development, the studio still doesn’t have much more than a concept to offer, enlisting TV toon maven Genndy Tartakovsky (“Samurai Jack”) to direct a stale overprotective-dad story set within a location that could easily house a more inspired mix of characters and events. Ubiquitous marketing and participation of a silly voiced Adam Sandler should cushion the disappointment.
The end credits offer a glimpse of what the project might have been, revealing concept art of gorgeously impressionistic, playfully gothic Eastern European towns, against which Dracula’s daughter, Mavis, stands in striking silhouette. Had the film taken place in this world using such a distinct hand-drawn style, Sony might really have had something special on its hands.
Instead, Tartakovsky’s play-it-safe treatment feels as if it’s had all the edges sanded off, reduced to a thin back-catalog plot in which Dracula (Sandler) builds his elaborate monsters-only hotel in order to shield Mavis (generically voiced by Selena Gomez) from the dangerous humans he considers responsible for killing his wife. To daddy’s horror, Mavis has finally turned 118, which means she’s free to explore the world on her own.
Hoping he can convince her to stay, Dracula has arranged a massive birthday party in Mavis’ honor, inviting playfully caricatured versions of every scary character you can imagine. Legally required to reinvent the monsters lest they run into copyright infringement with Universal Studios, the creative team concocts zany new looks for rat-like Quasimodo (Jon Lovitz); the ever-embarrassed invisible man (David Spade), who seems to be blushing even though you can’t see him; mummified Murray (CeeLo Green); and an entire werewolf family overseen by Wayne (Steve Buscemi) and Wanda (Molly Shannon), doggedly overwhelmed by their unruly litter.
The hotel boasts many more guests — too many, frankly — ranging in scale from a pair of honeymooning fleas to a toilet-clogging Yeti so tall that only his giant furry feet appear in frame. Kids (the audience most likely to appreciate this fart-joke-loaded feature) will have plenty to look for when wearing out the DVD down the road; for grownups, however, one sitting should be exhausting enough, owing largely to Tartakovsky’s decision to tell the entire story in hyperkinetic Tex Avery style.
During the pic’s initial tour through the hotel lobby, the place is so overcrowded with mismatched personalities that one’s attention virtually short-circuits trying to take it all in. The look, sound and behavior simply don’t seem to belong in the same place, resulting in consternation rather than comedy.
At the center of the melee is an oblivious American backpacker named Jonathan (Andy Samberg), who stumbles upon the hotel by accident. When Jonathan and Mavis see each other for the first time, they “zing,” which pretty much lets audiences know where the story is going from the outset: Dad will try everything in his power to keep the youngsters apart, but when humans and vampires fall in love, “Twilight” happens.
Much of the film’s humor pokes fun at classic monster-movie cliches (Sandler dismisses human blood: “It’s so fatty, and you never know where it’s been!”), giving the older generation something to grasp onto in the absence of relatable characters. “Hotel Transylvania” specializes more in silly voices, though, with Sandler leading the charge with his goony spin on the famous count’s accent.
Straining the limits of what 3D audiences can endure, the story hits each beat so directly, 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 — call it the “monster mosh.” At least Dracula should be happy: After all, Hotel Transylvania was built to keep humans away.