Wednesday, January 30, 2013

DVD/Blu-ray: Surprisingly not-blah "Hotel Transylvania" full of funny, clever touches

Hotel Transylvania (2012)
91 min., rated PG.

Even if it's bound to have a quick sell-by date from "other" animated horror-themed competition, "Hotel Transylvania" is a fun, zippy monster-mash delight that still deserves an audience. Setting itself apart from the pack, this one isn't created with lovingly detailed stop-motion but with bright, imaginative computer animation courtesy of Sony Pictures. Director Genndy Tartakovsky (creator of Cartoon Network's "Dexter's Laboratory" and "Samurai Jack") knows just how to keep the energy running, and screenwriters Peter Baynham (of the festive 2011 gem "Arthur Christmas") and "SNL" vet Robert Smigel equally keep us on our toes with an almost non-stop barrage of cute, clever visual gags, verbal puns, and fast-paced slapstick.

Blah blah blah-ing by Adam Sandler and looking more like the cereal box's Count Chocula, Count Dracula is a widower overprotective of his only daughter Mavis (a charming Selena Gomez) from the cruel, pitchfork-wielding human world. With his wife gone, he's determined to keep their daughter safe by building a resort hotel and sanctuary for monsters in his castle. On the eve of her 118th birthday—that's legal-to-drive-a-hearse in vamp years—Mavis wants to go out and explore the world. To her surprise, Dad gives her permission to check out the local village (which he's faked with the hotel's zombie bellmen as torch-raising townspeople), just so she can prove his point and return back home. Once a mortal backpacker named Jonathan (Andy Samberg) braves the scary woods and graveyard to the hotel, he and Mavis "zing" when their eyes meet, much to Dracula's dismay. Jonathan is forbidden to fall in love with her, but Dracula allows the tourist to stay if he can keep a ruse going that he's one of them and in the Frankenstein family. After the human shows Mavis her first sunset (without perishing) and brings life to her birthday party, will Daddy eventually warm up to him?

Sandler is doing another goofy voice here, but he's actually more likable as the Count than Billy Madison, Happy Gilmore, Bobby Boucher, Little Nicky, or Davey from his 2002 animated feature "Eight Crazy Nights." A few of his comedy pals check in, too, and give amiably functional voice performances as fresh variations on the Universal monsters. Kevin James is Frankenstein's monster (even though he's incorrectly referred to as "Frankenstein"), with a self-aware Fran Drescher playing his screechy bride; David Spade, as the, uh, invisible Invisible Man, Griffin; Jon Lovitz, as the up-to-no-good Chef Quasimodo with his pet rat; and Steve Buscemi as Wayne the Wolf Man and Molly Shannon as his pregnant wife Wanda, with their hairy brood of troublemakers. Samberg is endearingly dopey as the slacker-bro and further proves his musical worth in the end credits' song "The Zing" (which is a jillion times cleaner than any of his comedic hip-hop videos with The Lonely Island). And if you have to see any Sandler-Samberg pairing this year, make it "Hotel Transylvania" and not "That's My Boy."

Passably enjoyable at most, this cartoon quickie is the kind of painless family fare that receptive kids will eat up with a spoon and won't bore parents to sleep. It pales in comparison to the more mature and ambitious big-boy treats of "ParaNorman" and "Frankenweenie," but where it matters, the film moves at a blindingly frantic clip and there are enough affectionate, witty little details sprinkled throughout. A lot of them are a hoot and others just produce smiles but smiles nevertheless: "Do Not Disturb" signs are shrunken heads; skeletons being considered naked; Mavis interests Jonathan in a bagel with "scream cheese"; the invisible Griffin (appearing as a pair of floating glasses) leads in a game of charades; and there's a goof on "Twilight," where Dracula comments, "This is how we're represented?" Of course, with Sandler's involvement (he also executive produced), there are a few fart and pee jokes, but they work better here than in any of his live-action comedies. For instance, when a monster flatulates in the hotel lobby, Dracula's housekeeping department, a troupe of broom-riding witches, immediately zoom in with a bellows and blow the "gas" into the fireplace. 

The cinematic equivalent of tasty Halloween candy, "Hotel Transylvania" might not be remembered months later, but it has enough momentary zest. It also leaves us with a nice, sweet message about parenting and prejudices—humans aren't so bad after all—without any obvious pandering or condescension. You can't take away those merited pleasures and a consistent sense of joy from this mildly pleasant surprise.

Grade: B -

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