With Dreamworks steadily improving their output, and leaving behind their old, Shrek 3 ways, there was an empty space in the animation world; a black hole ready to be filled by someone else making slightly empty comedies about talking animals following one note plots. Enter Sony Animation, the studio responsible for Rio and Open Season. Like Dreamworks of old, they’ve had a couple of excellent films (Surf’s Up and Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs), and have had a fruitful partnership with Aardman (Arthur Christmas and Pirates!). However, also like Dreamworks of old, they have a propensity towards shallow storytelling, annoying characters and end of film musical numbers. So their latest, Hotel Transylvania, about a human-free retreat for famous literary and cinematic monsters, shows a lot of promise but ultimately feels a little rote, and is seriously lacking in the screenplay department.
That is, perhaps, slightly unfair. Genndy Tartakovsky‘s homage to horror characters has lots to enjoy, and it’s unlikely to bore you over the course of its run time (how children will react could be entirely different though). Tartakovsky crams the frame with visual jokes, and horror fans are in for a treat with the massive amount of references to genre classics that permeate the film. The writing is at its strongest when riffing on the tropes and clichés of horror that even the uninitiated are familiar with: the issue of Dracula’s aversion to stakes through the heart is addressed pithily; the Invisible Man gets insecure about his appearance.
But aside from these few wry observations and one or two big laughs, it all feels rather uninspired. The jokes are mostly visual, and many are confined to mere background details. The characters are somewhat one-note, with only the central trio of Dracula, his daughter and Johnny, a human back-packer, getting anything that resembles an interesting personality. And as the meat of the story is a rather tired plot about an over-protective father, these three fail to do enough to leave a lasting impact.
Another issue is the voice casting, which is a cross between the cast of Grown Ups and the Disney channel, with Ceelo Green thrown in for good measure. The strongest performance comes from Steve Buscemi, whose nasal drawl is a perfect fit for a world-weary werewolf. The rest of the cast are forgettable, but Adam Sandler is worse than that, as he seriously struggles to maintain an accent that Steve Carrell did better in Despicable Me. He fails to bring Dracula to life, a problem which is even more frustrating and baffling given how iconic the character is. Such a bland cast undoubtedly contributes to the rather flat tone of the film.
Perhaps the biggest letdown, for a film by the man behind the inventive, aesthetically unique Star Wars spin-off The Clone Wars, is that the animation fails to be especially interesting or engaging. The characters are the strongest visual aspect, Tartakovsky giving them his signature angular look, but the world they inhabit feels too polished and flat to have any effect. The castle doesn’t carry any sense of grandeur, the rooms don’t breathe with history as they should; it’s cutting edge animation but the execution is lifeless. Which, in a film about a hotel full of famous monsters, is very disappointing indeed.
So while Hotel Transylvania is a fun, sporadically amusing film, it is seriously hampered by a poor cast, edgeless characters and uninspired animation. The result, aptly for a film about vampires, is sadly bloodless.