You’d think that with a premise as promising as the one Todd Durham, Dan Hegeman and Kevin Hegeman came up with for this movie—a place where monsters can enjoy a respite from being pursued by intolerant humans—screenwriters Peter Baynham and Robert Smigel could have managed a wittier, cleverer script than the one unveiled here. By rights “Hotel Transylvania” ought to have been an agreeable place to spend an hour-and-a-half. Instead after ninety minutes you’ll find yourself wishing you’d checked out early.
Perhaps that was inevitable given that the two major voice talents involved are Adam Sandler and Andy Samberg, who recently stunk up the screen together in “That’s My Boy.” Here, only heard but not seen, they’re not nearly as offensive, but they are surprisingly nondescript. Sandler, adopting a bad accent to go along with one of his typically squeaky voices, is Count Dracula, who builds the Hotel Transylvania as a refuge for his fellow monsters after losing his beloved wife to human mob frenzy. She left him a single dad to their daughter Mavis (Selena Gomez, bland), whom we see growing up under his care in a series of mildly amusing vignettes. Now Mavis turning 118, the age at which Drac’s always promised he’d let her leave the protective nest to explore the wider world. But while hosting a monster birthday bash for her, he also connives to frighten her into staying put by convincing her that humans are a bunch of nasty, bloodthirsty ghouls.
The trick works, but unfortunately just as the party’s about to begin, goofy backpacker Jonathan (Samberg) ambles into the hotel thinking it a sort of weird tourist attraction. No sooner does he lock eyes with Mavis than they’re attracted to each other, and for the rest of the picture Dracula is trapped trying to pass him off, in monster makeup, as his party planner—both to keep him away from his daughter and to fool the hotel guests into believing that he’s one of them.
Those guests make up a huge group. The most notable are the obvious choices—the Frankenstein monster (Kevin James) and his shrill spouse Eunice (Fran Drescher), Wayne the Wolfman (Steve Buscemi) with wife Wanda (Molly Sherman) and their overactive brood of cubs, Invisible Man Griffin (David Spade) and Murray the Mummy (CeeLo Green). There’s also the hotel cook Quasimodo (Jon Lovitz). All have been re-imagined from the forms they took in the famous old Universal horror movies, but frankly without much visual distinction; and though most are given one of two amusing lines of dialogue, the writing for them is generally pretty tepid. (The same can be said, unfortunately, for the frantic conversations between Dracula and Jonathan.)
The makers must have recognized the banality of the plot, because they’ve attempted to juice things up in two ways, neither of them successful. First, they’ve surrounded the main characters with a small army of other critters, from zombie staff to talkative shrunken heads that act like “do not disturb” signs and such other legendary folk as the abominable snowman, a blob that looks like a gelatin parfait, and even a couple of bickering insects (are these supposed to be relatives of “The Fly”?). But their presence only creates a cacophony that muddies the story rather than enlivening it.
Second, they’ve periodically dumped big action scenes into the narrative, sometimes to little point. The most obvious is a sequence featuring flying tables that seem like a bizarre cross between the anthropomorphic furniture from “The Beauty and the Beast” and the magic carpet from “Aladdin.” But it’s topped by the big finale, when Dracula has to get to the airport to stop Jonathan from leaving. That wind-up has one genuinely funny moment—an encounter between Wayne and some sheep that at last offers some of the macabre humor one longed for during the whole movie—but mostly lurches through a dopey message of tolerance and an endless race between Dracula the Bat and Jonathan’s plane.
“Hotel Transylvania” could have done for the beloved old horror movies what “Shrek” did for Disneyfied fairy tales. But the folks at Sony Animation have bungled the job. Smaller children might find it fun, especially since it indulges their lamentable liking for gags involving flatulence. But older kids and parents may ache to plunge a stake into the heart of this aggressively 3D-oriented effort.