Smile Politely

Plenty of room at the Hotel Transylvania

I’ve seen way more children’s movies than I ever intended to. Seriously. Having a two–year–old means putting one’s own viewing tastes (The Walking Dead, Sons of Anarchy) on hold and spending an inexplicable amount of time absorbed in the exploits of characters named Woody, Shrek, and Gru. The upside of all this, other than the occasional 30 to 90 minutes of quiet, is that animation geared toward kids has, by and large, gotten exponentially better over the course of my life.

When I was a kid, the best I had to look forward to was Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends on Saturday mornings, with a side order of Smurfs or Super Friends or whatever the hell Snorks are. I gobbled it up, of course, because I was a kid and a lack of quality options made me less than discerning. Were it not for Disney’s Robin Hood, complete with fox Robin and bear Little John, mine would have been a bleak existence.

By contrast, the world of entertainment options available to my daughter, Oz, is mind-boggling. From the gold standard of Pixar (The Incredibles, Ratatouille) to the genuinely impressive work from DreamWorks (The Shrek films, Megamind), there are plenty of slick, entertaining, and clever films that will delight her without making me want to climb out a window and run screaming down the road. That said, I do realize there are lots of horrifying options out there; and no, I don’t know what an Oogielove is, either. So I guess I’m doubly blessed that my little girl leans toward relatively smart films with voice actors I enjoy rather than simply lunging toward whatever pink, sparkly thing is in her periphery.

When I signed on as an Arts editor with Smile Politely, it occurred to me that it might be interesting to attend a children’s film, with my daughter in tow, and review the film not just as a movie buff, but also as a dad. I’ve only taken her to two other films on the big screen before (Madagascar 3, which she loved, and Brave, which she loved even more), but both excursions had been successes, so I rolled the dice with a new animated feature from Sony, Hotel Transylvania. The result wasn’t exactly snake-eyes, but it was no Yahtzee either.

The film is set in the eponymous hotel, a refuge for monsters from the outside world of humans. It’s a clever idea for a film, one that would seem like an animating bonanza. And, to be fair, the animation is dizzying and slick, with lots of fast movement and silly gags to entertain youngsters. The plot of the film is simple enough: Dracula (voiced by Adam Sandler) is throwing a 118th birthday party for his daughter Mavis (Selena Gomez), who wants nothing more than to get out of her father’s shadow and see the world. For the birthday event, Dracula has invited all the monsters one would hope to see in this kind of mash-up, including Frankenstein’s Monster (Kevin James), the Wolf-Man (Steve Buscemi), and the Invisible Man (David Spade). Some of the characterizations here are clever; for example, the Wolf-Man (here named Wayne) is a put-upon dad to countless scampering pups. And the voice work is quite good; I was actually impressed with Gomez, as the undead teen, and Andy Samberg, who voices Jonathan, a backpacking world traveler human who becomes the first non-monster ever to enter the hotel and (shocker!) a romantic interest for Dracula’s daughter. These original characters (and by “original” I mean not based on an old Universal film, not that they are in any way groundbreaking) are fairly cute and have as much chemistry as two people recording lines in separate sound booths can probably have. Sandler, it should be noted, does a fine job at what he does best, which is making jokes in a silly voice.

All of this turns out predictably, of course. Along the way there are some good gags that might amuse grown-ups, and a reference to the band Slipknot that made me laugh out loud. The relationship between Dracula and Mavis is terribly conventional (aside from the whole vampire thing), but there is a sweetness to the way Sandler delivers his lines with Gomez that made me hark back to his previous “parenting” work in Big Daddy.

To a filmgoer, Hotel Transylvania is superfluous; it is of no consequence and has, really, nothing to offer. It’s a distraction, but an amiable enough one. It does lose points, however, for referring to Frankenstein’s Monster as “Frankenstein” for the duration of the film. This is not only incorrect, it’s borderline unforgivable and perpetuates a misconception that truly annoys me. Frankenstein is the scientist; the monster is the monster. If someone says he’s dressing up as Frankenstein for Halloween, he’d better damn well have a lab coat and a God complex; otherwise, he’s just wrong and you have a dumb friend.

To be honest, I didn’t hold out a lot of hope that the film would be on par with anything Pixar does, but I wasn’t just there for myself, so I thought I would settle in and observe how Oz reacted. Full disclosure: my kid loves movies. Loves ‘em. If you ever want to get freaked out by a toddler reciting lines from Labyrinth, stop by my house.

On our outing, Oz paid attention to Hotel Transylvania for the most part, mostly when Dracula or Mavis were on screen, and she bobbed along with the handful of musical numbers sprinkled throughout the proceedings. She even hid her eyes whenever Dracula got upset and flashed his red vampire stare. But when the big finale arrived, and everyone started dancing and rapping and arriving at their inevitable conclusions, I looked over to find her sleeping peacefully. That seemed about right.

If you enjoy movies, you know there’s nothing wrong with a harmless cartoon now and then; if you have kids, you know there’s nothing wrong with a good nap.


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