If the title of Genndy Tartakovsky’s new animated family film earworms you with some bizarre Weird-Al style parody of the Eagles’ “Hotel California,” that’s probably at least somewhat intentional. Genndy, the man behind TV’s “Dexter’s Laboratory,” the good “Clone Wars” series and the groundbreaking “Samurai Jack,” is, after all, a man obsessed with archetypes — where other comedic Hollywood types worry about jokes, and authors puzzle over the art of storytelling, he’s a collector of myths, more than George Lucas ever pretended to be. And as both men could tell you, myths define people — not just what they believe, but why.
So a movie featuring classic horror myths interacting under the same roof is made for Genndy. But it is made for him? Hotel Transylvania has been getting dumped on fairly badly by critics, and with some justification. Genndy’s forte is the visual, not the written word, and you can wave most of the plot and too many of the jokes in for a landing. Here, Dracula — the classic Lugosi version, though he takes pains to dissuade people from the “bluh, bluh” thing — is an overprotective dad straight out of Finding Nemo, though voiced by Adam Sandler in a way that’s startlingly and strangely reminiscent of a Robert Smigel dog (I keed). He lives in a world where monsters are frightened by humans, a twist that was played out a decade ago; the hotel he opens in order to give them sanctuary serves as a set up for all sorts of jokes about the classic Universal-style monsters (Frankenstein, the Invisible Man, and the Wolfman) and some less celebrated ones (a human fly, a gelatinous cube, and for some reason, a hydra-headed dog). In other words, half Monsters Inc., half “Monster Mash.” And Cee-Lo’s mummy character looks an awful lot like Oogie Boogie, the eviller mastermind behind The Nightmare Before Christmas. You get the idea, and the idea sounds tired.
The execution isn’t. Rather than going for the usual lazy focus-grouped mediocrity, Tartakovsky, who’s not working in his usual hand-drawn 2D milieu, crafts a funhouse castle full of slapstick, visual gags, and set pieces that have little to do with traditional notions of horror (the dining room table duel is ah oddball treat, not to mention a good way to move along the character development). Add in his usual flawless character design, real eye candy in every digitized frame, and a perfect voice cast (Buscemi as a harried werewolf dad, Jon Lovitz as a haughty Quasimoto chef), and you have 90 minutes of family entertainment that doesn’t drag and rarely preaches. You know Drac’s adorable, apple-pie sexy teen daughter (Selena Gomez) is meant for the clumsy frat-boy backpacker the minute he shows up, and their extended meet-cute is still pretty entertaining.
You get the feeling that the critics’ judgmental facilities shut down the minute they saw the familiar elements coming at them, and they can’t be blamed for that — screenwriter David I. Stern was previously known for writing two Open Season sequels, and it shows, especially when he mawkishly assigns the Count a lost love motivation and painfully panders during a closing singalong sequence too silly for a Shrek installment. Genndy, however, keeps his focus on the visual anarchy of classic Looney Tunes shorts, tricked up with all the kinetic bells and whistles the computer age will allow. In the end, Hotel Transylvania succeeds… but Tartakovsky might find his muse trapped as badly as the Eagles’ traveler if he makes more Hollywood compromises. Samurai Jack movie, what’s taking so long?