It’s been three years since the original Hotel Transylvania released back in 2012, with a Dracula-in-the-hospitality-industry monster mash-up that made some fervent little fans out of the army of monstrosities on screen and, more importantly to Sony, resulted in a higher-than-expected box office gross. Which is why we’re here now, with Hotel Transylvania 2 picking up a few years after the events of the first movie and throwing the expected cadre of things that go bump in the night into a new paradigm: parenthood.
Just like its predecessor, the new movie is sweet and broadly humorous, but that’s also sort of the problem. It’s so preoccupied with a simplistic – if nonetheless laudatory – message of tolerance and acceptance, and its jokes are so slapsticky, that it constantly bars itself from being anything other than an Adam Sandler-and-gang movie that’s actually watchable. Which is a feat unto itself, but also, let’s be honest, nothing particularly special.
The first half of the movie re-introduces the gang of monsters from the original, speeding up through the first five years of the life of little Dennis (Asher Blinkoff), son of Mavis (Selena Gomez) and Johnny (Andy Samberg). Dracula (Adam Sandler) is now a “vampaw” and far more welcoming and tolerant than when we last saw him, his grand and opulent hotel open to all species, monsters and humans alike. A few of those new humans include Johnny’s mom and dad (played by Megan Mullally and Nick Offerman, pretty much exactly how you’d picture them), who are unsure of their grandson’s new life in the world of Transylvania.
And that’s where these movies have a slight leg-up on the animated competition these days: they’re more dysfunctional family dramas than anything else. There’s a heavy coating of kids movie clutter and a few dud-level gags that get repetitive, but the heart of the story beats surprisingly fast for a cast of characters who’ve been dead a few thousand years. Newbie Dennis brings some new energy to the proceedings, as well, managing to feel like a welcome addition to the cast but never devolving into the annoying precociousness that his character could have easily stumbled into. Dracula’s disdain over his obsession with a cutesy Sesame Street-esque kid-centric TV show about monsters is one of the more winning recurring gags, and comes with the best final-act payoff.
Hotel Transylvania 2 keeps much of that familial spirit going throughout its barely-ninety-minutes runtime, with varying degrees of results. This is still an Adam Sandler movie, and you can expect the usual rogue’s gallery of suspects, this time as classic monsters: Frankenstein (Kevin James), werewolf Wayne (Steve Buscemi), the Invisible Man (David Spade), and a few others make the roll call. They’re amusing, but more defined by a couple of adjectives and gags than actual people. It’s Sandler’s Dracula that feels relatively warm and welcome still, especially in scenes with Mavis and Dennis in tow.
The world of the series manages to offer a few surprises for fans, with the nifty hook of humans knowing about the monsters – and treating them as celebrities – fueling some of the best sequences in the sequel. It’s also all beautifully animated, with everything from Dennis’ hair to Dracula’s bat transformation gorgeous to behold.
Although they’re relegated to background gags, the various denizens of the hotel do provide some fun Where’s Waldo moments as well, and even though we’re stuck following Dracula’s squad, there’s some inventiveness to the designs and look of some periphery characters – from floating brains to an all-skeleton Dia Des Los Muertos-inspired band – that make the world feel lively and full. A lot of these guys were seen the first time around, with little new monsters added, but the animation and the film move at such a quick clip, you’ll rarely notice you’ve seen that giant Big Foot leg a few dozen times already.
The biggest problem with part two, and a continuing issue from part one, is that director Genndy Tartakovsky (he worked on a few TV film versions of Dexter’s Laboratory and The Flintstones in the past) never gets a full grasp on the spirit of these characters and, in turn, the spirit of the spooky fall season. Although the phrase “Halloween” is never uttered here, its late-September release and monster mash story obviously mean the team behind the scenes aim it to be a Halloween treat for kids, but I’m not convinced it’s earned its spot.
There’s definitely an appreciation of the macabre (“Suffer suffer, scream in pain, you will never breathe again,” croons Dracula in his version of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star), but it sometimes feels about as edgy and brooding as a Twilight t-shirt from Hot Topic, and is far off from the straight-up disturbing brilliance of a studio like Laika. The jokes here are too preoccupied with pop culture references (some approaching brilliance, some very much not) and slapstick moments, both undercutting the premise’s initial appeal, to ever feel like an honest-to-goodness movie worthy of trotting out every October.
“Human, vampire, unicorn, you’re perfect no matter what.” That’s Dracula’s ultimate message to his little “vampson” (co-writers Robert Smigel and Adam Sandler himself never met a vampire pun they didn’t like) by the end of Hotel Transylvania 2. The new movie, like its precursor, has no pretence in aspiring to any grand metaphors or higher-plane teachings throughout its brisk 89-minute runtime, with Tartakovsky’s toon background lending the sequel a continued feel of that old-school Hanna-Barbera colorful wackiness that feels somewhat refreshing in the modern era. That cartoonish simplicity may drive some adults into a fugue state, but there’s just enough craft here – to the animation style, the characters, the straight-forward story – mixed in with the high-energy humor that it’s at least mostly a painless experience. When’s the last time you could say that about a movie Sandler co-wrote and starred in?
Hotel Transylvania 2 is far off from becoming a staple of the Halloween season, but on its own terms it's a relatively inventive, stylish, and somewhat hectic little movie that should make fans of the original more than happy.