Seems we're presently in the midst of a miniature renaissance for horror-themed animated features. A few months ago we got the truly impressive ParaNorman from Universal, and next month Disney has a treat in the form of Tim Burton's Frankenweenie, but while the former film is very clever and the latter one is very sweet, this weekend's "horror cartoon" from Sony is content with being very funny, very silly, and very energetic. Directed by Clone Wars and Samurai Jack co-creator Genndy Tartakovksy, Hotel Transylvania is neither the smartest nor the sweetest monster-themed animated feature under the sun, but it earns a lot of points for plain old wit, humor, and outright silliness.
Adam Sandler provides the voice for Count Dracula, as sort of a cross between Bela Lugosi and a Jewish grandmother, and in this movie the infamous count is intent on building a secret haven for all monsters. The Hotel Transylvania has remained hidden for over 100 years, but just as the count's daughter is preparing for her big birthday party, a clueless human backpacker wanders into the hotel and causes all sorts of trouble. Part of the premise -- that monsters are more afraid of humans than we are of them -- is plainly borrowed from Monsters, Inc., but the screenwriters avoid that trap by having Dracula keep the human invader's identity hidden from his hundreds of monstrous guests. It's pure sitcom in its structure, but it's also clear that a lot of effort went in to making Hotel Transylvania simple yet frequently funny.
Although the screenplay is considerably wittier than one may expect based on the Hotel Transylvania TV ads, most of the film's well-earned giggles come from the visual side of the equation. Mr. Tartakovsky is clearly a big fan of the animated artworks of Chuck Jones, Walter Lantz, and Tex Avery: "cartoonists" who knew that you could earn just just as many giggles from a silly walk, a smash cut, or a stylized facial expression as you could from a well-delivered "spoken" joke. That Hotel Transylvania has a funny screenplay was a pleasant surprise, but for an animated film to wring so many laughs out of just the visual side of the equation, well, that was a nice discovery to make.
The voice cast is amiable and eclectic: in addition to Sandler doing a solid job as a doting daddy Dracula, we're also given Steve Buscemi as a laconic and very paternally prolific wolfman, David Spade as an invisible man who gets a few silly laughs, and Andy Samberg as the dorky human who causes all the hysteria down at Hotel Transylvania -- but the tone, the animation style, and especially the pacing are where Hotel Transylvania really cooks. Set to a sly Mark Mothersbaugh score, this 91-minute mash-up of Halloween creatures and non-stop silliness hits the ground running and virtually never slows down. (Moms, if you need a movie that can keep up with your hyperactive 12-year-old, try this one out.) Of course there's a slightly sad subplot, a few of those requisite "life lessons," and perhaps one too many pop songs on the soundtrack, but rare is the animated film that allows you to feel the childlike enthusiasm of the animators.
I'm not exactly sure why 2012 has been so laden with horror-flavored animated features, but given that all three of them are highly entertaining, and (even better) very different, I'd say it's a good time to be a youthful horror fan. If ParaNorman and Frankenweenie are a bit slyer, smarter, and more sincere, then at least Hotel Transylvania acquits itself well as little more than a high-energy comedy that's packed to the rafters with amusingly monstrous eye candy.