On 'Hotel Transylvania 2' and the auteurism of Adam Sandler
Hotel Transylvania 2 Sony Pictures
Director: Genndy Tartakovsky
Screenplay: Robert Smigel and Adam Sandler
Starring: The voices of Adam Sandler, Selena Gomez, Andy Samberg, Kevin James, Steve Buscemi, David Spade, Keegan-Michael Key, Megan Mullally, Nick Offerman and Mel Brooks
Rated PG / 1 hour, 29 minutes
September 25, 2015
(out of four)
There's something to be said for an actor who defines his or her own work. For all my contempt for most of Adam Sandler's career output, he's also the rare actor (excluding those who regularly take on their own directing duties) who has maintained creative control over his own movies. That, at the very least, makes him part of an interesting discussion.
Movie stars always have a degree of power, and each of them wields it a different way. But Sandler is an exception, in that, as crude as it might sound, he can actually claim the auteur label. Naturally, this doesn't apply when he's working under directors like P.T. Anderson, James L. Brooks or Judd Apatow (or more recently, Jason Reitman, but the less said about Men Women & Children the better), but those films are decidedly the exception; he has spent most of his career making his movies, with his people. You see the same quality in smaller doses elsewhere in comedy - Seth Rogen could make a convincing case (although he now directs some of his films) - but this kind of authorship is usually limited to specific cases and collaborations (the Will Ferrell/Adam McKay team-ups, for example). Probably the best example would be Sacha Baron Cohen, but his auteurist efforts are splitting time with the rest of his acting career at this point.
This is a roundabout way of saying it's not necessarily a surprise that Hotel Transylvania 2 wound up being not so much a mere voice acting gig, but essentially an animated Happy Madison production. While I'm sure Sandler was much more heavily involved in the first Hotel Transylvania than your typical voice talent (the cast was, after all, filled with all his regular co-stars), his involvement seems to have increased this time around. He co-wrote the screenplay with Robert Smigel, and has shaped it in the image of many of his recent films about middle-aged dads struggling to reconcile their dwindling relevance. And if the age group of Sandler and friends' live-action forays hasn't quite reached grandparent status, this animated sequel has given them a head start on it. Sandler once again voices the widowed Dracula, whose beloved daughter Mavis (Selena Gomez) is now married to a (gasp!) human, the backpacking slacker Jonathan (Andy Samberg). Those two have made a baby, whose very species seems to be ... ambiguous.
Dracula, still harboring the not-so-soft prejudice that previously made the thought of a human son-in-law so unthinkable in the first place, insists that his grandson will be a vampire rather than a human, while his parents don't have any preference. (Apparently this is an all-or-nothing proposition. No half-vampires.) As we all know, vampires grow their fangs sometime in their first five years of life - and little Dennis (Asher Blinkoff) is nearing his fifth birthday, having shown zero signs of any vampiric inclinations. Drac decides to take matters into his own hands, while Mavis and Jonathan consider a move out of Transylvania and into the suburbs. (Nick Offerman and Megan Mullally pop up as Jonathan's predictably square parents.)
This all adds up to yet another of Sandler's examinations of generational gaps and changing social conventions, which means we get a lot of cheap observations attached to even cheaper sentiment. But those inevitable tendencies are what make this so dispiriting; the singular essence of his body of work is what makes him and his authorship of Hotel Transylvania 2 unique, and yet our familiarity with it prepares us for the inevitable laziness we have in store. I will admit, there are moments where this film and its predecessor really hit on something. But otherwise it too closely resembles too many careless Sandler productions.
Having said that, here he at least has a competing voice in director and veteran animator Genndy Tartakovsky, so the Transylvania films don't suffer from the same aesthetic indifference as his live-action efforts. It's a rare thing indeed for an Adam Sandler movie to give us anything to look at.
But while the animation and some of the character design are certainly more charming than your average computer-animated family movie, I found myself wondering - and then outright believing - if it would have been better in the kind of "flat" animated style Tartakovsky has made such great use of in the past. The playful dexterity of the lines and angles, the extremes of the visual logic - all such grandly distinguishing features of his past creations like Dexter's Laboratory, Samurai Jack and the original Clone Wars series.
These big-screen efforts, with their three-dimensionality forcing each bit of animation to occupy a more physical domain, don't get across the same mania and madness. And for a movie with screwball and slapstick elements, that mania might be helpful. It's like we're seeing the same impulses, but sanded down - or Sandlered down, if you'll allow my hilarious joke. At any rate, maybe next time around, Tartakovsky's talents will be matched with a more interesting collaborative voice.