Vampires, zombies and werewolves may be thought of as scary and horrible things. But if you asked Count Dracula he’d tell you that those poor monsters are nothing but peace-loving unfortunates who’ve been unfairly labeled. He’d readily explain that they’re victims of a whole lot of bad press and paranoia. If anything, they’re much more afraid of humans than humans are of them.
After all, you won’t find monsters storming around in the open, armed with pitchforks and torches, on the hunt for humans.
Anyway, Count’s story starts about 115 years ago, right after his wife’s untimely demise at the hands of a screaming, angry mob. (See. He knows what he’s talking about.) Besides being overcome with grief, Dracula realized he was left with sole parenting responsibilities for his beloved daughter Mavis. Call him overprotective, but stealing her away to be raised in a hidden sanctuary seemed the only safe thing to do.
It was just about then, though, that an idea hit him: Why not turn his reclusive castle into a hotel? He knew plenty of other ghastlies and ghouls who would relish a place to vacation, safely hidden away from hateful humans. He could create a swanky little place with all the latest amenities, like a croc-filled moat, a posh cobweb motif, king-sized beds of nails, the whole shebang. It was a brilliant idea.
Of course, little vampires don’t wear their training fangs forever. And though their hotel hideout is cool, by her 118th birthday, well, Mavis is getting a little antsy. She’s a grown woman now, ready to spread her wings … literally. And Daddy Dracula isn’t sure how to keep her from it. The world is such a dangerous place. Is there a way to convince her to stay away from those horrible humans for at least a few more years? A hundred or so ought to do it.
But right in the middle of Count Dracula’s daughter-saving schemes, the worst thing he could imagine happens: A lost human backpacker stumbles into the hotel lobby. What a disaster! If the other monsters find out, it could lead to a creature calamity! A Frankenstein freak-out! A boogeyman ballyhoo!
Gasp. And what if Mavis sees him?
For all of this animated flick’s monster mayhem and gorgon goofiness, at its unstaked heart it’s a movie about loving parents and their sometimes overprotective ways. Dracula sums up his feelings with, “As a father you do everything you can to keep your family safe.”
Unfortunately he goes on to say, “Even if that means you have to break their trust.” But eventually this sharp-fanged batty dad learns that his daughter has to be allowed to make her own choices and experience life on her own terms. Then he apologizes and makes sacrificial choices to make up for his distrustful ones.
The wandering human hiker, Johnny, makes some unselfish choices too. After meeting Mavis, he realizes that he has definite feelings for her. But he determines to walk away to protect her and to honor her father’s wishes. He tells Dracula, “The last thing I ever wanted to do was hurt her or you.”
In the end, true love wins the day. And to that point, a little book from Mavis’ mom (left for the girl for her 118th birthday) uses simple storybook terms to communicate the value of love. It describes love as a “zing” that only happens once in a lifetime. Later, a cutesy rap song talks of how that zing should lead to a ring that ties the two together.
Oh, and Dracula is taught a lesson about how he should feel about humans through all of this too. For example, after his repeated warnings about horrible humans, Count and his chums find themselves in the middle of a human celebration, only to realize that the costumed humans are celebrating … them.
You get the point by now, right? Don’t make fun of or fear others just because they’re different from you.
Even though transforming vampires, the shambling undead and all manner of spooky creatures are never explained or treated in any realistically spiritual way, a recognizable monster mythos is constantly front and center.
There’s a bit of sexual innuendo haunting the halls of this monster mansion in the form of a showering female skeleton, an über-curvy mummy girl, some undead construction workers ogling an undead female passerby and a pair of honeymooning fleas spotted in bed together.
Dracula and Frankenstein wear towels in a steam room. The Invisible Man is embarrassed when some kids pull down his swimming trunks, and we actually see a bit of his backside when he later puts powder on after a shower.
Mavis and Johnny kiss—to Dracula’s roaring disapproval.
Most of the flick’s thunks and thumps happen as a result of Dracula trying to keep Johnny’s humanity a secret or attempting to keep the boy and Mavis apart. They include falling through a roof, smashing into flying tables, tumbling through scores of monster staff and guests, and other such shenanigans.
Dracula roars out his fanged, red-eyed disapproval from time to time, but he makes it plain that he could never actually cause Johnny harm. “I can’t kill him; it would set monsters back hundreds of years,” he says. And as for that blood-sucking stuff, Drac cringes at the idea of drinking human blood. “It’s so fatty,” he says, “and you never know where it’s been.” He selflessly risks setting himself on fire in the sunlight—resulting in lots of smoke and singed bat fur and wings—in an attempt to make up for his overprotective ways.
Frankenstein falls to pieces after hitting the pool in a belly flop. But the story of Mavis’ mom’s death at the hands of rampaging humans is told with a bit more serious tone; we see a burning building and men with torches.
Someone is said to be going “bat-poop.” Mavis exclaims, “Holy rabies!”
We hear talk of an abominable snowman’s bathroom behavior. A werewolf boy hikes his leg to pee on a couch. Frankenstein’s disconnected lower body belches out plumes of green gas. An animated suit of empty armor grunts when kicked in the crotch and then wonders aloud, “Why did that hurt me?”
Dracula sings a nursery rhyme to his baby daughter that includes lines such as, “Hush little vampire don’t say a word/Papa’s gonna bite the head off a bird.”
Later he points out that he’s determined to protect his daughter even if it means that he has to break her trust. And he does, creating a fake town to scare her with and essentially lying to her. After a major disappointment, Mavis tells her dad, “I have no more dreams—I’m just like you now.”
Writing for horror.com, Staci Layne Wilson voiced this limited-liability lament for Hotel Transylvania, “I loved it, but beware: It is not a scary movie, it’s a paranormal romance and it’s essentially about a father/daughter relationship.”
What she’s saying is a good thing. This is a PG-rated monster mash that won’t give most tykes nightmares. (Think of it as Monsters, Inc. with a dash or two of Halloween.) The voice acting is sterling. The lessons are light but cute and accessible. And the pie-in-your-face monster mythos is colorfully bouncy—not spiritually bruising.
But even with its cavalcade cast of dead, undead and stitched-together regulars—gussied up in their kid-pleasing finery and set loose in a slapstick frenzy—this is also a fairly one-dimensional pic that relies a bit too heavily on monster gas attacks and pee-on-the-furniture tomfoolery.
You may not want to book a weeklong vacation at this particular Transylvanian establishment, but a short stay won’t leave you howling at the moon.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.