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Hotel Transylvania’s blockbuster success, explained in one giant dog and one tiny hat

The animated movies where Dracula runs a hotel aren’t beloved by critics. But their zany silliness is worth embracing.

Hotel Transylvania 3
Dracula ... and friends!
Sony Pictures Animation
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

To understand why the Hotel Transylvania franchise has been so successful, you need only be aware of Tinkles, the giant dog in the tiny hat.

In Summer Vacation — the series’ third film, opening Friday, July 13 — the adorable Tinkles, with his large, soulful eyes, sneaks onboard a giant cruise ship alongside his monster pals to join them for a relaxing vacation. There’s just one problem: No pets are allowed on the ship. What’s a giant dog (and his tiny child owner) to do?

Enter the hat. Dennis, the little boy who owns Tinkles (if such a creature can ever be “owned”), colludes with his best friend, Winnie, a wolfgirl, to dress Tinkles up in a trench coat and a tiny chapeau, which sits, perfectly centered, on his enormous head. Dennis and Winnie introduce Tinkles to everybody as “Bob,” and everyone — even Dennis’s parents and grandfather (who is Count Dracula) — buy it.

Naturally, at some point, the hat falls off Tinkles’s head, and everybody immediately realizes he’s a giant dog. But until then, he apparently blends in seamlessly with the rest of the crowd, just an odd-looking creature in a coat and hat. Granted, he’s on a ship full of monsters, so it’s not like he’s masquerading as a human. But he’s still a giant dog in a tiny hat, who somehow passes for not being a giant dog in a tiny hat.

You’re undoubtedly familiar with this ruse, as it’s one of the oldest jokes in the book. It’s akin to any time Bugs Bunny has donned a disguise and fooled everybody into thinking he isn’t a very famous rabbit but, instead, a human being. It shouldn’t work, but it does, and when “Bob” was exposed, I laughed a lot.

That is why the Hotel Transylvania movies work. They gussy up very old, seemingly worn-out jokes in a new coat of paint, and tweak them so they still make you laugh. They’re classicist in many ways, but they’re executed in the modern styles of computer animation.

And all the credit for the intriguing Venn diagram intersection that results belongs to their intrepid, if not particularly well-known, director.

The Hotel Transylvania movies are a tribute to the skills of Genndy Tartakovsky

Hotel Transylvania 3
So many monsters!
Sony Pictures Animation

In the American film industry, it’s pretty rare for an animation director to rise to the level of an auteur, an established creative force whose films explore some of the same themes and concerns over and over again. Certainly Brad Bird of The Incredibles rises to this level, as does someone like Don Bluth, of An American Tail fame. You might even point to Ron Clements and John Musker, the directors behind Beauty and the Beast and Moana, or Andrew Stanton, who helmed Finding Nemo and WALL-E, as animation filmmakers with their own distinctive styles.

But none of those men is on the same plane as a Steven Spielberg or even a Wes Anderson — live-action filmmakers who are household names even to most casual film fans. For the most part, Hollywood tends to reduce animated films to products of companies, rather than the work of individual artists (be they directors or writers or animators). We know what a “Pixar” movie is, or a “Disney” movie, but we don’t really think about the individuals within those companies, unless you’re the type of hardcore moviegoer who’s already predisposed to explore movie credits.

This is why, I think, Genndy Tartakovsky has fallen a little between the cracks as someone who makes terrific cinema. His movies and TV shows are fluid, action-packed, and painstakingly animated to underline the physicality of his characters. He’s directed all three Hotel Transylvania movies to date — despite his attempts to exit both the second and third films before ultimately returning to the director’s chair. And while he’s won multiple Emmy awards for his work in television, the Hotel Transylvania films are mostly discussed in terms of their star, Adam Sandler, who voices Dracula.

Tartakovsky’s mild obscurity can probably be attributed to how the three Hotel Transylvania movies make up the entirety of his feature film career, even though he also worked on a Popeye project that progressed far enough along to have reached the animation test stage.

Instead, Tartakovsky’s best work has been on TV, where he was instrumental in several Cartoon Network series, including Dexter’s Laboratory, The Powerpuff Girls (for which he directed several episodes), Samurai Jack, and the original Star Wars: The Clone Wars animated shorts. (These original shorts, constructed to air during commercial breaks and done in a hand-drawn style, are harder to find now, thanks to the existence of a whole, computer-animated Clone Wars show, but they’re terrific.)

If you know anything about the shows listed above, Tartakovsky’s visual style will already be familiar. He draws liberally from the minimalist animation of ’50s studios like UPA (home of Mr. Magoo), meaning he uses lots of big, bold lines to form his characters and lots of blocky shapes, with occasional breaks from that format for variety’s sake.

His characters’ faces often contain suggestions of facial features more than anything detailed — think of how Samurai Jack’s mouth is often just a grim little line — but he gets enormous amounts of expression out of them by tweaking those features at just the right moment.

Additionally, Tartakovsky is similar to Bird in that he’s one of our finest directors of action. Particularly in Samurai Jack and Clone Wars, he finds ways to underline principles of movement and momentum, and the fight sequences in both series are as well paced and edited as anything you might see in a live-action movie. Check out this battle from the final season of Samurai Jack, for instance, which blends incredibly detailed animation of the ongoing fight with editing that speeds up and slows down time seemingly at will.

All of this might seem to cut directly against something like Hotel Transylvania, which, after all, is not about the assorted monsters having fights. The Hotel Transylvania films are big, broad animated comedies whose premise is largely, “Wouldn’t it be funny if there was a hotel for monsters?” and where the bulk of the plots have to do with something called a “zing,” when a monster’s heart goes pitter-pat upon seeing, for the first time, the creature they love.

Tartakovsky might be a great director, but there’s only so much I can do to convince you that he enlivens a project where the chief allure often seems to be Sandler saying “blah blah blah.” Still, I would argue that he does — and as big-budget, computer-animated films go, the Hotel Transylvania franchise is a big step up from something like Despicable Me. That’s all thanks to a side of Tartakovsky he rarely gets to show.

The Hotel Transylvania films work best if you approach them as a series of Looney Tunes shorts stitched together into what’s almost a full movie

Hotel Transylvania 3
Hey, it’s a giant singing Kraken!
Sony Pictures Animation

For lack of a better word, the reason I enjoy the Hotel Transylvania movies is that they’re “cartoony.” Without further clarification, that might sound obvious. These films are, after all, cartoons. But what I mean is that they subtly break new ground in terms of what computer animation can do. To explain why, I need to talk a little more about how computer animation functions.

The thing about the Pixar style of computer animation (by which I mean the three-dimensional, modeled characters who have that vaguely plastic look to them that can be traced back to Toy Story, as opposed to all of the many other forms of computer animation that exist) is how hard it can be to bend and warp those models to get them to look sufficiently cartoon-y.

Think of the famous old animated gag of the wolf who sees a pretty lady and has hearts pop out of his eyes. You can do that in a computer-animated movie, but it’s often a waste of resources, because you have to build the eyes to pop out within the computer’s model, or you have to build the hearts as separate objects, or what have you. Think of the model almost as a puppet that is put in certain “poses” — and when you start trying to alter its fundamental properties to make it do things it couldn’t typically do in the physical universe, the computer can freak out and distort it beyond recognition.

(I’ve vastly oversimplified this, but if you’re interested in the topic at all, there’s a heck of a lot more on what’s easy and tough to do in computer animation in this excellent little primer from Den of Geek.)

Over the past two decades, computers have gotten better and better at creating fluid, perspective-defying animation. Models can be squished and stretched and flung about the screen much more easily now than they could 20 years ago. But computer animation is still a work in progress, giving hand-drawn animation a considerable advantage over what can be done with a computer. That may be one of the reasons computer-animated films are so often known for their dialogue-driven gags rather than more physical jokes.

But it’s also helped Tartakovsky — who has a lot of experience in getting very minimalist models with limited ranges of emotion and movement to do things they seemingly shouldn’t be able to do — become very gifted at wringing every last bit of cartooniness he can get out of the Hotel Transylvania characters.

When the characters in a Hotel Transylvania film dance to pop music — as all animated characters must do in these movies, it seems — they strut all over the screen, dipping and swaying and bopping along, instead of swaying back and forth in place as they would in so many other movies of this sort.

This also means the chief laughs in the Hotel Transylvania films typically come from physical gags and moments of slapstick. A herd of werewolf puppies behaves more like a tidal wave than a bunch of yapping dogs. A sentient blob throws up, and that pile of vomit becomes his child, for whom he later builds a blob dog. Dracula’s father struts about in a swimsuit, revealing a potbelly and knobby knees. There’s always a commitment to making the jokes funny visually, which pairs well with Sandler’s baby-voiced performance. (And, okay, yes, occasional fart jokes.)

What’s more, Tartakovsky has figured out a way to make Sandler’s frequent casting of his friends in supporting roles in his films into a strength, as all of the movies inevitably find fun things to do with, say, Kevin James as Frankenstein’s monster or David Spade as the Invisible Man. James and Spade might be here because this is a Sandler project, but the scripts of these movies find ways to isolate their characters in what amount to their own animated shorts.

That’s a hint as to why the Hotel Transylvania movies perhaps work better in short bursts than they do as full features. The stories of these movies are nothing to write home about, especially all of their “zing” business, which is self-consciously silly in a way that never quite works. But break each of them down into their component parts, and you realize they’re essentially structured as strings of Looney Tunes shorts that hang together loosely into a full story.

For instance, Hotel Transylvania 3 features a lengthy sequence set on a gremlin-piloted airplane (the fictional critters that World War II pilots blamed when things went wrong with their planes, not the Gremlins from the movie Gremlins), and nothing about the sequence advances the story. Instead, it’s an excuse to lean into a bunch of ridiculous gags about air travel made deliberately worse by horrible little monsters. (Drink carts roll over feet, coffee is poured onto someone’s crotch, etc., etc., etc.) It’s every stand-up routine about air travel, blown out into its cartooniest self.

In the end, the third film barely has a story, instead choosing to focus on various set pieces centered on the idea of what might happen to monsters (and their dog) on a cruise ship. And because of their commitment to the animated short structure, all of the Hotel Transylvania movies can get away with very, very old jokes — like hiding a giant dog by putting him in a trench coat and a tiny hat. There’s something so fun and goofy about them that it’s hard to get too mad.

In some ways, this makes the Hotel Transylvania franchise ideal for parents who just want to plop their kids down in front of something for an hour or so, while making dinner or attending to other chores. You can wander in and out of the movies at will, finding something to laugh at and then going and doing something else until your attention is piqued again.

That means the franchise has often attracted harsh reviews from critics, who might prefer a little more meat on the films’ bones, but I find it hard to resist all the same. The movies are a tribute to the idea that animation can be gloriously goofy and wonderfully silly, that coming up with dumb ways to make people laugh is still worth it. And if nothing else, they’re great ways to see just how Tartakovsky is working to stretch computer animation as far as it will go.

Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation opens in theaters Friday, July 13.