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‘Hotel Transylvania’ tricks itself up with the usual animated shtick

The Tivoli Theatre Downers Grove hosts its annual costume contest free showing 'Hotel Transylvania' Oct. 26.

The Tivoli Theatre in Downers Grove hosts its annual costume contest and a free showing of "Hotel Transylvania" Oct. 26.

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With the voices of:

Dracula Adam Sandler

Jon Andy Samberg

Frankenstein Kevin James

Mavis Selena Gomez

Eunice Fran Drescher

Wayne Steve Buscemi

Columbia Pictures presents an animated film directed by Genndy Tartakovsky. Written by Peter Baynham and Robert Smigel. Running time; 91 minutes. Rated PG (for some rude humor, action and scary images). Opening Friday at local theaters.

Updated: October 29, 2012 6:16AM

What scared me most about the animated horror comedy “Hotel Transylvania” was the prospect of another film starring Adam Sandler and Andy Samberg. Their last collaboration, “That’s My Boy,” was by far the most excruciatingly painful experience I’ve had at a theater this year. Thankfully, Sandler and Samberg just provide voices for this PG-rated fare, a sweet, funny story about monsters who want to enjoy a peaceful life far from humans.

Sandler is Count Dracula, a doting if overprotective vampire father who builds the hotel as a refuge so he and daughter Mavis (Selena Gomez) can be safe from scary people with their pitchforks and torches. Dracula croons a tender lullaby: “Hush, little baby, don’t say a word, Papa’s going to bite the head off a bird.”

Next to the changing table is a coffin-shaped diaper pail.

Mavis gets a little older, with cute little baby tooth fangs; her caped father makes sure she’s wearing a helmet before he teaches her how to transform into a bat and fly. The hotel is a castle surrounded by a haunted forest and a graveyard populated by the undead. “Human-free since 1898,” the hotel proudly proclaims. And so things stay for over a century.

This Dracula has no need for human blood (“it’s so fatty, and you don’t know where it’s been”). He relies on synthetic. All he wants is to take care of his guests, give his daughter a wonderful 118th birthday party, make sure she never leaves home, and never, ever see a human. But then, just as all of the monsters have arrived for the party, an easygoing bro with an enormous backpack walks in. His name is Jonathan (Samberg), he thinks the monsters are cool, and he likes Mavis’ goth-girl vibe. This is worse than torches and pitchforks. A human who wants to get rid of monsters is one thing but a daughter who might fall in love with one is even scarier. And yes, there’s a wink at “Twilight.”

Of the three animated horror 3-D comedies this summer/fall, “Hotel Transylvania” is the least aesthetically ambitious, the most accessible for younger children, and the closest to the comfortingly silly scares of “Scooby-Doo.” As in this film, “ParaNorman” (in theaters) and “Frankenweenie” (out next week), the focus is on showing us that what we think is scary isn’t very frightening after all.

Of the three, “Hotel” has more all-out comedy, much of it coming from the monster-fied setting and the ghoul-ification of ordinary life. At this hotel, the Do Not Disturb signs hanging from the doorknobs are shrunken heads — very outspoken ones. Mavis likes to eat “scream” cheese, which amusingly rises up from the cracker to let out a squeal as she takes a bite. Guests are greeted by zombie bellman, a Jack Pumpkinhead doorman, and a skeleton mariachi band with sombreros and sarapes. When the Invisible Man (David Spade) attempts to play charades, it’s a hoot.

First-time director Genndy Tartakovsky was a storyboard artist on films like “Iron Man 2,” so he has an exceptional understanding of the mechanics and timing of the action sequences. The 3-D adds a vertiginous thrill to a chase on flying tables and a touch of claustrophobia to a maze of underground corridors. It is telling that both of those highlights involve the most vivid vampire/human relationship, Dracula and Jonathan. Despite a lot of talk about romantic “zing,” the bromance is much more real than the love story. When they leave the castle for that most overused of climax cliches, the race to the airport, the story sags.

Top voice talent includes Kevin James as a sweet-natured Frankenstein and Fran Drescher as his bride, Steve Buscemi and Molly Shannon as the wolf couple with innumerable cubs, and Cee Lo Green as the outgoing Mummy. But the real stars are character designers Carter Goodrich (“Despicable Me”), Greg Kellman (“Madagascar”) and Carlos Grangel (“King Fu Panda”), whose monsters pay affectionate homage to their origins but are so endearing that families may want to pay a visit to have room service deliver an order of scream cheese.

Nell Minow is the film critic for the website

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