The appeal of seeing a film such as Hotel Transylvania 2 in a theatre full of ordinary families – an appeal nearly worth the dubious looks one endures as a grown man taking his seat at a children's film alone on a Saturday morning – is the opportunity to glimpse firsthand the shrieks and howls of scared kids. It was quite something.
A little blonde girl in my row, confronted by a snarling, razor-toothed teddy bear, dropped to the floor in fright and started crawling through the aisles, wailing for the horror to stop through a soggy face of tears. A boy further back, meanwhile, objected to a startling turn in the film's last act, and registered his objection, sensibly, by wailing in the direction of the screen. Things would continue in this spirit.
This is hardly a new phenomenon. One can imagine a child of the early 19th century cowering behind mounded blankets as he survives another of Grimms' Fairy Tales, and I doubt there is an adult among us not at some point traumatized by Roald Dahl or Maurice Sendak.
The difference in this case is that Hotel Transylvania 2 does not, as far as I can tell, aspire to terrify its young audience. The movie is just a bit of light farce: It's an $80-million 3-D cartoon built around slapstick pratfalls and bankable celebrity voices. The Grimm stories used fear to instruct and caution – fear as moralism. Dahl and Sendak wanted to probe the darker regions of the mind of a child. Hotel Transylvania 2 is what you might call frivolously scary: scary by mistake, or scary for no reason. The little girl bawling in the aisles doesn't get anything out of it.
The original Hotel Transylvania was about a hotel run by vampires in the mountains of central Romania, designed as a sort of macabre resort destination for monsters in need of respite. How amusing you were likely to find the movie could be predicted by how inherently uproarious you found the idea of a hotel for monsters to begin with.
The sequel abandons the hotel-management aspect of its universe, preferring instead to develop a standalone story beyond its hotel walls .
The previous film concluded with the coming together of human Jonathan (Andy Samberg) and vampire Mavis (Selena Gomez) despite the crisis of interspecies prejudice, and of course this adventure proceeds from where we left off: Act one spans the requisite wedding sequence, pregnancy announcement and childbirth of any good family-movie sequel, and the action gets going around the time the kid is nearing five and grandpa Count Dracula (Adam Sandler) worries that the half-human/half-vampire mix might have more of the former in him than the latter.
Soon enough, the Count conspires to awaken the vampire in his grandson by basically scaring it out of him – a hand-wringing monster gauntlet that plays out, bizarrely, like that episode of The Simpsons in which Homer takes Bart on a tour of manliness in order to deter him from being gay.
"Be yourself" proves the obvious takeaway from these exploits, this being a children's movie. I'm just not sure the message rang clear among the sounds of the children screaming.