One of contemporary film’s most beloved animated families just doesn’t seem to fit in. They come from small towns in Europe. They have distinct traditions. They wear black, and certain foods make their stomachs upset. They speak in heavy accents. They’re mistrustful of the world outside, and for good reasons: The world outside has often tried to hunt them down. They still mourn for the loved ones they’ve lost. The trauma plays out epigenetically, imprinting itself on the younger generation. Some of them believe in strong-armed vengeance. Others are hopeful that people can change, and that their kind may yet live in peace with the neighbors. For the time being, however, they’re cooped up inside a fortified autonomous enclosure, zealously guarding their borders.
They are vampires, but, voiced by Mel Brooks and Adam Sandler, it’s not too absurd to wonder whether Hotel Transylvania is a grand metaphor for contemporary Jewish life.
It is, and it’s wonderful.
The franchise’s 2012 opener revolved around a father fearful of letting his daughter Mavis go into the perilous world outside. He’s Count Dracula from Transylvania, but he might as well be Jeff Goldstein from Tulsa: No Jewish parent who had raised children in America would fail to notice the cartoon character’s very real dread at the thought of his family’s faith evaporating upon contact with the gentile world outside. But while Drac is fretting, in walks Jonathan Loughran, a red-headed dudebro from California. The fact that he’s voiced by Andy Samberg matters little; everything from his last name to his clinical lack of anxiety suggests that Johnny isn’t what my grandmother would call unserer, or one of our own. Of course, Mavis and Johnny fall in love, get married, and have a child. (The adorable offspring, by the way, is voiced by Asher Blinkoff, a young and talented Orthodox actor.) As they bicker about whether the boy should be raised out in the Western sun or in the well-secured crypts of grandpa’s shtetl hotel, they’re again asking the same questions American Jews ponder when contemplating their children’s education and the degree to which they wish to balance tradition with the great big world outside.
This being an Adam Sandler vehicle, the Jewish pride comes easily and naturally. Alone, really, in all of Hollywood, the actor continues to embody that rarest of creatures: an unabashedly joyful, deeply committed Jew. Always giving his characters unmistakably Jewish names, like Danny Maccabbee or Sandy Koufax, Sandler has no illusions about his place in the American comedic tradition. He’s not interested, like Samberg, in appealing to the cool kids who find their religion to be, like, super awkward. He belongs with the great masters of Jewish humor, men and women who’ve crafted their pain and their insecurities into killer jokes. By the time Hotel Transylvania 2 came about and Drac needed a dad, it was obvious that only Mel Brooks would fit the part.
As we prepare for part three, hitting theaters today, it’s helpful to stop and contemplate the legacy of the franchise’s director, the great Genndy Tartakovsky. Born in Moscow, his parents emigrated when he was young, chiefly because of the anti-Semitism they experienced in Soviet Russia. Growing up first in Columbus, Ohio, and then in Chicago, Tartakovsky was always on the outside looking in, a Russian boy in America and a Jew in the Midwest. This outlook was soon reflected in his masterful work: In his cult series Dexter’s Laboratory, for example, he gave us a small boy with thick glasses and a thicker accent who seeks to conquer his existential angst with the power of his immense intellect. His equally brilliant follow-up, Samurai Jack, focused on a wandering time-traveling warrior, displaced from his own era and eager to return. Funny and silly and action-packed as they may be, Tartakovsky’s work, like the best productions of pop culture, vibrate with deeper, darker themes lying just below the surface.
And Hotel Transylvania 3 promises to be one of the deepest and darkest, with Drac, dragged on a pleasure cruise, falling in love with the granddaughter of his archnemesis, Van Helsing. Can the persecuted live in harmony with the descendants of his tormentors? Is peoplehood possible in a world that has little patience for real distinctions? It says a lot about our moment in time that if you’re interested in these questions, an animated movie for kids is your best bet.
Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.