Despite a fun premise and some solid character work, Drac and company’s last ride is a disappointingly bloodless affair.
The Hotel Transylvania series is a surprising juggernaut amongst contemporary family entertainment. Who would have guessed that a movie about a hotel for monsters would create a franchise where every sequel grows in both box office and critical success? With no signs of slowing down, it made sense for Sony to greenlight a fourth film. How could another sequel not be a hit at the box office? Well, I think we know how.
Thanks to the pandemic, Sony decided to release Hotel Transylvania: Transformania (directed by Jennifer Kluska and Derek Drymon) for streaming on Amazon Prime as opposed to a theatrical release.
But even if we lived in a post-pandemic world, I don’t think that Transformania would have continued the upward trajectory of its predecessors. Because while it does take the franchise in a new direction, it fails to capture what made the previous pictures so enjoyable.
On its own, Transformania’s premise is solid. Dracula, just called “Drac”, (Brian Hull, taking over for Adam Sandler) is on the verge of retiring and hopes to hand over the reins of Hotel Transylvania to his daughter, Mavis (Selena Gomez). However, when he realizes that this means that his human son-in-law Johnny (Andy Sandberg) will inherit the business alongside her, he panics. Afraid that the goofy Johnny will ruin the hotel, he lies and tells his son-in-law that only monsters can own real estate in Transylvania.
Heartbroken and afraid that he’ll ruin Mavis’ chance to run the hotel, Johnny turns to ex-monster hunter Abraham Van Helsing (Jim Gaffigan) for help. Fortunately, Van Helsing has a “Monsterfication Ray,” which can turn humans into monsters and vice versa, and he transforms Johnny into a lizard-like creature. Naturally, through a series of kiddy movie hijinks, Dracula and his pals are transformed into humans just before the ray—of course—breaks. Now, Dracula and Johnny must travel to South America to find the rare crystal that powers the ray before Johnny becomes too monstrous to change back.
While oftentimes predictable, the story itself isn’t bad. The cast’s species swapping is fun, as are the elements of road-trip adventure and buddy-movie its story layers on. Mostly, I appreciated that the movie allowed Drac to show some growth. Previously his dislike of Johnny was due to anti-human prejudice. He’s finally moved on from this, but he still clashes with Johnny due to their drastic differences in personality.
This exploration of Johnny and Drac’s relationship is Transformania’s saving grace. Johnny seemed mostly oblivious to Drac’s dislike of him beforehand but now is honest about how he doesn’t feel included by his vampire kin. We also get to see his more competent side, since his past as a backpacker comes in handy as he and Drac trek through South America. The bond he and his nosferatu-in-law forge feels like a genuine culmination of their four-movie-long relationship.
The problem with Transformania isn’t that it’s a particularly bad film, it’s that it’s not a particularly good one either.
While Transformarnia goes to interesting places with its plot and character work, much of it is devoted to jokes. And unfortunately, Transformania’s comedy is its weakest aspect. While the first three movies boasted a solid mix of one-liners, sight gags, and situational humor, Transformania mostly relies on general goofiness. Some of that may be down to the larger focus on Johnny (who has always been a buffoonish character), but on the whole, it feels like Transformania’s shift in humor style is more due to funny-looking characters acting silly being something that’s relatively easy to write and reliably makes kids laugh.
This isn’t to say that there are no laughs to be found. Transformania gets some good gags out of the transformation scenes, and the filmmakers mined some decent comedy out of Drac learning to become human. But while there are enough chuckles to keep the viewing experience from being a total slogfest, it isn’t enough to keep the interest of post-pubescent audiences.
The cast’s lack of chemistry is another major stumbling block, particularly with the lead. We probably should have been wary of Transformania when we learned that Sandler wasn’t reprising his role, and his absence is definitely felt. It’s not that Hull does a bad job- he’s a perfectly serviceable Drac, and he manages to get both the voice and mannerisms of Sandler’s character. Still, something is missing- the slightly sardonic sense of humor that Drac previously displayed has been replaced by a more neurotic meanness.
Likewise, the rest of the cast feels off—they lack the vitality and chemistry that made the first three films so enjoyable. The only actor whose performance doesn’t feel phoned in is Samberg, who brings the chaotic energy that is a staple of Johnny’s character. Sadly, the rest of the cast’s work isn’t up to his level.
The problem with Transformania isn’t that it’s a particularly bad film, it’s that it’s not a particularly good one either. It’s not painful to get through, and if you find yourself with a kid that needs entertaining or an afternoon to kill, there are worse ways to spend your time. But, as the ending to a pleasantly solid series, it doesn’t measure up. Had its comedy clicked, Transformania could have been a delightful swan song. Alas, it’s a low note.
Hotel Transylvania: Transformania slips the boundary between life and undeath on Friday, January 14th on Amazon Prime.