Solid animation can't raise the newest entry in Sony's colorful monster series beyond the basics
I take a slight issue with the idea that Adam Sandler didn’t have a good dramatic role until ‘Uncut Gems,’ what about ‘Hotel Transylvania’ (he says semi-seriously)?’
The Sony animation franchise helmed by ‘Samurai Jack’s Genndy Tartakovsky has very quietly become a new giant in American animation, grossing over a billion dollars worldwide over a trilogy of films, sparking a spin-off TV series, and, yes, giving Adam Sandler a competent comedic role. Tartakovsky knew how to utilize the actor, and his cavalcade of supporting players, to great effect in a story about what happens when the human world leaks into the last haven for Dracula and other famous monsters. The result was a genuinely fun project I still feel comfortable revisiting, even if the sequels never quite hit in the same way.
So in the wake of the franchise’s tenth anniversary, it only felt right to have another entry in the franchise, albeit with some major changes. Sandler and Kevin James wouldn’t be returning as Dracula and Frankenstein respectively, now voiced by Brian Hull and Brad Abrell. Tartakovsky would stay on as a writer, but directing duties would move to Derek Drymon and Jennifer Kluska, who worked on the franchise’s short film ‘Monster Pets.’ In addition, the film would stream exclusively on Amazon Prime after pandemic concerns forced Sony to sell the distribution rights, and considering where box office is right now, it was an understandable decision.
Thus, after a lot of delays, ‘Hotel Transylvania: Tranformania’ is here, was it worth it? Sadly, I don’t think so and I don’t think the delays, nor the personnel changes, have anything to do with it. ‘Transformania’ is, for all intensive purposes, harmless, a fine adventure that features the same likeable characters getting into nonsensical situations that families can sit down (safely at home via Amazon) and enjoy. But that comes at the film’s detriment because, not only does it not offer anything new to these characters, it feels like a red flag that the franchise that started so fun is relying more on old tricks than anything else.
After 125 years in the business, Dracula (voiced by Brian Hull) is looking to retire from running Hotel Transylvania to spend time with his new wife Erica Van Helsing (voiced by Kathryn Hahn). He hopes that his daughter Mavis (voiced by Selena Gomez) will be able to keep the hotel in good hands, but she overhears the news and believes that both she and her human husband, Johnny (voiced by Andy Samberg), will inherit it.
When Johnny confronts Dracula about this, the worried father-in-law lies and says there’s a real estate rule that only a monster can run the hotel. What’s Johnny to do but ask for help from the mad scientist, Van Helsing himself (voiced by Jim Gaffigan), whose latest inventions can turn any human into a monster. The experiment works, but in the process, Dracula and his monstrous cavalcade are turned into powerless humans. The only replacement for the machine is in the jungles of South America, so Johnny, Dracula and, eventually the whole team, journey across the world to fix themselves and, hopefully, settle Dracula’s doubts in the process.
The immediate thing I can praise about ‘Transformania’ is the animation which, rather surprisingly, hasn’t dipped in quality over the course of the trilogy. While it’s nice to see Tartakovsky’s style still at play, it’s good to see what co-directors Drymon and Kluska manage to do with the formula. Every walk, facial movement, and emotion still feels zanily vibrant, which allows for some of the comedy to shine through because of just how expressive every character is allowed to be.
Speaking of the laughs, this movie knows it’s a comedy and I can totally see the humor playing to a fair number of audiences. Particularly game is Samberg, who nails Johnny’s million-words-a-second tone, and his ever-growing monster transformation means new things are constantly being thrown at you. In addition, while the Johnny/Dracula journey certainly plays into any number of road trip movie cliches, the jokes they get away with are solid.
*Even if I’d argue, no spoilers, the best jokes are back at the hotel with the zombie manservants and Van Helsing’s pet hamster.
However, aside from those positives, around the halfway mark, I found myself wondering “do I genuinely care if this plot resolves itself?” The answer quickly became “no” and, for the second, more action-packed half, I just went through the motions as the movie tried to re-incorporate the supporting players to mixed results, and really not buy into the Johnny/Dracula angle.
In the first film, and parts of the sequels, Dracula has always been an imperfect, if still genuinely loving father, driven by tragedy and a desire to keep his loved ones safe. But here, he’s just falling back on old habits, even though he has more than enough reasons to trust Johnny and just go away with Erica. It’s a lazy decision that flies in the face of any kind of subtext or interesting narrative choices, even when there are other characters (*cough, Mavis and Erica, cough*) who could very easily address those ideas and settle a lot of these problems.
But if “it’s not smart enough” doesn’t cut it, I could very easily turn back to the humor and count on one hand the number of times I laughed. Between the new and old comedy veterans here, for every small joke that lands, many of the recurring jokes like handsome Frankenstein and the now-seen Invisible Man, are so quick and bare boned that I couldn’t really get behind them.
The immediate comparison I could make for ‘Hotel Transylvania: Transformania’ is last year’s ‘The Addams Family 2.’ Beyond the obvious aesthetic comparisons, they’re also movies that I had similar anticipations going in and that tried somewhat similar ideas. While that film wasn’t great, it at least put the characters in new positions, tried to give them weird adventures to showcase the characters, and had at least a few memorable jokes, things that ‘Transformania’ mostly lacks.
For all its efforts to make something fun and energetic, the minimal stakes on display are almost always sidelined for quick visual gags. I can certainly give praise to the animation department for their consistency, but not much else and I don’t think that’s just coming from “a jaded adult watching kids movies.” When even the short films offer more to the franchise in terms of characters, jokes, and ideas, it puts ‘Transformania’ on a rather disappointing pedestal, one that I only really noticed for what came before and doesn’t leave a lot of excitement for what could come after.
Overall, I give ‘Hotel Transylvania: Transformania’ 4/10.
‘Hotel Transylvania: Transformania’ will be available on Amazon Prime beginning January 14th.
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