The fourth installment of the Hotel Transylvania film series lands with a lot of new talent behind the scenes. But is it a scary good time?
Whether you find them frightfully funny or terrifyingly terrible, you can associate the success or failure of the Hotel Transylvania movies to two primary creatives: star/producer Adam Sandler and writer/director Genndy Tartakovsky. The mix of the former’s fun-loving talent pull with the latter’s zany, slapstick-friendly technical wizardry resulted in one of the unexpectedly lasting Halloween film franchises of the last decade. Though the two collaborators reportedly didn’t always see eye-to-eye on these projects, it’s clear that their involvement is central to the series’ creative and lucrative longevity. So in a curious twist, Sony opted to move forward with a fourth Hotel Transylvania with limited-to-no involvement from either talent.
Indeed, while Tartakovsky retains screenwriting and producing credits, he’s notably absent from the director’s chair. Derek Drymon and Jennifer Kluska, in their feature debut, substitute for the animation titan. And Sandler is nowhere to be found this time around, with talented voice actor Brian Hull (best known for his viral “Disney and Pixar Sings Let It Go” video) doing an admirable job filling in for the Sandman.
While all three players, who have previously worked on Hotel Transylvania short films, handle the assignment dutifully, particularly with Hull lending more emotional earnestness to his vocal performance than his celebrity counterpart (arguably, at least), there’s the nagging feeling that this third sequel is less an inspired effort by its creative team and more of an obligation to keep one of Sony’s most profitable properties up-and-running.
Especially with the animated movie skipping theaters and making its way exclusively to Prime Video, it’s hard not to think of this fourth movie as a second-rate production, one that’s meant to keep the brand alive rather than infuse something essential to these decade-old (at least) characters. The result isn’t an uninspired sequel so much as one that never quite justifies itself, providing more cutesy sight gags and high-energy cartoon wackiness, but in a manner that’s more forced and effortful.
Following the Drac Pack in the midst of their 125th-anniversary festivities for the titular inn, our perpetually batty undead manager (Hull) remains ever-flustered with his inability to balance his adoring affection for his daughter Mavis (Selena Gomez) with his continued disapproval of her human husband, the dim-witted but supportive Johnny (Andy Samberg). As Dracula nears his retirement, he’s scared to hand over the key to his next of kin in fear of what will happen when a dolt like Johnny takes over the reins. Stricken with panic, Dracula claims that he can’t let Johnny take over the hotel because humans are forbidden from ownership, as noted by real estate mandates.
In an effort to win Dracula’s approval and appease this faux legal restriction, Johnny undergoes a bolt of Van Helsing’s (Jim Gaffigan) mysterious “Monsterification Ray,” which turns our once-hapless husband into a fire-breathing dragon-like creature. In the process of trying to fix things, Dracula strips himself of his own powers, turning the once-immortal being into a balding, overweight, painfully average schlub. And not long thereafter, Drac’s friends also find themselves transformed out of their powers as well, and nobody is left happy…except for a freakishly handsome Frankenstein (Brad Abrell).
Now, with their mismatched new bodies, Johnny and Dracula must perilously venture across the globe in order to track the cure, and Dracula must contend with the terrors that come with being the most frightening, unpredictable, and hideous creature of them all: a human being. And mortal.
If there’s one thing in particular that I must commend this movie for, it’s providing young children with an early avenue into body horror. As you might expect from Transformania’s premise, this sequel is at its most amusing whenever it plays up the contorting, convulsing shapeshifting that comes from humans becoming monsters, and monsters becoming humans. The dorky reimagining of the past characters is fun and often inspired, and the transformation scenes bring the right warped energy.
Alas, despite this amusing premise, this sequel does little more with this idea than what’s seen in the trailer. Once we see our rebuffed characters, we don’t get more opportunities to watch them change back and forth or to witness other characters change from their original selves. It’s a missed opportunity, certainly, as the movie favors a fairly rote father-and-son road-trip adventure template—one that doesn’t lack energy but lacks worthwhile creativity.
The conventionality of the storytelling doesn’t so much defang the movie as much as it reminds you that there’s only so much that they can do with the Hotel Transylvania series at this point. While the third film was arguably the best of the bunch, as it felt the most indebted to Tartakovsky’s influence, it’s clear that his lack of involvement prevents this sequel from having his signature wit and precision. Transformania doesn’t feel off, per se, but it’s also apparent that one of our most revered animation filmmakers isn’t at the helm.
There’s little to make this sequel distinct or inventive. It settles on a familiar story and a familiar message, and there’s not much here that’ll stand out to anyone who has grown to love this series, its characters, and all their spooky, kooky goofiness.
And yet, there’s Hull. As the one performer with something to prove, he does infuse Dracula’s character with a great deal of pathos and sincerity. It does take a moment to get used to his own interpretation of the character, but it’s a solid impression, and once you get used to it, it’s easy to hear the heart that he’s bringing to this vocal performance. That’s not to say that Sandler didn’t have the franchise’s interest at heart, but it’s easy to appreciate the work that Hull is bringing to the forefront. In a sequel that otherwise shrugs when it comes to proving itself, this voice actor is doing all he can to make the most of his big break. If nothing else, he brings it — to endearing results.
Outside of this charming performance and several notable new character designs, Hotel Transylvania: Transformania is a lackluster conclusion to an animated series that never quite stood out much in a competitive market. I’ll admit that this franchise was never my favorite, but a sequel as middling as this film does make you yearn for the skill and slickness that Tartakovsky brought to the original trilogy. Without his involvement, Hotel Transylvania just isn’t the same. And while Hull more than serves as a suitable replacement for Sandler, his performance alone isn’t enough to justify bringing this series back from the dead. But hey, maybe it’ll get kids into David Cronenberg or Stuart Gordon. Stranger things have happened, I suppose.
Hotel Transylvania: Transformania is now available to stream on Prime Video. Watch the trailer here.