What is it about Hotel Transylvania: Transformania that even the biggest name involved opted out of returning? And how is it that one individual’s lack of presence somehow opens all doors and windows to previously admissible or neglectable flaws? Those were the questions hovering above my head as this fourth installment of Sony Animation’s lengthiest franchise played out. No longer a series of promise, persistently bogged down by comic and tonal inconsistencies, the pandemic somewhat sealed its fate. Even with being touted as the final film of its sort, its direct to video-like stench is both insulting and fitting, when considering its unceremonious landing onto Prime. How the mighty have been willingly usurped.
Sandler used to play the daring, fuddy-duddy, old school patriarch known as Dracula. As the titular hotel’s owner and proprietor, he always kept a tight and exciting ship welcoming in varied mythical horror movie creatures. Many of whom either becoming frequent guests or permanent residents; it is really difficult to tell since the same cast carries over somewhat. With the character recast by voice actor and internet impressionist Brian Hull, the cape wearing stranger suddenly has so little to work with. Drac had once faced an identity crisis and rediscovering romance after years of solo brooding, while raising daughter Mavis (Selena Gomez) into a noble, independent woman.
Far from easy work, but even with the smallest inkling of a relatable plot, all that character building is simply deconstructed. Upon the hotel’s 125th anniversary, and through the support of new wife Ericka (Kathryn Hahn), Drac is looking to transfer ownership to Mavis, but not necessarily to her human hubby Johnny (Andy Samberg). All he sees in the hipster is foreshadowed screw-ups and failure, but Drac keeps it vague to spare any hurt feelings. It quickly convinces Johnny, in order to be seen differently by his in-law and dismiss that big picture fear of tarnished legacy, to become a monster himself. Though the best laid plans, particularly those assisted by a nefarious scientist like Dr. Van Helsing (Jim Gaffigan), pose extreme side effects, as the transformative ray used on Johnny causes an unstable chain reaction, and in turn a wild father/son bonding road trip where any manner of generic hijinks are sure to occur.
And “generic” might be putting it lightly, after three prior films where none of them were perfect. The previous installment was enough of an improvement from the second, on merits of its experimenting with deeper ensemble comedy. And all of this in the careful, skilled, zany hands of legendary cartoonist Gennedy Tartakovsky (Primal) as director. Not as such here, with Jennifer Kluska (DC Super Hero Girls) and Derek Drymon (SpongeBob SquarePants) both making their feature directorial debut. Their experience with family-oriented television animation, each of them having helmed their own HT offshoot short as a precursor to this point, really does not help their creative strategy.
Yes, Tartakovsky is still involved, having chipped in on the script. But that is where his unique zippy style stops short; translating it for the screen does mean it’s there, albeit in a hollow-minded sense. So much that it was frustrating, unfunny, and lacking in energy. Even with the likes of David Spade’s Invisible Man, Steve Buscemi’s Wolfman and Keegan-Michael Key’s cocky mummy returning, all motivation is eschewed by very inexperienced direction.
Gomez’s Mavis remains unchallenged or unfazed, maintaining a fair sense of compassionate perception, the type prone to slow evolution. I’d say the same toward the usually steady Samberg as well, if only his antics could be toned down. But it was always Sandler’s mere omniscience, and often his loud voice in the writer’s room, that usually made this series gel as well as they had been. He gave the role of Drac a certain comic gravitas as middle age often insists on. That and a natural grip on timing and rhythm are elements Hull’s portrayal could not even dream of replicating.
So much of the character’s deeper nuance is lost, torn up, and thrown out a fiery trashbin, in favor of something that sounds like Sandler, but lacks the embodied soul of a character in a crisis of legacy. And this fourth film, especially, does tackle that on, but really to no consequential end whose gags and pun work lose steam too quickly. Even the moments where the nascent attempt to rip off any manner of 80s adventure flick (think Raiders or Romancing the Stone), flattering as they appear, only add to the laundry list of frustration. A sensation not unfamiliar to lower-tier animation, but especially ingratiating with how much this franchise (also factoring in a watered down TV spinoff) has inadvertently stumbled, then fallen off a sliding scale.
Were this story occupied with a firmer grip in Tartakovsky’s familiar Saturday morning flair, we’d be speaking on better terms toward this fourquel. Despite the remnants of a crackerjack cast adequately compensating for lost momentum, this old myth series finds itself limping to the finish, tired and aimless. That’s the mildly sad reality with Hotel Transylvania: Transformania, for all its shifts and adjustments, we in turn lose sight of what made these films click to a degree that left everyone entertained. I suspect the youngest viewers may not know the difference, but surely the grownups might. It’s a disappointment in its most accurate definition, arriving in January before shuffling itself out of the conversation. Probably worth one watch for completionists’ sake, if only to see these madcap characters run amok with mild elasticity once more. Otherwise, might be better to say this venture stops at an odd number. (D+; 2/5 Horns Up!)
Hotel Transylvania: Transformania streams on Prime Video beginning January 14; rated PG for some action and rude humor including cartoon nudity; 88 minutes.