Hotel Transylvania: Transformania and all the images you see in this review are owned by Amazon Studios
Directed by Jennifer Kluska & Derek Drymon
The Hotel Transylvania series is probably my favorite ongoing animated franchise of the last decade which SOUNDS like high praise, but there’s definitely a bit of backhanded-ness to that compliment. The first one is the only film I would classify as a masterpiece, and frankly, any animated series still getting theatrical (or theatrical-ish) distribution past the first sequel are becoming increasingly rare. Even Disney who have been churning out nostalgia bait for years now are at least keeps it diverse by giving each series one sequel or remake instead of putting all their eggs in one property’s basket, so while I can respect Hotel Transylvania for keeping itself going for as long as it has, each sequel is a bit more foreboding than the last, and the fact that Sony is opting to give this to Amazon Prime instead of going for a theatrical run (despite the films being huge moneymakers) is not what I would call a good sign. Still, the money is still there as the trailers looked very well animated, and the strange machinations of studio politics behind the scenes are hardly a barometer of quality! Does this manage to reach the dizzying heights of the original film, or are we dizzy because the franchise is in a tailspin? Let’s find out!!
Much like the film series itself, the titular Hotel Transylvania has been going on and on for a very long time, so Dracula (Brian Hulf) has decided that it is time to retire and plans on giving the hotel to Mavis (Selena Gomez) and her husband Johnny (Andy Samberg) so he can spend more time with his new wife Ericka (Kathryn Hahn). Mavis and Johnny catch wind of this however, and Dracula gets spooked once he sees Johnny starting to flip out in his overly enthusiastic manner, so Dracula changes course and will continue to run the place; coming up with a lie that he can’t hand it over to Johnny since he is a human. Naturally, Johnny figures the only way to fix this is to turn into a monster himself, and oh look! Van Helsing (Jim Gaffigan) happens to have some sort of crystal that turns humans into monsters and monsters into humans. Through wacky shenanigans and poor luck on Drac’s part, he and his monster pals Frank, Murry, Wayne, and Griffin (Brad Abrell, Keegan-Michael Key, Steve Buscemi, and David Spade) while Johnny becomes a lizard guy, and none of this can be reversed because the crystal broke. Instead, Johnny and Drac are going to need to find a new crystal which is hidden in a South American Rainforest, and naturally Mavis is kept in the dark about all of this because that’s how Dracula handles things despite three movies now telling him that’s not the best course of action. Will Johnny and Drac succeed in their quest for the crystal, and will Drac gain a newfound respect for Johnny along the way? How long can Frank, Murray, Wayne, and Griffin keep this secret from everyone else, and will Ericka and Mavis just sit around doing nothing while their respective husbands are missing? Speaking of sitting around and doing nothing, wasn’t there a kid in these movies at one point? Eh, probably not important!
I’m probably not breaking any hearts here by telling you all that this movie is not very good. The fact is that the Hotel Transylvania series started going downhill as soon it became a series, and while the goodwill of that phenomenal first movie let it skate by for a while, I think we’re finally at the point where even I am telling them to just stop; especially since they couldn’t even get Adam Sandler to come back to play Dracula. It’s not a terrible movie and there are a few gags in here that did get a chuckle out of me, but the fact that we’re four movies deep with no sign of improvement tells me that they should cut their losses while they can. Of course they probably won’t since the movies keep making money for Sony, and frankly if I had been younger when these things came out, this whole mess would have become my villain origin story. Fortunately, I don’t feel the need to protect my faves from the ceaseless and uncaring march of time (looking at you, Star Wars fanboys), but it’s no less disappointing to see how thoroughly they’ve run out of ideas and are just going through the motions until the wheels fall off this franchise.
What works about the movie is what has worked about it since the beginning; mainly its very cartoony art style and some of its slapstick humor. There’s a creative verve on display with these films that is always fun to see. The creature designs are still good, the animation is bouncy and full of squash and stretch which add a lot of personality to the characters, and there are at least some jokes that work here. I just wish it was more consistent because it feels like those good jokes are written and animated by a particularly inspired team while the rest of the movie feels like a half-hearted effort by a burnt-out studio. Far too much of this movie relies on loud noises and flailing of limbs instead of using such actions to punctuate interesting scenes, and the frantic pace of it all means that very few scenes are allowed to breathe long enough for a genuine emotion or character moment to occur. It’s a problem of weightlessness as the consequences and drama feel absent from the many dangerous situations they find themselves in which makes it hard for genuine laughs or genuine suspense to occur. I did really like one action scene towards the end that cleverly used shadows to shield a vampire from the sun, but aside from that there aren’t really any notable set pieces where the spectacle can carry the scene and the humor is simply not up to the task of supporting this movie on its own.
It would have helped the humor and action if the story was up to snuff, but Hotel Transylvania is continuing to devolve deeper and deeper into lazy sequel plots. If a Vacation movie didn’t seem like the most obvious idea imaginable, then why not do a Trading Places bit while lifting whole plot points from the first movie? If I was being charitable, I’d say they were trying to get back to what the original was about, but the fact is that you can’t go back without erasing what made that movie so great! Dracula having control issues has been a running theme throughout each of the movies, but at least the previous sequels found new angles that made sense for his character. Here, he’s back to not trusting anyone to do anything and so builds a web of lies that even the characters in the movie are pointing out as being a total jerk move, but the movie just keeps going with it; trying to find some way to recreate the Johnny/Drac magic of the first film (with the roles somewhat reversed), and the tension between him and Mavis that was the core emotional thread that turned that movie from merely fantastic to an outright masterpiece. It also manages to regress in one other way as Dennis, the grandson who was the big status quo change for the first sequel, is sidelined once again. No big surprise I suppose as that pretty much happened in the third film, but now it’s being done to an almost distressing degree as he’s simply written out of the movie after two quick scenes with no one seeming to care about where he is or what he’s doing! There’s simply no weight and tension here from the slapdash and lackluster narrative, and once again, the great animation can only do so much to compensate for how lifeless and mundane it all feels.
The thing is that I expected the plot to be a mess and for it to feel as substantial as a puff of air, but what I was not expecting and what made this pretty heartbreaking to see is that I just stopped caring about the characters. They all just feel like empty ciphers at this point as they go through the motions without any heart or conviction. Even Erika, who’s only on her second outing and her first one as a proper protagonist, feels like she’s wasting her time here and has simply faded into the background miasma of recurring characters whose only purpose in the movie is to drag the supporting cast from one place to another. The movie is supposedly about Dracula’s retirement from the hotel, and yet there’s never a genuine moment between them where they talk about what that means for their relationship or what they plan to do with their time, and it feels like such a waste given what the last movie was about. Characters that were once fun, dynamic, and full of depth, just feel like hollow shells of their former selves as each sequel has repeated the same plot threads over and over again with this one being the most blatant so far, and I don’t know if I can sit through another one of these if this is the direction they’re going in. It at least helps that they didn’t introduce any new characters here (the closest we get is human/monster alternatives to the established cast), but at this rate, I can’t see another sequel being able to right the ship.
Entropy is a heck of a thing, and it’s hit the Hotel Transylvania series pretty hard. I still can’t quite bring myself to say it’s a terrible movie as the visuals are still flashy and there’s enough humor there to at least keep you mildly entertained, but for anyone who is not a young child, it definitely feels like the last remaining magic of this series has been drained away. If you have kids and were just as enamored by this franchise as I was, then you will probably find it to be inoffensive and perfectly suitable as intended. I started this review saying that I don’t feel the need to be protecting my faves the way that certain other fandoms do, and perhaps reading everything that followed makes the statement seem utterly laughable. I admit that I probably am being too hard on this movie given my genuine love for the first one and that letting this one go for the kids to enjoy is perhaps for the best. I will still hold up the original as a masterpiece, but after I’m done with this review, I don’t plan on harping on its decline any further. Unless of course, they make another one and I end up seeing it. Perhaps I’ll indulge in a bit more whining if that one turns out to be worse, but for now, this is a simple farewell to a series that perhaps never lived up to its potential but was still pretty entertaining! Well… at least until we got to this one… and then there was the TV show… but the game on 3DS was pretty decent, right!?