Hotel Transylvania: Transformania Review: No Sandler, But Your Kids Won’t Notice
Not long ago, a tweet went somewhat viral, with its author pointing out that the hardest thing about being a film critic wouldn’t be writing about the small percentage of films that we all really love or really hate, but the vast majority of the leftovers. The ones we watch simply because sometimes it’s enjoyable to watch a movie. When they end, we aren’t really left with much of an opinion — other than, perhaps, it was enjoyable way to pass the time.
For an example of such a film, take a look at “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania,” a harmless way to spend 90 minutes, preferably alongside your family. Spoiler alert: If you hated any of the first three “Hotel Transylvania” animated films, you’ll hate this one as well; if you loved them, this is more of that.
This time around, the seemingly-always-expanding monster gang (which includes such notable voice actors as Andy Samberg, Selena Gomez, Steve Buscemi, David Spade, Keegan-Michael Key, and Jim Gaffigan — albeit this time without leader Adam Sandler, who has left the series and is replaced by Brian Hull) has gathered together to celebrate the 125th anniversary of their titular hotel. Dracula (Hull) has been considering his succession plan, and is on the verge of making a big announcement: he’s going to hand the keys to the hotel over to his daughter Mavis (Gomez). As he comes to realize, however, giving control to Mavis means the hotel will also be run by her flaky, dim, ne’er-do-well husband Johnny (Samberg).
Drac backs out, causing Johnny to seek out help from Van Helsing (Gaffigan) in the belief that the only way he can ever truly be part of the family (and its business) is by becoming a monster. Of course, Van Helsing just so happens to have a device that can transform humans into monsters — and as Dracula and several of the other monsters later discover, much to their dismay, can also do the opposite.
As tends to happen in films like these, the monster ray requires a crystal, which is promptly broken; the only way for Johnny and Dracula to return to their normal forms is if they venture together to the jungles of South Africa to retrieve a new gem. After they learn what’s going on, the rest of the monster mashers head there as well to help out.
Obviously, much of this is just an extremely convoluted way to get Drac and Johnny to walk a mile in the other’s shoes and learn some empathy for their in-law. Kids will find Samberg’s voice work as Johnny quite funny as he gleefully discovers life as a long-tailed, dragon-type monster. The funnier moments, however, might hover around Dracula’s attempts to grapple with being an ordinary human and the spills, pains, and bug bites that entails.
Johnny joins the monsters
But perhaps funniest of all are the invisible man (Spade), mummy (Key), and Frankenstein monster (Brad Abrell, taking over here for Kevin James), now transformed into a nude Larry Fine lookalike, an absurdly old man, and a handsome guy with great hair, respectively. These comic relief back-up monsters have always been the best part of the “Hotel Transylvania” films, and that is certainly still the case here. Oh, and what happens when the effects of Van Helsing’s weaponry hits Blobby, the green monster? Naturally, he just becomes a lifeless plate of Jell-O the other characters have to carry around with them for half the movie, hoping to eventually re-animate.
From there, “Transformania” is content to stuff itself with fish-out-of-water gags and ride out the rest of its runtime with some tender “aww…” family moments. Is there any doubt everything will be sorted out by the end? Is there any doubt that once they’ve seen life through the experiences of the other, Johnny and Dracula will return to the family with a newfound appreciation for each other? In some ways, it’s all so simple and predictable — in others, it’s head-and-shoulders better than last year’s “Addams Family 2,” which is a franchise that seems to have focus-grouped all the edge off its spooky family shenanigans. At least this Dracula tale can still amuse children and retain some of its bite.
Also preferable is the animated style for the “Transylvania” films, defined largely by the great Genndy Tartakovsky (this time serving as an executive producer and writer), and although very much computer-created, managing considerable warmth and personality. And although the removal of Sandler and James would seem to indicate a watering down of the Happy Madison-like charm of the previous movies (which, it should be noted, were not official Happy Madison productions, even if they did maintain much of the Sandler troupe), kids won’t notice.
Sometimes even monsters get scared
It’s also interesting how each film in the franchise seems to have less and less to do with the hotel. In 2018’s “Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation,” the monsters spent most of the film on a cruise ship; this time, they spend the majority of their time in the jungle or otherwise traipsing around the world. It seems to be working, as the third film was the best. Supposedly, this is the final film in the series — but if “Hotel Transylvania” ever does come back, it would be nice to see the emphasis on the “Hotel” again.
Perhaps the best sequence in “Transformania” comes when Ericka Van Helsing (Kathryn Hahn) becomes determined to locate the crystal, deep in the jungle. Throwing the gang in her top-down utility vehicle with a license plate reading “MNSTR HNTR,” they speed off, transforming into an amphibian vehicle and riding the rapids — all while clinging to that plate of Jell-O. Like a lot of franchises four films deep, there are so many characters at this point that the joke becomes how many of them there are, as much as how funny any of their individual plotlines might be. Still, watching them all climb over each other and scream for help as various obstacles get in their way, it’s hard to not crack a smile.
If you and your family have come to know and love this particular family, you’ll find “Transformania” to be a pleasant visit with some old friends. Is it the sort of movie that you will really love or really hate? Nah. But as far as “Hotel Transylvania” movies are concerned, this definitely ranks in the top four.