The basic idea at the heart of the animated “Hotel Transylvania” movies has never exactly been dignifying toward some of cinema history’s most feared classical monsters. The blood-thirsty Count Dracula reimagined as a fretting, overprotective dad straight out of “Father of the Bride”? A shy Invisible Man, a phobic Frankenstein, a toilet-clogging Bigfoot and a gang of other famous beasts vacationing at their vampire pal’s secluded gothic resort, just to escape the terrors of ordinary humans that they somehow fear?
Still, Genndy Tartakovsky’s wildly successful first film was winsome enough with its amusing albeit one-note witticisms about monster-verse clichés and Adam Sandler’s wickedly spirited voice performance as the bleh-bleh-bleh-averse Drac, before a pair of bland cash-cow sequels (also helmed by Tartakovsky) sucked all the life out of a decent premise. Releasing on Prime Video this week, co-directors Derek Drymon and Jennifer Kluska’s pointless chapter “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania” follows in the boring footsteps of those lackluster sequels, demonstrating that there isn’t anything worthwhile left here to gnaw on, while further embarrassing the series’ central creatures, this time by transforming them into regular mortals.
If a monster-centric cartoon franchise (that was never cleverly funny like Pixar’s “Monsters, Inc.” to begin with) mostly discards its supply of ever-intriguing brutes, you might rightfully wonder: What’s the draw? In that regard, even the unsuspecting little ones might feel betrayed by this new (and thankfully final) installment’s slim appeal once the smooth and well-mannered Drac loses his shiny hair, sharp fangs and floating skills early on in the film and acquires a love of the sun, a taste for marshmallows and, well, lame allergies later on. The overcrowded story, packed to the gills with sidekicks and forgettable jokes, doesn’t help either.
And yet, co-writers Tartakovsky, Nunzio Randazzo and Amos Vernon set out to invent one almost stubbornly, retrofitting an awkward body-swap-adjacent formula (one character calls it “Freaky Friday, but on a Tuesday”) into a tired narrative. The result is yet another wearisome tale that inelegantly depicts themes like acceptance, understanding and diversity within a saga that has always been rather clumsy with its messaging around such weighty topics.
Capably played by Brian Hull (who achieves the impossible task of seamlessly inheriting the longtime Drac character from Sandler), the workaholic, control-freak Count is haunted by his impending retirement in “Transformania.” Reluctantly preparing to pass his hotel on to his beloved, coolly composed daughter Mavis (Selena Gomez) and her goofily frenzied human husband Jonathan (Andy Samberg), who has all sorts of unorthodox ideas about the future of the venture, the ancient Drac longs for a quieter life with his new bride Ericka (Kathryn Hahn), Van Helsing’s (Jim Gaffigan) commanding great-granddaughter introduced in the previous film.
But things don’t go according to plan once Drac falls victim to a mysterious invention by the scheming Van Helsing that converts the “Drac Pack” into humans and the happy Johnny into a massive, spiky, dragon-like monster. Alarmed about the prospect of being stuck in his new powerless body permanently, Drac joins forces with his zany son-in-law on a quest through the Amazons, to recover the magical stone that can reverse the effects of the catastrophic accident.
What follows is a loud, uninspired and squarely animated voyage that ditches the grounds of the titular hotel for a predictable journey of self-discovery as well as intergenerational (and inter-specifies) bonding. It would have been one thing if the team of writers could sell a sense of danger through the duo’s adventurous trip, especially when an increasingly demented Johnny starts embracing his new monster persona a little too enthusiastically, neglecting his kind and exuberant character in the course. But the film often feels like a safe and soulless theme-park ride devoid of stakes as it reaches its overstuffed final act.
Humor is also in short supply here. The-Drac-Pack-as-normies jokes overstay their welcome in particular, distractingly littering the story with unfunny gags around a now selfie-obsessed, narcissistic Frankenstein’s (Brad Abrell) handsome human looks, Mummy Murray’s (Keegan-Michael Key) roots as a grouchy pharaoh, Werewolf Wayne’s hairy past and Invisible Man Griffin’s (David Spade) stark-naked body. Also disheartening is the film’s view of an average person’s aging process: “Transformania” comes dangerously close to body-shaming when some members of the temporarily humanized pack grow potbellies in scenes that play for inconsiderate laughs.
But cheap slapstick comedy is not even the biggest lapse of judgment in “Transformania,” a sequel so over-pleased with itself that it sees no reason to preserve what has always been the franchise’s main attraction: the glorious monsters. How bleh bleh bleh…