Genndy Tartakovsky was a steady hand for Hotel Transylvania. When a director leaves their series, after a multi-picture run, sometimes the shape of the movies gets lost. The shape of Hotel Transylvania was already being diverted in the last movie, a rote animated family goes on a summer vacation picture, yet that one was still animated with all the fluency of a Saturday Morning Cartoon. That’s Genndy Tartakovsky’s gift. Co-directors Derek Drymon (writer for SpongeBob Squarepants) and Jennifer Kluska (producer of basic children’s entertainment) have the unenviable task of following one of the best animation directors in the game. Said to be the last film in the franchise, Hotel Transylvania: Transformania shows what sometimes happens with new hands on a project: it fundamentally changes core characters and the attributes that made them interesting within their stories.
Adam Sandler is also out as Dracula. No more “Blah Blah Blah,” although that would be the appropriate tagline for this movie. With Sandler out, it’s a big blow to the central identity of the film, a known performer giving a silly and outsized portrayl of a character as cinematic as Dracula. That’s just pure fun. Voice actor Brian Hull steps in, doing an impression of Adam Sandler doing Dracula, but he just doesn’t have the sauce; he lacks that Eternal Dad energy that the Sandman brought to the character. Moving up the casting sheet, that now means Andy Samberg is first call and top billing, so his Jonathan, a character who is most interesting as a fish-out-of-water married into a supernatural family, now becomes the main character.
The new premise shifts what was always central about these characters. Dracula is turned into a human; Johnny is turned into a monster. Van Helsing created a “Monsterfication Ray” that Freaky Friday-fied the whole scenario. This misses the fundamental purpose of Johnathan in the story, of course, while Mavis (still Selena Gomez and that’s good) gets sidelined at the castle, while Dracula and Jonathan go hunt for a gem in South America that can restore their former monster and human selves. Shame to side-line Mavis, any study by the executives should find that young girls find her relatable and sweet; I have the five year old to prove it.
So, it’s another journey. This one without so much of the traveling tension of the monsters paired with their monster hunters. Also, without so much of the maritime theme that made the last one sing, even when it escaped the locations of the first films. Gone too is much of the humor and joy of the characters. New voices means new perspectives and can be a breath of fresh air. Here, it’s reductive, and either simplifies or misses the story driven purpose of characters by transforming them out of their natural roles.
There is still some of the natural Genndy Tartakovsky DNA. He has stayed on as a producer (although Adam Sandler hasn’t) and receives screenplay credits for the characters he has invented. There is a fragment of the usual Saturday Morning Cartoon vibrancy. Characters still transmute up, over, and around objects. Dracula still flattens out and prances on all fours like Bugs Bunny. There’s just a bit less of that, it’s not the focus of the animation. Now, everything is like most of the modern animated entertainment, all plot driven, with less character and distinctive flair.
That’s not to say Transformia is a terrible movie. There is still talent involved. Still some good voice actors. Andy Samberg is always able to carry more weight and he does it. The diverting plotting, once again, doesn’t make it a natural fit for the Halloween holidays (shame that’s not what this series could have stayed as), but the last movie didn’t either. So, it wasn’t terrible when the release date kept shifting. When it didn’t come to theaters. When it was announced Sony sold it to Amazon for streaming outright… for $100 Million. When it was delayed three more months into the oft-neglected January schedule (which doesn’t mean squat this year, the schedule is so ruined right now).
We still like to spend time with these characters. There’s still just a little juice left, enough to make this fourth movie, and stop for good. It’s also good that Genndy Tartakovsky gets to move on. That Adam Sandler gets to go make an award worthy movie like Uncut Gems then make money from some terrible Netflix movies. Good for him. His spirit is missed, but we have those first three movies, and now we have a fourth that isn’t the same but brings back old friends for one more run. It was unlikely that any of these would have been so good, so it’s not shocking when a fourth movie by new people isn’t as good. This is what we might’ve expected from the average studio animation. What Hotel Transylvania would have been if it were made by anyone else, a bog standard escape from the heaviness of the world.