Alex is a School of Visual Arts graduate with a passion for media, writing and animation. He writes reviews for film, television, and games.
Have you ever seen a film franchise that you wanted to see because your favorite filmmaker is attached to it? Even when it has flaws, do you still have a soft side because you know you can’t blame the filmmaker you admire? Well, that's what most people felt when animator Gennedy Tartakovsky entered the film industry.
I grew up watching Gennedy Tartakovsky’s works, whether it was Dexter’s Laboratory or Samurai Jack. I was quite intrigued when he made his directorial debut with Hotel Transylvania. To this day, it is considered one of the most successful animated film franchises under Sony Pictures Animation. Yet, it is also one of the most polarized animated film franchises under Sony Pictures Animation.
On the one hand, there are people that enjoy the zany and humorous animation and have called them one of the “best” Adam Sandler movies in years…which is saying a lot. On the other hand, others would find these as silly kid distractions around the Halloween season with not much material for anyone to get worth investing in. Personally, I’m in the middle when it comes to these movies. They’re not great nor terrible films in general.
Even when Sony Pictures Animation is slowly redeeming itself with Spiderman: Into the Spider-Verse and a couple of Netflix exclusive movies, releasing the fourth and final installment felt desperate under their business standards. For starters, Gennedy Tartakovsky did not return as director, though he is still producing and in charge of the story. In his place, storyboard artist Jennifer Kluska and former SpongeBob Squarepants director Derek Drymon took the directing chair. Many of the actors have reprised their roles…except for Adam Sandler. Instead, we have YouTube impressionist Brian Hull. On top of that, the movie was originally planned for theatrical release but got pushed back and forth due to competition and new COVID-19 cases. Ultimately, Sony struck a deal with Amazon and released on their Prime Video streaming service. Come to think of it, that should’ve been the case from the start. So, with all those delays, what note did this movie end on?
After a scientific experiment turns Johnny (voiced by Andy Samberg) into a monster and Dracula (voiced by Brian Hull) into a human, both must travel to the Amazon to find a cure.
Drac and Johnny's Fun Yet Predictable Adventure
Although Gennedy Tartakovsky isn't directing, I'll give him credit for developing an ingenious story concept that will conclude the series in style. There are a lot of creative opportunities with the idea of Johnny turning into a monster and Dracula and his friends turning human. The idea of them heading out on an adventure in the Amazon sounds exciting and would lend the story a cinematic scope. Even references to the first film help empathize that this is the end of the series.
When it comes to its execution, however, the story mostly gets underwhelming. Dracula is planning his retirement yet has trouble leaving his hotel to both Mavis and Johnny. You could guess where the story goes from there. It is anonymous that storytelling was never the franchise’s selling point. I understand it wants to be character-driven, but their motivation for doing so makes that character either stupid or selfish. Not to mention having a running time of almost 90 minutes, it's straightforward for either the right or wrong reasons to flesh out the characters. Comparing this and the previous movie, the adventurous feeling would be short-lived while the villainous plan from the last year one had more build-up and creativity (despite its predictability).
...Now that I think about it, this film is simpler and does not have as many subplots as the third; it may be intentional that it wanted to get this story over with.
Thankfully, once the concept comes into play, there are two factors that keep it away from being completely bad. One is the franchise’s signature trait: the humor and visual gags. While the comedy is hit-and-miss, there are legit moments where I cracked a smile or laughed out loud. Half of the Amazon scenes are still set-ups for jokes rather than an actual adventure. Then again, the climax alone makes the journey worth it and fun to watch. Second is its message of never fearing the worst and looking for the best in life. This almost sums up the whole story in general: the story and characters may not win people over, but the creativity and innocence will.
Cartoony Yet Creative Animation
While Sony Pictures Animation is experimenting with new animation mediums for other projects, they return to the familiar territory of making the movie look like a Saturday morning cartoon.
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Gennedy’s character designs do translate decently into 3D where each human looks simplified and each monster has a variety of designs. The character animation is, once again, erratic with an over-emphasis on squash-and-stretch and exaggerated poses. It is still debatable whether this type of animation is suitable for theaters or television only. But, to be fair, this stylized animation does have its benefits.
When the subtitle of the fourth movie is “Transformania”, it does not shy away from the transformation sequences. Though over-the-top, the transformation scenes are a visual highlight displaying every detail of how Johnny and Dracula (and later his friends) would change. It even shows how bigger and grotesque the longer the transformed subject would become. Not to mention some neat effects animation from the Monsterification Ray and the visual gags on the machinery that help Van Helsing move.
The background animation (particularly the hotel itself) remains unchanged and is average at best. The sole exception is the Amazon Rainforest where it is vibrant and colorful to look at. It fits the adventure genre with lush greenery and scaled mountains along with a cave full of crystals that benefit the climax.
Additionally, do you remember that each 2-D animated credit sequence had a blank red background with the characters randomly appearing? Without giving anything away, this installment has the best 2-D credits sequences where everything is colorful, detailed and the characters' designs were slightly altered.
The only downside I would give to the animation is the lackluster world-building. Going back to the previous film, Summer Vacation, at least, had some creative attempts to expand the world with its own interpretations. It may be cartoony for a mixed bag of reasons, but there was a sense of effort thrown in and the concept executes the visuals more effectively than the writing and characters.
Mishmash Monster Mash of Characters
Hotel Transylvania is one of many animated franchises to have a large number of characters that either simple, show support, supply some laughs, or don’t have much personality. Then again, that is kind of the point since comedy is usually their specialty. They aren’t unlikeable or anything, just simplified to the point where anyone could understand. This follow-up mainly focuses on Count Dracula and Johnny.
Like before, Dracula is the over-protective yet caring owner of both his family and hotel. Even though his fears of not leaving the hotel to Mavis and Johnny are understandable, it feels kind of pointless and could’ve easily been avoided. Speaking of Johnny, he is Drac’s fun-loving son-in-law who tries his best to make both Mavis and Dracula happy. Though his optimism may irritate some viewers, his heart is still in the right place. It kind of makes sense to make him a focal character since he was the sole reason that changed Dracula’s life. Yes, their bonding definitely made the story predictable, but at least the elements around them make up for it.
Dracula’s daughter Mavis and his new wife Ericka Vam Helsing both share roles as emotional support while Dracula’s friends and the reformed Abraham Van Helsing serve as comic reliefs, with the latter having a point in progressing the plot further.
As one-dimensional as they could be, the voice acting does help bring life into the characters. Most of the actors returned with the exception of Adam Sandler and Kevin James. While Brad Abrell does an okay performance as Frankenstein, Brian Hull surprisingly does a spot-on impression as Dracula. I am familiar with Brian and his YouTube channel on impersonating Disney characters. Despite not getting top billing, Brian makes this movie by capturing the voice and mannerisms of Adam Sandler. Even with decent voice acting, the characters are too simple to make them memorable after the fourth time.
Overall, Hotel Transylvania: Transformania is the middling conclusion of a franchise in both good and bad ways. The bad side of the spectrum is where it has a predictable plot, over-reliable animation, and dry characters. The good side of the spectrum is that it has a straightforward and creative scenario, selectively executed animation, some laughs, and satisfactory voice acting. Did this sequel need to exist? To a lesser extent, yes. Still, it is clear that Sony Pictures Animation wanted to move on after their past mistakes and wanted to end this decade-long series on a somewhat average note. I’d admire the effort but it could've been tweaked in some areas.
If you are a fan of Genndy Tartatovsky or the film series, it is recommended to watch, at least, once. Families would have a nice time watching it as an adequate distraction around the Halloween season. For those that were never fans, you are not missing much. The movie is currently available to watch on Amazon Prime Video streaming.