With Hotel Transylvania: Transformania, the fourth Hotel Transylvania film, the series is undeniably beginning to show signs of age. Adam Sandler’s absence is felt deeply, and although it has an interesting story, it fails to delve into some of its ideas as much as it could. It commits the sin of a sequel that rehashes a conflict that had already been resolved in an earlier film simply because it doesn’t quite know what else to do with the characters. Still, Transformania has its charms and is a perfectly serviceable fourth entry in a series that has always been more entertaining than it had any right to be.
With the Hotel Transylvania franchise, creator Todd Durham has built a series that grapples with the tension between insiders and outsiders in a kid-friendly way. The original film subverts expectations by having traditional monsters depicted as a persecuted minority, only safe in the shadows at a forbidding castle resort where they could be amongst people like themselves. This concept is subverted once again by the introduction of a human character, Johnny (Andy Samberg), who is a member of mainstream society but nonetheless an outsider within the walls of Hotel Transylvania. Each film in the series explores this interpersonal conflict, as characters struggle to overcome their prejudices and initial impressions of one another, working to build a blended family of vampires and humans living in harmony.
Count Dracula (Brian Hull, doing his best Adam Sandler impersonation) certainly isn’t getting any younger. With a new lady in his life (Kathryn Hahn), he’s ready to retire as a hotelier, passing the family business down to his daughter Mavis (Selena Gomez) and her husband, Johnny. But while he trusts Mavis to carry on the family legacy, he panics at the last moment before making the announcement, terrified at the thought of Johnny running his beloved hotel. To avoid coming right out and saying that, he invents an absurd real estate law on the spot, saying that only monsters can inherit property from other monsters. Naturally, this leads Johnny to believe that he can solve all their problems by simply becoming a monster himself, something that Great-Grandpappy Van Helsing (Jim Gaffigan) is more than willing to help with. Things go awry, predictably, and the end result sees Johnny a rapidly devolving monster and Count Dracula, as well as his crew of monster friends, trapped as humans. To turn them back, they’ll have to travel to South America to track down a mysterious gemstone – before it’s too late.
It’s fun to see Drac stuck in a human body, bemoaning how useless it is and, at one point, having the tables turned on him as he is devoured by mosquitos, the vampires of the insect world. But it doesn’t do as much with the concept as one might expect: Both with Dracula and the other monsters, who suddenly find themselves transformed, any exploration of humanity is purely surface-level. Although Johnny and Dracula have some nice moments of father-son bonding, it’s hard not to feel like we have both been there and done that. Dracula learns to welcome Johnny into the family and appreciate his unique qualities, and in each film, it seems like they start from the beginning again, with little progress made. Here, at least, Dracula gets the opportunity to develop a newfound appreciation for what Johnny goes through as a human.
There’s another lingering issue, and that’s the person who links Johnny and Dracula together: Mavis. It’s hard to justify precisely how much Mavis is sidelined in this movie and how her identity as a person is entirely defined by her role as Dracula’s daughter and Johnny’s wife. It’s pretty disappointing when you go from the first film, where she has dreams and a personality all her own, to what we see in this film. At a certain point, you have to wonder if she does anything at all with her days besides playing peacemaker between her father and husband. Furthermore, Johnny’s schtick works better when it’s balanced out by Mavis, so it seems like a mistake to separate them for the majority of the film just to add more Johnny/Drac antics.
Transformania is not without its high points, though. There’s an appealing action-adventure atmosphere in the film’s third act, with Hahn’s Ericka Van Helsing delivering an Indiana Jones-style chase sequence through the jungle. The characters remain as endearing as ever, no mean feat after four films. And although it is, as a franchise, beginning to feel a bit tired, fans of Hotel Transylvania will likely find plenty to enjoy. Transformania is an adequate, not inspired, conclusion to the series: it fails to match the original film’s charm. Still, it sums up enough spirit to avoid being a complete disappointment.