Aim low and you’ll rarely miss. That’s been the ethos of the Hotel Transylvania films ever since the very first one in 2012. Over the years, these movies have scored by never promising too much: Mix some obvious (but not necessarily unfunny) jokes, a by-the-numbers story, Adam Sandler doing the world’s worst Dracula accent (which, thanks to the alchemy of Sandler’s commitment to never committing, somehow becomes the world’s best Dracula accent), stitch it all together with some visual inventiveness courtesy of director and cult animator Genndy Tartakovsky, and voilà, you’ve got a hit.
But there was sweetness there as well. Over the years, the ongoing efforts of Sandler’s overprotective and doting Dracula to safeguard his family in various ways — whether by keeping his daughter Mavis (voiced by Selena Gomez) far from the human world or by making sure his grandkids got in touch with their monster ways — began to feel like an animated slapstick version of what might well have been the comedian’s own midlife angst. The Hotel Transylvania movies made sure nobody would ever mistake them for an Oscar-bound Pixar classic, but they weren’t entirely without heart, either. You could watch them with your kids and not feel your soul corroding into dust.
The fourth entry in the series, Hotel Transylvania: Transformania (out now on Amazon Prime Video, so your kids don’t even need you to take them anymore) mostly sticks to that established formula, though it’s hard not to feel like the dutifulness that always loomed over the previous films has now fully taken over the enterprise. It feels less like an animated romp among Sandler and his buddies and more like the paycheck gig it probably always was. Maybe because Sandler himself isn’t even there to begin with: He’s been replaced by impressionist comedian Brian Hull, who voiced the character in an earlier Hotel Transylvania short. Kevin James, who voiced Dracula’s good pal, the klutzy Frankenstein, has also left, replaced by Brad Abrell. Director Tartakovsky, too, is no longer behind the proverbial camera, though he retains a screenplay and an executive producer credit. The result feels like a serviceable imitation of something that was already a serviceable imitation of a real movie. A series partly defined by the easygoing charm of Sandler’s half-hearted voice work (remember, this is a character whose catchphrase is “Bleh, bleh, bleh”) now has someone trying very hard to imitate Sandler’s half-hearted voice work. It feels, frankly, kind of gauche.
The new picture begins with Dracula celebrating his hotel’s 125th anniversary with a secret plan to announce that he is retiring and handing the business over to Mavis (and, somewhat reluctantly, to her klutzy and annoyingly overenthusiastic human husband Johnny, still voiced by Andy Samberg). But when Drac’s secret spills out and Johnny gets a little too excited, the Count decides he can’t relinquish the hotel he spent more than a century building to his irritating son-in-law. Johnny, frustrated that Dracula will never accept him, enlists the aid of Professor Van Helsing (once the villain of the previous movie, now just a guy who hangs out in Dracula’s basement) to turn him into a monster using a special monster gun. (Van Helsing has a special monster gun.) In the ensuing chaos, Johnny is turned into an enormous dragon, Dracula is turned into a balding, middle-aged, out-of-shape human, and the two of them head to an unnamed South American country to locate the magic gem that powers the broken monster gun. (They broke the monster gun.)
Drac and Johnny’s journey through the rainforest is filled with fun gags, many of them built around Johnny gradually discovering his monster powers and Drac gradually discovering his human limitations. A little of this stuff goes a long way, but a lot of this stuff goes a little way, and Transformania wisely moves on to something else just as soon as any of its shtick starts to get annoying.
Of course, what made the previous Hotel Transylvania films fun were the many throwaways bits involving the supporting cast: The Wolfman (Steve Buscemi) eating a huge herd of sheep in order to clear a whole mountain path, the Invisible Man (David Spade) talking to his invisible (and possibly non-existent) girlfriend, the Blob using pieces of himself to power a sauna. The same goes for Transformania, though even these gags feel a bit more tired than usual. When the monster gun is used on Drac’s pals, Frankenstein is turned into a buff, floppy-haired, selfie-taking narcissist; the Invisible Man turns out (of course) to be totally naked; the Blob is reduced to a small inert pile of green Jell-O. You need not be a well-paid Hollywood screenwriter to come up with stuff like this, but that’s kind of the point: There is something inviting about such easy, casual humor. And while there aren’t any genuine belly laughs in the new movie, there are plenty of modestly likable, chucklesome ones. That ain’t nothing in this terrible, terrible world.
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