Review: ‘Hotel Transylvania: Transformania,’ starring the voices of Brian Hull, Andy Samberg, Selena Gomez, Brad Abrell, Steve Buscemi, David Spade, Keegan-Michael Key and Kathryn Hahn

January 14, 2022

by Carla Hay

Blobby (voiced by Genndy Tartakovsky), Wanda (voiced by Molly Shannon), Wayne (voiced by Steve Buscemi), Griffin the Invisible Man (voiced by David Spade), Ericka (voiced by Kathryn Hahn), Dracula (voiced by Brian Hull), Jonathan (voiced by Andy Samberg), Mavis (voiced by Selena Gomez), Frank (voice by Brad Abrell), Eunice (voiced by Fran Drescher), Murray (voiced by Keegan-Michael Key) with (pictured at far right, in the front row) Dennis (voiced by Asher Blinkoff) and Winnie (voiced by Zoe Berri) in “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania” (Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Animation/Amazon Content Services)

“Hotel Transylvania: Transformania”

Directed by Derek Drymon and Jennifer Kluska

Culture Representation: Taking place in Transylvania and South America, the animated film “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with one African American and two Latinos) depicting monsters and humans.

Culture Clash: Count Dracula is ready to retire and pass Hotel Transylvania along to his daughter Mavis, but a mishap with Van Helsing’s invention changes Mavis’ human husband Johnny into a monster and Dracula and his monster friends into humans.

Culture Audience: Aside from obviously appealing to “Hotel Transylvania” movie series fans, “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania” will appeal mainly to people who are interested in lightweight animated films with cliché-ridden and predictable plots.

Johnny (voiced by Andy Samberg) and Van Helsing (voicd by Jim Gaffigan) in “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania” (Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Animation/Amazon Content Services)

It’s never really a good sign when a movie studio takes a sequel film from one of its most popular franchise series and sells it to a streaming service. It usually means that the movie is considered not commercially appealing enough for the studio to release the film. It’s also not a good sign when two of franchise’s biggest stars decide not to be part of this sequel.

That’s what happened when Sony Pictures Animation dumped “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania” (the fourth movie in the “Hotel Transylvania” hotel series) by selling it to Amazon, which is releasing it on Prime Video. (China is the only country where Sony will release the film in theaters.) It’s easy to see why Sony thought this movie was substandard. It’s also easy to see why original “Hotel Transylvania” franchise stars Adam Sandler and Kevin James took a hard pass on being involved in this movie, whether it was because they weren’t going to paid what they wanted and/or legal issues. (Sandler and James both have lucrative movie deals with Netflix.)

Genndy Tartakovsky—who directed the first three “Hotel Transylvania” movies and co-wrote 2018’s “Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation”—co-wrote “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania” with Amos Vernon and Nunzio Randazzo. The first two movies in the series are 2012’s “Hotel Transylvania” and 2015’s “Hotel Transylvania 2.” Derek Drymon and Jennifer Kluskais directed “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania,” which is not a completely terrible movie. But in terms of its story, the movie is lazy and not very interesting.

As the fourth movie in the series, “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania” had the potential to go on an original adventure with the franchise’s well-established characters. Instead, the movie is filled with over-used clichés that have already been in other films. “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania” is essentially a not-very-funny comedy with this not-very-original concept: Two characters with opposite personalities are forced to travel together and find out how much they have to rely on each other in order to reach a shared goal. Relationships and characters that could have been developed are ignored or shoved to the margins of the story. The ending of the movie is also kind of weak and abrupt.

“Hotel Transylvania: Transformania” is also one of those sequels that doesn’t adequately explain some of the backstories of some of the main characters. If people need to watch one movie to prepare for “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania,” it should be “Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation.” That’s the movie that introduced monster hunters Van Helsing (voiced by Jim Gaffigan) and his sassy great-granddaughter Ericka (voiced by Kathryn Hahn), who started off as enemies to the “Hotel Transylvania” protagonists and ended up becoming their friends. And in Ericka’s case, more than friends, because she and widower Count Dracula fell in love with each other.

The voice of Count Dracula was originated by Sandler in the first three “Hotel Transylvania” movies. In “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania,” Dracula (voiced by Brian Hull) and Ericka (who is a human) are now happily married, but it’s barely explained in this sequel how they got together. The prejudice between monsters and humans, which fueled much of the conflicts in the previous “Hotel Transylvania” movies, is only used as a flimsy plot device in “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania.” Dracula’s vampire daughter Mavis (voiced by Selena Gomez) is married to a human named Jonathan, nicknamed Johnny (voiced by Andy Samberg), who’s had a hard time getting reluctant acceptance from Dracula, who thinks Johnny is too goofy for practical-minded Mavis.

But now that Dracula is married to a human, “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania” does not do anything to explore this new aspect of Dracula’s life. Instead, the movie’s story goes back to Dracula disapproving of Johnny, which was the basis of the first “Hotel Transylvania” movie, when Johnny and Mavis began dating and fell in love with each other. In “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania,” Johnny and Mavis have been married for several years and have a son named Dennis (voiced by Asher Blinkoff), who is about 8 or 9 years old and who has very little screen time in the movie.

In “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania,” Dracula still owns and operates Hotel Transylvania (a hotel for monsters), but he wants to retire so that he can have more time to spend with Ericka. Dracula has decided that he is going to give ownership of the hotel to Mavis and Johnny. Mavis, who has hearing superpowers, overhears Dracula telling Ericka about his retirement plans, which he says he’s going to announce at the hotel’s 125th anniversary celebration.

Mavis is excited to find out that she and Johnny will be taking over ownership of the hotel. She tells Johnny, who’s also elated. Johnny immediately comes up with ideas of how he’s going to change the hotel.

When Johnny enthusiastically shares these ideas with Dracula, his father-in-law is so turned off, he changes his mind about wanting Johnny to co-own the hotel. Instead of telling the truth about why he changed his mind, Dracula lies to Johnny by telling him that there’s an ancient law that says hotels for monsters can only be owned by monsters. At the hotel’s 125th anniversary party, Dracula lies to everyone and says his big announcement is that the hotel will get a new restroom in the lobby.

A dismayed Johnny then asks for help from Van Helsing, who has been living as a retired eccentric who tinkers with inventions. Van Helsing has an invention called a Monsterfication Ray, which can turn humans into random monsters. The device looks like a long ray gun with a giant crystal as its source of power. Van Helsing uses the Monsterfication Ray on Johnny, who is turned into a giant green monster resembling a dragon. Even though his physical appearance has drastically changed, Johnny has the same personality, and he can still talk like a human.

Dracula is furious about Johnny’s transformation into a monster because he still doesn’t want to give Johnny ownership of the hotel. And so, Dracula angrily goes over to Van Helsing’s place to take the Monsterfication Ray and use it to turn Johnny back into a human. But the plan backfires when Dracula shoots the Monsterfication Ray at Johnny, the lasers on the ray ricochet off walls, and the rays accidentally hit Dracula, who turns into a human being as a result. Much to Dracula’s horror, he is now looks and feels like an old man, with a balding head, a stomach paunch and weaker physical strength.

Dracula’s four closest monster friends—good-natured Frankenstein (voiced by Brad Abrell, replacing James in the role), worrisome werewolf Wayne (voiced by Steve Buscemi), fun-loving mummy Murray (voiced by Keegan-Michael Key) and sarcastic invisible man Griffin (voiced by David Spade)—have all witnessed this debacle. Dracula is terrified about Mavis finding out about him turning into a human and Johnny into a monster. Dracula orders his friends not to tell Mavis.

Somehow, when Dracula used the Monsterfication Ray, the device got broken, and the crystal no longer works. Van Helsing says that the crystals used for the Monsterfication Ray are extremely rare. Through a tracking device, Van Helsing finds out that the nearest crystal is in South America. Guess where Dracula and Johnny are going for most of the movie?

Meanwhile, a poorly written part of the movie has Frankenstein, Wayne, Murray and Griffin turning into humans too. It’s shown in an awkward scene where the hotel’s DJ—a green blob called Blobby (voiced by Tartakovsky)—gives the four pals a drink that has something in it which automatically turns them into humans. Blobby consumes the drink too, but he’s just turn to a green gelatin mold.

Frankenstein changes into a vain “hunk” with a tall and muscular body, Wayne transforms into a very hairy man, and Murray becomes an old man with rolls of body flab. Griffin is exposed as someone who only wore eyeglasses, so he’s naked the entire time that he’s human. Griffin’s nakedness is used for some dimwitted comedy in the movie.

Just like Dracula and Murray, Griffin is horrified that he looks old and out-of-shape as a human. This movie has not-so-subtle and problematic messages that looking like an elderly human being is a terrible fate that should be avoided at all costs. It’s the closest reason to explain why Frankenstein suddenly becomes an egotistical jerk over how he looks as a young and virile human being. This drastic personality change still comes across as too phony, and it doesn’t serve the story very well.

Mavis, Ericka, Frankenstein’s shrewish wife Eunice (voiced by Fran Drescher) and Wayne’s loving wife Wanda (voiced by Molly Shannon) find out that Dracula and Johnny have gone to South America. And so, Mavis, Ericka, Eunice, Wanda, Frankenstein, Wayne, Murray, Griffin and several of Wayne and Wanda’s werewolf kids go to South America to find Johnny and Dracula. It’s never really explained why some but not all of the werewolf kids (Wayne and Wanda have dozens of children) are along for the ride or why these kids even need to be there in the first place.

Meanwhile, much of “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania” shows repetitive mishaps that Dracula and Johnny go through as they wander around Amazon River areas in South America in search of the crystal. Dracula has a hard time adjusting to life as a human. He no longer has to fear being in the sunlight, but he’s frustrated that he gets tired, thirsty and sweaty on this grueling trip. When he jumps into a waterfall that Johnny warns could be dangerous, Dracula gets bitten by several piranhas and is shocked that he can’t recover quickly from these injuries.

Johnny is the same cheerful goofball, but he still gets on Dracula’s nerves. Dracula is also jealous that Johnny now has more physical strength than Dracula does. It goes on and on like this for too long in the movie. As an example of how “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania” stretches out the banality, there’s a scene with Johnny singing a Spanish version of Wham!’s “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” during a bus ride that Johnny and Dracula take with some local people. It’s intended to be hilarious, but it just comes across as dull and cringeworthy.

Visually, “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania” does nothing special, although the movie makes good use of vibrant hues in the outdoor South America scenes. The cast members’ performances are adequate. Thankfully, movie clocks in at just 98 minutes, but the story is filled with too many recycled tropes of two opposite personalities stuck together on a road trip; the hunt for a treasured item; and the central characters being chased by people who want to find them.

“Hotel Transylvania: Transformania” doesn’t have much use for the adult female characters, who basically just worry about and react to what their husbands are doing. And because Dracula is separated from his four closest monster pals for most of the movie, that friendship rapport is largely missing from “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania.” This rapport was one of the highlights of previous “Hotel Transylvania” movies.

The movie shows almost nothing about what Dracula is like as a grandfather to Dennis. Wayne and Wanda have a daughter named Winnie (voiced by Zoe Berri, replacing Sadie Sandler in the role), who is Dennis’ best friend/love interest, but that relationship is also essentially ignored in the movie. Instead, some the werewolf children, who do not have names or individual personalities, get unnecessary screen time when they tag along during the trip to South America.

Some people might enjoy “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania” if they want to see another “Hotel Transylvania” movie about Dracula and Johnny trying to navigate their tension-filled relationship. “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania” is being marketed as the final movie in the “Hotel Transylvania” series. If that’s true, then the “Hotel Transylvania” movie series is going out with a toothless whimper, not a bang.

Prime Video premiered “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania” on January 14, 2022.

2019 Tribeca Film Festival movie review: ‘Safe Spaces’ (now titled ‘After Class’)

May 4, 2019

by Carla Hay

Justin Long, Emily Schechter and Kate Berlant in “Safe Spaces” (Photo by Gregory Wilson)

“Safe Spaces”

Directed by Daniel Schechter

World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 29, 2019.

UPDATE: “Safe Spaces” was retitled “After Class” after the movie was screened at multiple film festivals.

The dramedy “Safe Spaces” almost feels like it could have been two movies because so much is going on with the lead character, Josh Cohn, a 38-year-old adjunct professor in New York City who’s going through turmoil in his professional and personal lives. Justin Long is Josh in the movie, one of several films in which Long plays a single guy who’s unlucky in love. On the professional front, Josh’s job might be in jeopardy because of inappropriate sexual comments that he made in one of his classes. On the personal front, Josh’s beloved maternal grandmother (played by Lynn Cohen) is dying in a hospital, and he has to take shifts with bickering family members who are keeping vigil over her in her final days.

“Safe Spaces” (written and directed by Daniel Schechter) starts out showing the professional problem first. Josh teaches a creative writing class, and during a session with his students, he encourages a female student to share a personal story that might help her become a better writer. “Embarrass yourselves,” he tells the class. “Write what hurts.”  When she confesses that an embarrassing sexual situation recently happened to her, Josh eggs her on to tell him and the class in detail what happened. She is very reluctant, but Josh insists that she tell, so she eventually reveals that when she was recently on a date with a guy, he asked if he could ejaculate on her rear end. (It’s described in much cruder terms in the movie.)

Instead of being mortified that he pressured someone to share this very explicit sexual information in a public setting, Josh is elated that she opened up in a candid way. That’s a red flag right there that Josh, especially in this #MeToo era, is socially clueless and has some serious issues with professional boundaries. Not surprisingly, a complaint is filed against him by one of the female students in his class—not the student who told the story, but another student who felt that Josh was being sexually intimidating and that he created a hostile environment in the class.

It turns out the student with the complaint was sexually assaulted in her past. She felt triggered by Josh’s behavior, and she no longer feels safe in his class because she thinks that he might pressure her and other female students to reveal sexual secrets too. Meanwhile, Josh is indignant because he feels that he didn’t do anything wrong. He thinks that because everyone in the class is an adult, they should have been able to handle that raw talk. His bosses recommend that he make an apology anyway, but he refuses. Several of his students then boycott his class to show solidarity to the student who complained. Josh’s job as an adjunct professor barely pays enough to cover his bills, so he’s feeling the financial pressure of possibly losing his job.

Meanwhile, Josh’s dysfunctional family is also giving him a lot of stress. His younger sister Jackie (played by Kate Berlant) is a flaky, pill-popping podcaster who unexpectedly shows up and crashes at his place because she needs a place to live. His married older brother David (played by Michael Godere) is still angry with Josh because Josh had a fling with the nanny (played by Megan Pickarski) hired to take care of David’s daughters (played by Kaitlyn and Emily Schechter), and the nanny left the job because the fling ended. David is the only person in the family to call out Josh for his pattern of irresponsible and selfish behavior. Meanwhile, Josh has begun dating a much-younger Eastern-European woman named Caterina (played by Sylvia Morigi), who likes to use dominatrix-type sexual techniques and who’s reluctant to fully commit to Josh.

Josh’s mother Diane (played by Fran Drescher) is still bitter over her divorce from Josh’s father Jeff (played by Richard Schiff), who left her for a younger woman named Sherry, who is now his current wife. Jeff has started a new life with Sherry (played by Dana Eskelson) and their bratty underage son Ben (played by Tyler Wladis), both of whom can’t stand Josh and his siblings. When Jeff was married to Diane, he was close to his mother-in-law, but since his current wife despises his first family, he’s torn about whether or not to visit his former mother-in-law before she dies. Josh and Jeff already have a lot of tension in their relationship, so the financially strapped Josh feels embarrassed when he has to ask Jeff for money to help pay his rent.

The “family problems” part of the movie is supposed to make Josh look more sympathetic, but it’s hard to feel much sympathy for a 38-year-old professor (in other words, he should know better) who uses his position of power to browbeat a student into revealing a sexual secret to the entire class. It’s inappropriate and aggressive, regardless of the gender of the student. What makes it worse is that Josh thinks the person who complained doesn’t deserve an apology. Even if he doesn’t think what he did was wrong, someone was seriously offended by his behavior, so it’s very problematic that he refuses to acknowledge that his actions hurt someone emotionally. It’s also a symptom of an arrogant sense of entitlement that comes from people who abuse their privileges.

The #MeToo movement has created a lot of resentment from people (mostly men) who used to get away with a lot of this type of behavior, and they’re quick to call people “uptight” or “too politically correct” if anyone objects to inappropriate sexual comments. This resentment is exemplified by two young male students who offer to mount a campaign on campus to defend Josh, who declines their help because he thinks it will make the situation worse.

In another conversation between Josh and another young male student, there’s an underlying “we hate politically correct culture” tone when the student complains that a story he wrote about a Jewish summer camp probably has to be changed because all of the people are white in his current draft of the story. Josh agrees, and then half-heartedly gives suggestions on who in the story could be of a different race. The dialogue in this part of the movie is written in such a cynical manner, they just might as well have come right out said, “This is what we have to go through now as white males. We have to force diversity in our work, or else we might be accused of being racist or sexist.”

What’s kind of dumb about this scene is that Josh doesn’t actually read the student’s story to see if the writing is any good. He just instantly reacts to the student’s paranoia that so-called politically correct vultures are out to get him. It’s obviously a reflection of how Josh feels about the complaint made against him in his job.

As if to further drive the point home that Josh is a symbol for “white men under siege in the #MeToo era,” the two supervisors overseeing Josh’s misconduct case are a white woman (played by Becky Ann Baker) and a man of Indian heritage (played by Samrat Chakrabarti). The white supervisor is more sympathetic to Josh than the non-white supervisor. These are not-so-subtle buttons that writer/director Schechter is pushing about how white men often see themselves when they’re accused of misconduct and how they’re judged if they offend women or people or color.

There’s an uncomfortable scene when Josh and his sister Jackie are out at a diner with their nieces, and they see the student who made the complaint, sitting at a nearby table. Jackie forces a confrontation, which makes things worse for Josh. The student naturally makes another complaint to the school, and Josh comes even closer to losing his job. He has another chance to make things right with the student. Will he do it?

Tensions in the family also come to a head when they are told that Josh’s grandmother has only a few days to live. Josh and his siblings put their squabbles aside to band together, go to their father Jeff’s home, and try to convince him to go with them to the hospital to say goodbye to their grandmother. Jeff’s wife Sherry, who’s portrayed as cold-hearted and jealous, gives Jeff an extreme ultimatum: If you go to the hospital with your children, our marriage is over. Will he do it?

“Safe Spaces” isn’t a bad movie (the best scenes are the ones with Josh’s grandmother), and the lead character Josh isn’t a bad person. He just isn’t interesting enough to care about for most of this film. If you like the type of Woody Allen-inspired movies that are filled with neurotic, privileged New Yorkers who create their own problems and seem to be addicted to personal chaos, then “Safe Spaces” is the movie for you.

UPDATE: Gravitas Ventures, which changed the name of this movie from “Safe Spaces” to “After Class,” will release the movie in select U.S. theaters and on home video on December 6, 2019.

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