The Hotel Transylvania franchise–which now officially becomes a big screen trilogy–has occupied its own peculiar little niche in the ongoing stream of animated films that now come our way throughout the year: neither as momentous and emotional as Pixar’s output, nor as outright throwaway and unmemorable as the bulk of Illumination releases, they’re amiable, funny, occasionally heartwarming and, in their own way, an earnest tribute to a canon of fictional characters in danger of being forgotten.
Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation follows dutifully in that design, although perhaps the mythology is starting to show some strain. The film is directed by Genndy Tartakovsky, who has helmed all three pictures, but is co-written this time by him and Michael McCullers. The first film was scripted by Robert Smigel and Peter Baynham while Hotel Transylvania 2 was penned by Smigel and star Adam Sandler. And as good as Tartakovsky is as a visualist, the plot and jokes stumble more often than in the past, resulting in an experience that can be great fun at times when it’s not dragging itself to the next set-piece.
With the hotel running smoothly, and Dracula’s daughter Mavis (voiced by Selena Gomez) and her husband Johnny (Andy Samberg) settled into domestic life with their son Dennis (Asher Blinkoff), the focus this time is on Drac (voiced again by Sandler, who really seems to relish this role). He’s a happy family man overall, but he spends much of his (un)life pining for companionship after a century-plus as a widow. Mavis gets the idea to take her dad–along with all their friends–on a cruise designed specifically for monsters that starts in the Bermuda Triangle and stops at places like Atlantis (reimagined here, amusingly, as a casino, complete with a Kraken lounge singer).
Once on board, Drac meets the Captain, Ericka (Kathryn Hahn), and instantly feels the “zing”–monster slang for love at first sight. Ericka seems interested as well, but little do Drac, Mavis and the other monsters know that it’s all a trap: Ericka is the great-granddaughter of Drac’s arch-nemesis Abraham Van Helsing (Jim Gaffigan, introduced in a hilarious flashback montage of foiled attempts to turn Drac to dust). She aims to continue her ancestor’s work and destroy the mighty vampire and his companions once and for all.
The slim, straightforward plot serves merely as a conduit for a series of jokes and sight gags involving Drac, who trades in his cape and evening wear for shorts and a tropical shirt, and the rest of the gang, with characters like Frankenstein’s Monster (Kevin James) and his Bride (Fran Drescher), Wayne the werewolf (Steve Buscemi) and his wife Wanda (Molly Shannon), the Invisible Man (David Spade) and Murray the Mummy (Keegan-Michael Key) all reliably available for both. The message that we all have one true love is questionable at best, but the film’s ultimate moral, that we’re all the same inside, may seem almost trite to cynical adults but never gets worn out on impressionable young minds.
The best jokes come courtesy of Wayne and Wanda, who drop their massive brood of wolf pups off at the boat’s “Kids Club” daycare center and suddenly don’t know what to do with themselves–and the overall trappings of the vacation itself, which pokes gentle fun at the whole cruise ship experience (although luckily there’s no near-tribal warfare on board as we’ve seen in some recent real-life accounts). There are also cute little kid-friendly gags–like the amorphous Blobby losing a piece of itself only for the ball of goo to turn into a child Blob–that Tartakovsky deploys enough to keep the film from slipping into tedium.
Ultimately there are few real stakes here, even for an animated film, and Hotel Transylvania 3 feels at its worst like a time-filler, just something to wring some more bucks out of a proven IP. At its best, however, it’s enjoyably witty and satisfying to look at, and it also does something in its own strange way that fans of old monster movies, especially from the Universal and Hammer stables that are now fading in cultural memory, might at least appreciate. It keeps an entire stable of classic monsters alive in a way for younger generations to enjoy and remember.
We’re not just talking about icons like Frankenstein’s creation or Dracula, but second-stringers like the Mummy, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Fly, the Invisible Man, and even the Blob. Not reduced to buffoonery as they were in the old Abbott and Costello matchups (which had their charms as well), the monsters here are treated with a certain degree of affection. Perhaps that will be the lasting legacy of the Hotel Transylvania series: that one day, children who watched and fondly remember these films will look up the source material as adults and keep those monsters culturally alive, or at least undead.
Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation is out in theaters this Friday, July 13.