Review: Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation

Distributor: Sony Pictures Releasing

Director: Genndy Tartakovsky

Writer: Genndy Tartakovsky, Michael McCullers

Starring: Adam Sandler, Andy Samberg, Selena Gomez, Kevin James, David Spade, Steve Buscemi, Keegan-Michael Key, Molly Shannon, Fran Drescher, Kathryn Hahn, Jim Gaffigan, Mel Brooks

Genre: Comedy

Rating: PG

Say what you will about the Hotel Transylvania movies. They’re no Pixar productions by a long shot. They’re not even DreamWorks on a good day. What they are is riotous clean fun (for the most part). If you’re a fan of a traditional cartoonist’s aesthetic, they’re even more than that. And if you’re a fan of the cartoon works of Genndy Tartakovsky? They’re a day at the beach.

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: The Van Helsings go after Dracula and other monsters with weapons (ray guns, etc.) and schemes; an early montage includes fights, chases, crashes, and more–injuries happen but aren’t lingered on. In one sequence, Ericka purposely puts herself in danger to see if Dracula will save her; he does (from booby traps galore). At the beginning of the movie, a monster with spikes nearly impales Mavis, but it’s played for laughs. The most frightening scene is when a large, scary Kraken starts to attack all the monsters on Atlantis and nearly kills everyone. A human/robot hybrid can be creepy. A little werewolf bites off Frankenstein’s finger. In a comedic sequence, an airline called Gremlin Air features the chaotic monsters nearly injuring everyone on the plane. Underwater volcano. Slapstick falls.

Language/Crude Humor: A couple of fart jokes because vampires are “garlic intolerant.” Jonathan tells Mavis she did a “cute toot.” A suggestive comment or two: “Would you like to see my parts?” and “Stitches in all the right places.”

Sexual Content: Two newly married monsters kiss at their wedding.  Drac briefly uses a monster version of a Tinder-like app to look for online dates. Three buxom, randy witches stare at Vlad in his (very skimpy) bathing suit and chase/make flirtatious overtures toward him. Drac and Erika dance, flirt, and kiss. A few butt-focused jokes/visual gags. A minor character is very voluptuous. References to “looking hot” and “working it.” Shirtless male waitstaff.

Drug/Alcohol Use: Champagne, drinks at cruise events. El Chupacabra’s drink of choice is a goat in a glass. Two characters are tranquilized and hidden/captured.

Spiritual Content: None.

Other Negative Themes: Familial grudges are present. There are a couple of slightly insensitive jokes toward women–for example, on a dating app, Drac matches with a photo of a beautiful witch, only to video chat with her and discover she’s a warty old crone. And a trio of randy witches seems to only care about chasing Vlad. Some German stereotyping. Frank appears to be a gambling addict.

Positive Content: Positive messages include the importance of tolerance, letting go of old grudges, being open to new relationships, fighting prejudice, communicating with your family members, parents reconnecting as partners, and celebrating family and friends. “You have to honor the past, but we make our own future.”

Drac is a caring, attentive grandfather, even though he lies about where Dennis is in one scene. He loves his daughter, son-in-law, and friends and would do anything to protect them. He falls for Ericka even though she’s human and is willing to overlook her past and ancestry. Ericka learns to look past her family’s legacy and decides to see the good in Dracula.

Review

Few people would be more ecstatic than I about Genndy Tartakovsky establishing a reputation in the field of feature film animation. After making a significant name for himself in numerous small-screen animated works such as the sci-fi sitcom Dexter’s Laboratory and the award-winning post-apocalyptic fantasy adventure series Samurai Jack, trying his hand at a feature CGI production is a sensible next step in his career. Of course, such a venture came with a number of obstacles and difficulties.

When I first saw the original Hotel Transylvania, I saw the growing pains of one accustomed to short-form storytelling being asked to stretch out his methods for a feature-length format.  After so many years of telling complete stories in a matter of 22 minutes at most, trying to maintain the high-octane energy of TV animation for longer than an hour is a serious challenge.  Building a story that can accommodate such energies is an even bigger challenge. This would explain why arguably the biggest flaws of the last two installments were dragging periods of dead space desperately trying to get to the next set piece before becoming too dull or self-conscious. At the very least, Tartakovsky and company managed to find a significant room for improvement in each cycle.

Hotel Transylvania 2 made the wise choice of allowing characters to venture out into other locales beyond the eponymous hotel itself, allowing for set pieces and dynamics otherwise not available. Thematically, these movies have a had a very simple and timely premise. Prejudice is the topic at hand; primarily that between monsters and humans, though the dynamic seems to be reversed from the norm, with monsters fearing oppression and persecution from humans rather than vice versa. The particulars of this thematic setup are not very well refined in some ways (it’s unclear as to whether or not humans are really that aware of the existence of monsters for the most part, for example), but it works well enough to sell a few key points of consideration.

Probably the most valuable element thematically is the suggestion that both sides on a fence of prejudicial practice can both be guilty of being pre-emptively scornful with deleterious effects. It also suggests that being isolated in an intellectual echo chamber is also the most formidable barrier to advancing beyond such harmful presumptions. Hotel Transylvania 2 dealt with misanthropic tendencies in monsterkind, whereas Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation directly addresses the issues of bias on the other side of the human/monster divide.

It could be said that while the fundamental plot premise of Hotel Transylvania 2 was better-suited to a feature film production than that of the first film, Genndy was a bit out of his depths in how to furnish it in many respects. This time around, what is on offer is a simple plot premise that could easily fit a typical animated series episode but is given enough tangential substrata and embellishment to do justice to the runtime without the team putting themselves in anymore uncharted territory.

Fearing that her father Dracula (Adam Sandler) is being overworked with his managerial position in the hotel, the waifish vampire lady Mavis (Selena Gomez) books a cruise to the unlost city of Atlantis for seemingly all the residents of the hotel. At the very least, Dracula and his close friends and family were invited to the getaway. Little does Mavis know that Drac’s recent melancholy is due more to his loneliness after orchestrating a wedding than his being overworked, and so the one saving grace to an otherwise undesired cruise trip is the fetching and dynamic female captain of the ship, Ericka (Kathryn Hahn). Despite all predisposition to the contrary, Drac is immediately smitten with her–or “he zinged” as the lingo of the movies goes.

Supposedly, monsters can only “zing” once in life, and since Drac is a widower, he’s used up his only chance for life-long love (whatever that means for the undead). This is a major talking point throughout the film, but it isn’t ever really explained or reconciled. It does provide some useful familial conflict later when the prologue setup of Drac’s age-old nemesis and Ericka’s great-grandfather Abraham Van Helsing (Jim Gaffigan) comes to fruition in the present time.

In fact, that is the major strain riding along as the catch of this whole escapade. Ericka Van Helsing has vowed to carry on the family legacy of monster hunting under the direct tutelage of what remains of her great-grandfather’s steampunk-cyborg body by catching as many of the hotel’s residents in a concentrated location and eliminating them all at once. She’s something of a human reflection of Mavis except she was more effectively brainwashed in the biases that distinguish her kind with relation to monsters. Since this whole run of films has been about overcoming such prejudices, you can be rest assured that this will also be resolved by the end of the runtime in some way.

Some side characters get their own arcs to varying levels of completion. This approach plays to Genndy and his team’s strengths for shorter productions in a more agreeable fashion, resulting in the best written Hotel Transylvania title to date. The werewolf couple of Wanda and Wayne (Molly Shannon and Steve Buscemi) are treated to the cruise ship’s daycare center, liberated from the presence of their enormous litter for the first time in a long while, and use the opportunity to return to their primitive canine ways for a day. The returning sidekick trio of Murray the Mummy (Keegan-Michael Key), Frankenstein (Kevin James), and Griffin the Invisible Man (David Spade) come in and out to comment on Dracula’s reemerging love life when least appropriate with hysterical results.

Another subplot draws from something previously established in an early production. Remember when Dennis (oddly named Asher Blinkoff), the dhampir son of Mavis and her human husband Johnny (Andy Samberg), got a puppy in the animated short that preceded The Emoji Movie? Actually, do you remember The Emoji Movie? For your own health, dear reader, I would hope not. Well, the gargantuan pup Tinkles introduced there has a continuing presence here. Dennis and his puppy love interest Winnie the werewolf child (Sadie Sandler) are taking extra pains to ensure that Tinkles is able to accompany them on the cruise. This actually has some payoff at the film’s climax, so this plotline has some respectable significance.

What probably impresses me the most about all of these movies is the grace with which Genndy’s two-dimensional visual library has translated to CGI. I personally would love to see the sketchbooks for this production as the character designs are some of the best that have done for a feature animated production in recent memory. The storyboard artists are very much in love with depicting the characters in a profile view, and rightly so. These characters have lovely profiles.

In fact, it could be said that the entire Hotel Transylvania project is something of Mr. Tartakovsky’s answer to another visually distinctive work done by his colleague Craig McCracken. The highly praised Cartoon Network series Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends boasts similarly eccentric character design work that has received a number of accolades and also takes place in a hotel-like complex operating as a bastion of security for monstrous rejects. With that in mind, it may have behooved Genndy to pitch his operation as TV production for familiarity’s sake if nothing else. Wait, isn’t there already a Hotel Transylvania series somewhere? Oh, nevermind.

Out of all the releases, the sense of humor is probably sharpest and most effective here with a few key reveals and set pieces providing great laughs while being visual marvels. Probably the most brilliant moment is one featuring Dracula and Ericka performing a literal danse macabre in a deathtrap-riddled temple. In expert ballet fashion, Drac whisks and maneuvers Ericka out of the way of spring-loaded slings and arrows while allowing himself to be riddled and marked with an increasing number of injuries and blows that would be fatal to all but the undead with remarkable finesse. Another amusing turn features the Kraken (Joe Jonas) imagined as a colossal jazz club-style crooner that later appears as a more menacing presence in a moment of musical combat.

The endings have been weakest points for both of the previous movies and that’s still the case here, but at least it doesn’t end with a dance party this time around. In fact, a conventional dance party is interrupted by a DJ battle near the final turning point, and that’s certainly a preferable decision. While this particular team might still be in their training wheels when it comes to theatrical releases, this turn made me more disappointed than ever about that Popeye production that Genndy was supposed to lead. Please, make that happen again, Sony…

Positives

+ Outstanding character design + Stellar animation + Plot organization is better than what it was in the previous films + Genuinely laugh-out-loud gags and sequences

Negatives

- Thematic strains are repeated from the last time - Some plot threads are incongruent with what was previously established - Thanos is still a thing (sorry, wrong review)

The Bottom Line

I really don’t like the term “guilty pleasure”, but if I were to use it seriously, I’d use it in reference to these films. I enjoy all of them immensely despite their shortcomings, and this one probably the most.

 

8

Tyrone Barnes

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