The gags are funnier than ever, but it’s getting harder to stay invested in this weirdly conceived world of monsters.
The animated world of Hotel Transylvania is a nice place to visit, but it sure would be exhausting to live there.
As directed by Genndy Tartakovsky (Samurai Jack), these family-friendly comedies offer a manic alternative to the relatively grounded, emotional storytelling of Pixar. His world of monsters is completely elastic, prone to wild gesticulations, explosive sight gags and childish outbursts. Everything they do is huge, even though their stories are usually the thinnest possible excuse to get them out of the house… or, you know, the hotel.
Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation once again stars Adam Sandler as Count Dracula, a vampire who runs a lavish getaway for monsters, so they can escape their constant persecution by humanity. In the first film, Dracula had to come to terms with his daughter Mavis (Selena Gomez) falling in love with a human, Johnny (Andy Samberg). It was just enough plot to justify a fast-paced and hilarious tour of the hotel and introduce us to its many wacky residents, including a long-suffering family of werewolves and a cheerful, but incredibly pyrophoric Frankenstein monster.
Now, two sequels later, it’s Dracula’s turn to fall in love. Hotel Transylvania 3 begins with Dracula, surrounded by weddings and living with his happily married daughter, feeling the powerful pang of loneliness. Mavis, confusing her father’s anxiety for work-related stress, decides to book them on a cruise for monsters that runs from the Bermuda Triangle to the lost city of Atlantis, where Dracula meets Captain Ericka (Kathryn Hahn) and – wouldn’t you know it? – immediately falls in love.
The gag is that Ericka isn’t just the ship’s captain, she’s also the great-granddaughter of Abraham Van Helsing, and she has lured Dracula and all the other monsters to their deadly doom. While Dracula tries to woo her, she’s using every Wile E. Coyote trick at her disposal to murder him. It always backfires, and it is always – ALWAYS – completely hilarious.
Like the other Hotel Transylvania movies, the third installment is at its best when it’s just a delivery system for the gags. A dance routine where Dracula and Blobby (a friendly version of The Blob) try to strut around the boat like they’ve got Saturday Night Fever is constantly interrupted by Ericka’s murderous schemes, but her killing blows inevitably and accidentally always hit Blobby instead, who keeps bouncing back because he’s basically just a ball of goo. The comic timing is superb, so it never stops being funny.
The visual ingenuity of Hotel Transylvania 3 is easily the most impressive of the series, with new locations, inspired monster sight gags and bizarre walk-cycles each competing for your attention. You might just laugh so hard that you ignore how uninspired the rest of this movie really is.
It’s reasonable to say that after three films we do have some genuine investment in these characters, and we do care – at least a little bit – about what happens to them. Which means that the haphazard storytelling of this franchise, and the strange dedication it has to plot points like “zings” (actual, 100% love at first sight) can actively interfere with our engagement. One of the early jokes in Hotel Transylvania 3 features Dracula using an online dating app for monsters. But what’s the point of a casual monster dating app if the only love they’re ever looking for is a “zing,” which is instantaneous, and is only supposed to happen once in a lifetime?
The whole “zing” scenario feels like a flimsy narrative shortcut, a way to get the characters to fall in love without putting in any genuine work. A character falls for another character, almost always the same type of monster (or, failing that, the same body type) and they immediately get married. We’re supposed to be invested in Dracula’s romantic well-being but we’re also supposed to accept an antiquated, arguably unhealthy romantic ideal for him and his new, homicidal girlfriend. The weird bylaws of this universe contradict the story they’re trying to tell, and the theme they’re trying to sell, and the more you think about it, the more frustrating it seems.
Fortunately, Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation does a good job of distracting you from serious thoughts. It’s the most fast-paced and comedically inspired entry in the series, even though the support system for all these delightful jokes is looking pretty wobbly.