Sometimes there’s comfort to be found in the disposable. That loaded word — disposable — is one that always comes to my mind when talking about the Hotel Transylvania films, but I mean it in an affectionate way. How else to describe an animated series starring Adam Sandler as a Count Dracula whose trademark phrase is “Bleh blehbleh”?
Disposable, however, need not mean indifferent or lazy, and the incidental but plentiful pleasures of this series suggest that the filmmakers understand these movies’ basic appeal: While the characterizations and general storytelling are not particularly noteworthy, the visual gags and comic marginalia charm and even surprise. I recall giggling like an idiot at the throwaway bit in Hotel Transylvania 2 in which the Wolfman, attempting to clear a road of grazing sheep during a car chase, quickly and somewhat shamefully gobbles them all up. Or the sight (“sight”?) of the Invisible Man pretending to have an invisible girlfriend.
For all that, Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation is a bit busier and more elaborate than the series’ previous two iterations. It opens on a dark night in 1897, with a train full of incognito monsters (including Frank, a/k/a Frankenstein’s Monster, voiced by Kevin James; and Murray the Mummy, voiced by Keegan-Michael Key) ambushed by wild-eyed and Yosemite Sam–like vampire hunter Abraham Van Helsing (voiced by Jim Gaffigan). After a speedy chase and standoff, Van Helsing is quickly defeated. But not vanquished: As soon as the train battle ends, we see more glimpses of his relentless pursuit of Dracula over the ensuing decades, through a fast-cutting and very funny montage of the veteran vampire hunter’s many failures. (Funny, random visual grace note: Van Helsing for some reason seems to have Dracula’s voluminous white double man-buns from the Francis Ford Coppola film Bram Stoker’s Dracula.)
That’s just the opening sequence, and it already feels like more plot than the last movie had in its entirety. But Van Helsing is a distant memory by the time we reach Dracula (a/k/a Drac) in the present day, feeling lonely at Hotel Transylvania, his secret resort run by and for monsters, where demonic creatures and other surreal abominations of nature are allowed to vacation free of human meddling. Everybody around Drac seems to be getting married or starting families or finding love. Lonely himself, the long-widowed vampire tries a monster dating app on his phone, and is disappointed at his options, which include a shrill witch who insists that he must love her many, many cats. (Look, I never said all the jokes landed.)
To help bring her father out of his gloom, Drac’s daughter (voiced by Selena Gomez) organizes an all-monster Atlantic cruise. (In one of the film’s more intricate gags, the trip begins with a ride on Gremlin Air, which is piloted and serviced by a group of mad, chew-everything-in-sight gremlins whose idea of a landing is to send the plane straight into freefall, cackling demonically as its wings and fuselage are shredded along the way.) Once on board the giant luxury ocean liner, the lovesick Drac falls for the ship’s acrobatic, beautiful, and relentlessly cheery captain Ericka (voiced by Kathryn Hahn), who immediately seems to reciprocate —though it’s soon revealed that she is secretly the great-granddaughter of Abraham Van Helsing himself, determined to do what her famous forebear could not and wipe out Dracula and his kind forever.
The conceit of a luxury cruise for monsters allows director Genndy Tartakovsky to go for broke when it comes to gaudy spectacle. The boat ride starts off at the Bermuda Triangle, here portrayed as a huge ditch in the ocean with a mountain of ships piled atop one another, and culminates at the lost city of Atlantis, a garish, underwater Vegas presided over by a giant crooning octopus. As he did with the previous films, Tartakovsky has a lot of fun with his material. How could he not? These figures sport sentient severed limbs and shape-shifting powers and bodies covered in shooting spikes. There must be something liberating about getting to animate characters like these, and making them do whatever crazy thing you want. And we in the audience can actually sense this freedom — the film conveys it through the creativity of the monster designs and the demented energy with which they move. Late in the movie, there’s a wonderfully mad tango in a booby-trapped cave between Drac and Ericka, where he attempts to save her and, with each staccato twirl and twist, absorbs all manner of swinging axes and poison darts and flying daggers.
But for all its frantic eager-to-please-ness, Hotel Transylvania 3 doesn’t quite achieve the blissfully reliable drumbeat of hilarious throwaway gags that the earlier films managed. There are a few, of course: I think I chuckled most fondly at the game of shuffleboard being played using a chalk outline of a dead body; or maybe it was the Chupacabra sidling up to the ship’s bar and being served a sheep in a martini glass. If it all amounts to little more than a lively trifle, is that such a bad thing? Like I said: disposable. I look forward to seeing it again someday, laughing out loud, and immediately forgetting it ever existed.
Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation
Directed by Genndy Tartakovsky
Sony Pictures Entertainment
Opens July 13
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