It’s Halloween during the summer this year as Hotel Transylvania returns for some fun in the sun with Adam Sandler’s Dracula and the rest of his spooky crew heading out on a ghostly cruise to scare up some laughs. If you’ve seen Sony Pictures Animation’s previous installments, then you should know mostly what to expect: tired attempts at horror-parody, zany, fast-paced antics aimed at the kiddos, pop songs and product placement; but Genndy Tartakovsky’s third outing in this needlessly-long series surprises as more cohesive, creative, and comical than its creepy counterparts.
If you have an interest in animation outside of arranging a distractor for the little ones, then you might be aware of Sony Pictures Animation’s status as the bottom-feeder among the major studio houses. Outside of co-productions with Aardman, Sony’s output has mainly relegated to pandering to the tikes with examples such as last year’s noxious, Razzie-winning The Emoji Movie, or live-action hybrids such as Peter Rabbit. There are certainly exceptions such as Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs or Surf’s Up, but SPA pales in comparison to the competition overall.
While not nearly as toxic as The Emoji Movie (God help us), the Hotel Transylvania series has presided as representative of Sony’s underwhelming aesthetic. Spoofs on Universal’s iconic monster characters have been around for decades, including in cartoons such as Scooby-Doo, so the original resonated as strikingly derivative and unimaginative, though it was not without its own comedic successes or effective charms. The first was palatable enough, but the second lacked any sense of wit at all, and offered little more than abrasive mischief for young children.
In the third, however, whatever potential is available hits somewhat of a stride as Dracula and friends board a cruise ship with other villains for a chance to finally reek some revelry in a vibrant location that contrasts that of the titular hotel. The monster gags are still below the par set by the Monsters Inc. series, and the pace is still at a clique that favors the littler members of the audience, but a respectable presentation of radiant visuals, and an agreeable dose of humor aided by lively characters place Summer Vacation a notch above its middling predecessors.
Hotel Transylvania 3 begins with the introduction of the antagonist the series has been sorely lacking until now: Abraham Van Helsing (Jim Gaffigan), who is obsessed with killing Dracula (Adam Sandler). After numerous failures, we return to the present, where the count is lonely and trying to re-enter the dating game. His daughter Mavis (Selena Gomez) mistakes his anxiety for work stress, and books a monster cruise for the whole crew. On board, Dracula instantly falls for the captain, Ericka (Kathryn Hahn), who happens to also be Van Helsing’s great-granddaughter.
Jim Gaffigan is a sheer delight as Van Helsing, whose facial design is a repulsive work of fleshy genius, and who later is housed in a humorously ridiculous contraption to prolong his life. His granddaughter Ericka is a vivid bundle of energy to match, and Kathryn Hahn submits colorful voice work as Dracula’s secret assassin. As the vampire falls for the temptress, a slew of awkward situations and amusing gags occur being that Drac has been out of the game for over 100 years, and his daughter Mavis isn’t exactly warm to the idea of Dad shacking up with a new wife.
With the massive fangs fitting his toothy vocals, Dracula continues the be one of the characters that don’t determine Sandler’s presence to be a deal-breaker. Selena Gomez shows up again mainly for pop value, but a cast populated by comedians including Kevin James as Frankenstein, David Spade as The Invisible Man, and Keegan-Michael Key as The Mummy offers more verve than lifelessness. At 92, Mel Brooks fully bodies Vlad, Dracula’s father, but the brightest star of the cast continues to be Andy Samberg as Johnny, who is as spry as a cartoon as he is an actor.
As the characters embark on their journey, the premise lends itself to more dazzling animation than the two previous entries had to offer when taking place mainly in a hotel. The cruise stops exhibit some worthwhile visuals, and the sequel actually contains two sequences bred from genuine creativity: one involves a rhythmic dance up the stairs of an altar entrenched in booby traps, and the other a musical battle between two DJs competing to harness the influence of the Kraken. The execution could be better, but the imagination is refreshing nonetheless.
And while there is plenty of improvement here over the rest of the franchise, weaknesses that hold the series back are still plenty in number. The monster/villains gimmick is still arrestingly familiar, and the clever riffing and punch lines to be had on the concept are few and far between considering there is so much similar content out there, and especially so considering this is the third entry in a series. But even so, director Genndy Tartakovsky has managed to defy expectations and improve on his product enough to render this sequel worth watching.
HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA 3: SUMMER VACATION
Sony Pictures Releasing, Sony Pictures Animation, Media Rights Capital.
Directed by Genndy Tartakovsky.
Written by Genndy Tartakovsky and Michael McCullers. Based on characters by Todd Durham.
Starring Adam Sandler, Andy Samberg, Selena Gomez, Kevin James, David Spade, Steve Buscemi, Keegan-Michael Key, Molly Shannon, Fran Drescher, Kathryn Hahn, Jim Gaffigan, and Mel Brooks.
Released July 13, 2018.