'Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation' Review: Get Away From This Lifeless Franchise

Hotel Transylvania

Even if you’ve enjoyed these movies so far, the third time’s lost all the charm.

For such a busy animated feature, there’s not much going on in Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation. The latest installment in a series begun in 2012 follows a 2015 sequel and a recently premiered prequel TV show, and the concept seems to have run out of steam. That tends to be obvious when a franchise departs from its initial premise and tries to branch out, and this time the whole gang of cartoon monsters leaves the eponymous Hotel Transylvania and takes a cruise — a hotel on the water — like a sitcom ensemble taking a ratings- and cross-promotion-fueled diversion to Hawaii or Walt Disney World.

First, we get a prologue and a montage introducing the monsters’ longtime nemesis Van Helsing (voiced by Jim Gaffigan), who seems to have died while unsuccessfully hunting the monsters at the end of the 19th century. Back to modern day, the film follows Count Dracula (Adam Sandler), his vampire daughter Mavis (Selena Gomez), her human husband and their half-vampire son (Andy Samberg and Asher Blinkoff) and their extended family of creatures including the Invisible Man (David Spade), Wayne the werewolf (Steve Buscemi), his wife Wanda (Molly Shannon), and their huge litter of cubs on a monsters’ getaway.

The kicker is that they’ve all been lured — by chance, when Mavis decides out of the blue to give Dad a break from work — to the special cruise, which begins at the Bermuda Triangle and is headed toward the lost city of Atlantis, by the mechanically still-alive Van Helsing and his great-granddaughter Erika (Kathryn Hahn) in order to kill them all in one swoop. But Dracula falls for the human woman, who serves as the ship’s captain. Meanwhile, she wants to just kill him as soon as she can, because she’s been raised to hate him so passionately. That conflict should elicit plenty of comedic payoffs, but the best the film has to offer is Dracula passing gas while on a date with Erika after she slips garlic oil into their guacamole.

At least there’s the acknowledgment in that moment of one of the canonical ways to deal with a vampire. Before the scene, Erika tries to kill Dracula in a variety of ways, including firing a flare gun at him and dropping a lifeboat on his head, missing each time like Wile E. Coyote trying to capture the Road Runner. But why is she making so many attempts with such non-lethal ammunition? Has she only been trained to hate Dracula and monsters in general without being taught about stakes to the heart and silver bullets, etc.? Seemingly, the filmmakers just forgot or ignored such details to go with easier gag setups.

While ultimately the main plot gives its young audience a lesson in deep-rooted racism, with Erika starting to see good traits in Dracula and the rest of the monsters, there’s really only enough story there to fill a half-hour TV episode. The rest is filler with its reminders that there are a lot more characters on board, including Frankenstein’s Creature (Kevin James), his bride (Fran Drescher), Murray the mummy (Keegan Michael-Key) and Dracula’s father (Mel Brooks). They get occasional unfunny bits or subplots that don’t go anywhere. If most of the Adam Sandler gang’s live-action movies can be accused of just giving their cast paid vacations, much of Hotel Transylvania 3 appears to just be an excuse to give them an easy paycheck.  

Continued franchise director Genndy Tartakovsky does wrangle all the characters proficiently, never letting the frenetic animation overload the senses of us parents escorting our less-attentive children to their spectacle of literal gibberish and bright garbage. And there are a few decent sequences, including a flight on Gremlin Airlines that reminded me of the anarchic concept of traveling cross-country Oscar the Grouch-style presented long ago in the Sesame Street film Follow That Bird. Also, a tango through a series of booby traps during an Indiana Jones-esque treasure-hunting segment is satisfying if not terribly original.

Still, the most we can hope for with the Hotel Transylvania brand at this point is that its fans will one day advance to the much better inspirations, not just the old novels and films its characters are based on but also the more amusing monster mashes (i.e. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein and the animated Mad Monster Parody?) and parodies — the 92-year-old Brooks can’t be spending his final years taking part in these wannabe horror spoofs for nothing; surely he hopes a new generation will eventually discover his own monster comedies, the masterpiece Young Frankenstein and the lesser send-up Dracula: Dead and Loving It, even if he’s not around to see that happen.  

The first Hotel Transylvania is also worthy of becoming a minor classic for kids, compared to this sequel anyway. There are genuine jokes in that movie stemming from an entertaining narrative with a clever story that doesn’t depend too much on a villain’s plot. Hotel Transylvania 3 feels more like an infomercial for a potential real monsters-themed family cruise (Sony has to have considered the possibility) featuring all these characters and their disappointingly uninspired recreational activities, such as “monster ball” (just volleyball where the ball is alive) and plain old regular casino games — really, guys, not even a try for puns like Batcarrat or Pai Ghoul?

At one point in the movie, Murray the mummy says, “You’ve gotta be greater than the haters.” It’s a line in response to the heritage racism stuff, and it may remind some of the grown-ups in the audience of the political “when they go low, we go high” concept or more simply the Golden Rule. For me, it also means you have to do better if you want to avoid negative criticism, and Hotel Transylvania 3 just doesn’t seem to have tried very hard. There are few laughs, nothing interesting about the characters that we haven’t already seen, and nary a set piece the target audience will remember without (inevitable) repeat viewings. Avoid this one, if you can.

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Christopher began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called 'Read,' back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials.