REVIEW – “Hotel Transylvania’s Summer Vacation” Aims for Greatness, Settles for Only Marginal Improvements to Put Franchise Back on Track

By Joe Hammerschmidt

It appears as 2018 has overall been an impressive year for film, yet this summer has been very hit and miss so far for franchise fare and their respective sequels, the ones most, let’s say unwarranted. And in the case of Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation, entirely unexpected and premature. Hasn’t been even three full years since the previous film, a rather weak follow-up to a 2012 launchpad that easily reminded audiences what good Adam Sandler could do with the right material. The writing style of this trilogy has stayed rather consistent; a tighter premise indeed makes this third take a bit more palatable, allowing Sandler and all his friends another chance at a family-friendly funfest, and a serious return to comic form, even when the prevalent messages still appear as muted. The key is to learn from one’s missteps in a franchise, and for the most part, that can still be accomplished with enough to keep the crowds guessing.

Enough time has passed at the hotel, a nondescript castle in the Hungarian woods, where Dracula (Sandler) is keeping busy as its owner and manager. But of course, maintaining a regular clientele while also playing the role of dad to plucky Mavis (Selena Gomez) and hipster-esque husband Jonathan (Andy Samberg), as well as doting grandpa to floofy-haired Dennis (Asher Blinkoff) is what tips the scales into a period of overworked burnout. The answer couldn’t be simpler: an extended vacation where the entire cast is treated to a week-long cruise taking them from the Bermuda Triangle to a crude version of Atlantis, where it’s all shown in the style of 50s Vegas, complete with Nick Jonas as a Kraken lounge singer. (Note: the original song written just for Jonas may have some end-of-year awards potential, just saying.) Whereas the first two films focused on a culture clash of embracing one’s identity for face value, whether human or monster, exactly what made HT1 a delightful treat, and what drowned HT2 into a mediocre mess, this third film shakes things up a trifle while unhesitant to resume the action left behind in the tail end of HT2 and managing to work in a far more competent villain who’s a valued element to the plot instead of a late afterthought.

Enter Abraham Van Helsing (Jim Gaffigan), a frequent enemy of Dracula’s, having tried to hunt and murder him down for well over 120 years. He sees his next opportunity while on the cruise, keeping a second eye on her great-granddaughter, Erika (Kathryn Hahn), the cheerful cruise director with a slight dark side influenced by her elder relative. Drac, who never considered romance a possibility after the grizzly mob murder of her beloved Martha, back when Mavis was just an infant. Over a century had passed since then, but given vampires can’t die, to the patriarch it still feels like only yesterday. And if I had one minor grievance to file regarding HT3’s structural integrity, it’s the tendency to play its storyline very episodic, like it was an extended episode of the TV series, which one wishes could be as enthralling.

Director Gennedy Tartakovsky makes it 3-for-3 as director, following a short break to helm the farewell run of his cherished Samurai Jack, and his aim for consistency between installments is as prevalent as before. Losing Robert Smigel as scriptwriter, however, has its slight drawbacks with a rather awkward tonal shift which still does right by the franchise as a collective, yet isn’t without its generous flaws. Nearly all the franchise’s established supporting characters appear in one form or another, and the way all their subplots stack up could leave a mysteriously tacky flavor on the tongue. Tartakovsky, with co-writer Michael McCullers (The Boss Baby), almost propose a near sitcom-y approach to each little quirk between all the characters and how they’re all “enjoying the cruise”, so to speak.

Among the highlights would be the return of exhausted werewolf parents Wayne and Wanda (Steve Buscemi and Molly Shannon, respectively) finally given a chance to unload their kids to the hired daycare staff and go wild and free like youngsters again. It’s almost cute, almost hilarious, and while it doesn’t pose a sufficient payoff, the comic interjection’s still upbeat enough. Invisible Man Griffin (David Spade) is seen making goo-goo eyes to new girlfriend Crystal (Crissy Teigen), who had been teased about in the closing minutes of HT2 but fail to contribute little more than a pair of memorable lines. Chris Parnell also returns with added gusto, taking on the new role of every single fish-man employee on the cruise, culminating in an ironically lifeless karaoke cover of a Macklemore tune, which surprisingly fits the mood of its respective scene. Mel Brooks’ Grandpa Drac is still a listless throwaway character who simply doesn’t have much purpose for the simplistic plot. And then there’s Blinkoff’s portrayal of the youngest Dracula; after a couple years, his vocal style has grown as a youngster actor, adding on to some of the more fascinatingly comic moments that could be offered; couple that with the back and forth shared alongside Sandler’s daughter Sunny, also returning as werewolf cub Winnie, who may have developed a crush on the vampire kid, not that parents wouldn’t find that at all weird, it’s supposed to be cute, and it is.

Each of these intersecting plotlines would be better suited as separate shorts, much like last year’s Puppy!, Combined it’s all still a slightly cluttered mess in Tartakovsky’s hands. Left untended, the hilarity even manages to distract from the real matter at hand, Drac finding newfound romance and avoiding certain demise. Focus on one important idea is eschewed in favor of the chaos of a summer vacation. Far superior vacation flicks can accomplish chaos a little more casually and still take it seriously; here, it’s just a trifle half-baked, and not entirely complete in its intents. The cast still gives their all, they still love these characters, or it at least sounds like they’re all not doing the work just for an easy paycheck. And for what the romantic inclinations are worth, Sandler and Hahn do share a fair chemistry, but when working against a larger ensemble cast, they’re buried near the middle of the pack.

Hotel Transylvania 3 really embraces its imperfections well, effortless in bouncing back from an unmemorable middle act to build a more confident structural integrity for just where the series should go, if it knows where to draw the line, unlike a certain franchise who fared better overseas its last time out. While the writing style’s drastic changes may weigh down the film’s messiness, there will still be plenty to enjoy, for both kids and parents. If you enjoyed all in the trilogy that came before this third feature, bound not to be the last, it won’t be at all difficult to find the same fondness back in spades. Consider franchise longevity secured, provided the cards stay winning, and one’s “zing” remains an honest hope for love springing eternal. (C+)

Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation opens in most area theaters this weekend; rated PG for some action and rude humor; 97 minutes.