Hotel Transylvania 3: Cruise Control
The Hotel Transylvania movies are made for two audiences: children, and Gennedy Tartakovsky fans. For my generation growing up, Tartakovsky was a big deal. The man pretty much single-handedly invented the Cartoon Network in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, with shows like Dexter’s Laboratory, Samurai Jack, and the first Star Wars: Clone Wars (he was also heavily involved in The Powerpuff Girls). And it’s his unique style more than anything that has separated the Hotel Transylvania movies from other animated kids’ fare. The obnoxiously titled Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation makes the series a trilogy and breaks with the tradition of releasing these films around Halloween. Whether this effects its performance remains to be seen, but it certainly mixes up the premise and atmosphere.
Count Dracula (Adam Sandler) is still running Hotel Transylvania, but mistaking his loneliness for stress, his daughter Mavis (Selena Gomez) arranges a cruise trip for the family and all the other denizens of the hotel. However the cruise is run by Captain Ericka (Kathryn Hahn), the secret great-granddaughter of Abraham Van Helsing (Jim Gaffigan), sworn to kill Dracula, who, unaware of this, is falling in love with her.
The change of scenery does benefit this movie. One of the biggest problems with Hotel Transylvania 2 was that there was little variety in its design, and there wasn’t much more creativity to sap out of the same moody, gothic setting. There is nothing at all gothic about a cruise ship, and the movie has no problem embracing its new look, and with that some new humour. The comedy is still very much that highly energized, expressive kind of slapstick that’s Tartakovsky’s trademark, and it’s these physical jokes that work more than most of the dialogue gags. Some of the scenes of Dracula obliviously foiling Ericka’s attempts to kill him for example, have the pacing, rhythm, and inventiveness of a Sylvester and Tweety cartoon. There are a number of sequences like this, visually creative, interesting, and manic more often than not, and they’re the best parts of the movie -especially when they’re also cleverly paying homage to the likes of The Addams Family and The Twilight Zone. However not every piece of slapstick lands, and a there are a number of cliché jokes, as well as some that just don’t work in this context. Mumbling gibberish to indicate being infatuated was almost always funny coming from Mel Blanc, not so much from Adam Sandler.
It’s easy to criticize Sandler these last few years given his track record, but he’s largely been perfectly fine in this series. Much of Dracula’s storyline is driven by misunderstanding, and obviously includes a typical liar revealed device. It’s broken up though, which softens its laziness, by the humour and by other subplots. Kathryn Hahn does well as the film focusses on Ericka quite a bit, and Mavis has the more conservative arc for a change, being preoccupied with her fathers’ budding romance while wanting a family vacation. Gomez isn’t bad, though Andy Samberg as her human husband Johnny is more useless than he’s been in either previous film.
There’s also comedic threads linked to Wayne and Wanda Werewolf (Steve Buscemi and Molly Shannon) being free of their horde of children, and Mavis’ young son and his friend -a veritable Linus and Sally who are adorable- trying to keep their giant stowaway dog a secret. The only one of these that gets grating is the arc of Van Helsing himself and his evil machinations. His aggravating personality matches his hideous appearance in the worst way possible. Kevin James, Fran Drescher, David Spade, Keegan Michael-Key, and Mel Brooks reprise their roles as well.
The biggest highlight of any Hotel Transylvania movie though is Tartakovsky’s stylized animation. Even though it’s computer animation, it operates on very traditional techniques. These include heavy exaggeration in the characters’ features, movement, and shapes, and an avoidance of three-dimensional textures to maintain a cartoonish flexibility. Tartakovsky said in an interview with the LA Times in 2012: "I don't want to do animation to mimic reality; I want to push reality." And he’s done that very successfully in all his projects, clearly heavily influenced by folks like Tex Avery and Chuck Jones. Hotel Transylvania 3 demonstrates this better than its predecessor, and it makes even some of the lacklustre story moments look dynamic. And for those who’ve watched Tartakovsky’s cartoons, it’s fun noticing his familiar tricks.
These are some pretty positive things to say about a movie that uses its climax to shamelessly showcase what songs they have the rights to. Really, the Hotel Transylvania films aren’t great animated movies by any stretch. But Hotel Transylvania 3 is the funniest of them, and maybe in some strange way, the most charming. Obviously it’s not got the spooky Halloween atmosphere of the previous films, but that’s okay -the original did that well enough; and like the original, this one’s surprisingly good for what it is: an energetic, creative, colourful, innocuous kids movie that will get some good laughs out of adults as well.