The day before viewing Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation, my eight-year-old daughter and I crammed both of the preceding installments in a 3-hour binge. Yup, 180 minutes of animated Adam Sandler shtick, co-written either by Sandler himself (Hotel Transylvania 2) or Robert Smigel (a Sandler collaborator since “Saturday Night Live”). (British comedy writer Peter Baynham co-wrote the first film with Smigel but has disappeared from the franchise.) All the films follow the standard Adam Sandler formula found in almost everything he’s done, including the arthouse pictures. (Note: I love a lot of Sandler’s films, from Punch-Drunk Love to You Don’t Mess With The Zohan. I’m not trying to be a snob here.)
The formula goes something like:
Humans are bad. Monsters are good. Monsters have very human-like problems, making us laugh at exaggerated similarities. Monsters have sudden problem with human in their midst. Monsters grow to appreciate human. Through a misunderstanding, human betrays monster. Human leaves. Monster receives lesson and comeuppance. Monster resolves problems with human. Human and monsters reach common ground. Uplifting lesson is taught and learned. Party like it’s 1999. Roll animated credits (with no post-credits scenes, thankfully).
Where the Hotel Transvlvania franchise stumbles is in its utter ham-fisted handling of these lessons. The second one’s “I’ll love you no matter what you are – human, monster, or unicorn” attempt at inclusivity falls flat when it opts for a Grease-like ending. These are the kinds of movies which make adults yell “WHY DON’T YOU JUST ______ (insert logical action here)?!” while kids will be entranced by the dramatics and – let’s face it – the requisite family-friendly dick/fart/poop jokes. I mean, eight minutes into the first film, there’s a flatus and butt gag. You know what you’re signing up for when you agree to watch these flicks.
But Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation lands a little differently, more assuredly than its predecessors. The film’s ultimate message of racism being unlearned and letting go of the past resonates a little more loudly in today’s political climate. Co-writer (and franchise director) Genndy Tartakovsky and new franchise writer Michael McCullers, unintentionally or otherwise, have made an unexpected treasure of a film which tackles the specter of inter-generational hatred head-on and makes no apologies for it. Sure, you have to put up with Sandler’s weirdly-accented Dracula and everyone’s illogical idiocy, but it’s nice to see a kid’s film making an effort to denounce racism and xenophobia.
I can hear you asking, Well, didn’t the first two films do the same thing? Not on this scale and not from this perspective. The first two films were about the outsiders getting over their racial hang-ups. Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation shows the power of wealthy, educated, and good-looking white people being used to eradicate a portion of the population who doesn’t look or act like them. The undesirables are represented by the Drac Pack, consisting of Universal Horror staples of the 1930s and ‘40s – Dracula (Sandler) himself, Frankenstein’s monster (Kevin James – referred to as “Frankenstein,” which is just wrong), werewolf Wayne (Steve Buscemi), the Invisible Man (David Spade), and mummy Murray (Keegan-Michael Key) – who can’t escape the problems and mundanities of regular human lives.
The conceit of these films is that these monsters are just like us. They’re parents who don’t have time to themselves, single parents looking for love, children trying to do the right thing by their families and friends, and the friends who just want to help them. Aside from hair which grows on full moons, fangs, removable parts, and a whole lot of slime, not much differs from our everyday lives. We’re all trying to carve a piece of this world out for ourselves and possibly share it with someone else – is that too different from the norm? They’ve also dedicated themselves to not harming humans, which is admirable in and of itself.
Well, with the exception of Bram Stoker’s own monster hunter Abraham Van Helsing (Jim Gaffigan). Seen in the early goings trying to spoil the monsters’ lives and fun at every turn, he usually gets the worst of whatever punishment he wishes to inflict. As the Drac Pack are our heroes, of course we’re cheering when Van Helsing goes off a cliff into the sea in the film’s prologue. His hate is seen as irrational and dumb, and we figure it dies with him; the worst is that it’s been passed onto his great-granddaughter Ericka (Kathryn Hahn), the captain of a cruise ship called the Legacy.
No, that’s not obvious. At all.
Unfortunately, it’s the cruise ship the Drac Pack – including all of their families – have just boarded for a monster-themed getaway. Dracula’s been overworked, dedicating too much of his life to his hotel and not enough to himself, a problem his daughter Mavis (Selena Gomez) handles by booking this cruise. It’s innocuous and fun, and everyone looks like they’re having a great time, but Ericka plans to avenge her great-grandfather by disposing of every monster on her boat. Two huge monkey wrenches are thrown into the works: Abraham’s still alive and on the Legacy, and Dracula finds himself “zinging” – the monster version of “falling in love at first sight” – hard for Ericka.
It’s a very superficial movie in a superficial trilogy. The “zing” results from merely looking at someone and falling for them, rather than finding out what’s in their hearts and minds. Dracula doesn’t even know one thing about Ericka, yet he’s talking in indecipherable babble language because his heart has been taken over by this gorgeous woman during their first encounter. Of course, like most films of this ilk, things work out all right, but it’s kind of a ridiculous notion on which one should base their feelings, and it’s a dubious lesson for the kids. Like I said, though, the kids aren’t going to be worried about that. Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation and the films before it are painted with very broad strokes, aiming for the cheap and easy sight gag to keep the hilarity going and to transition us to the next scene or location.
Yet the ultimate lesson about dispelling deep-seated family racism and replacing it with love? It’s the best lesson of the three films, and a very timely one. For all of the bodily humor and Sandlerisms – the Billy Madison-esque baby-talk, the lack of originality, and the overreliance on gags found in the preceding films – Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation has a good heart and mind. Family, self-sacrifice, and the defeat of prejudice and hate – if only real life could follow this example. Not that I’d call it a “shining example” – after all, there are serious and comedic attempts at harm and murder, no matter if they’re monsters or not. But Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation places its morals first and sticks to them consistently, making this one the best of the series.