Reviewing the original Hotel Transylvania back in 2012, I remarked that, by the time Adam Sandler’s Dracula started rapping at the denouement, “I was dying for a Van Helsing to come in and clean house.”
That didn’t happen, of course, so in due course we got Hotel Transylvania 2, in which Dracula’s pixieish undead daughter Mavis (Selena Gomez) married her bohemian human boyfriend Johnny (Andy Samberg) and gave birth to a half-undead son named Dennis (the improbably named Asher Blinkoff).
But now, at last, there’s a Van Helsing in Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation. Two, in fact.
Jim Gaffigan voices the obsessive monster-hunter Abraham Van Helsing, who, in a prologue starting on a train in 1897 and proceeding to a montage of crashing and burning, pursues his chosen vocation of would-be vampire slayer with all the tenacity — and all the success, if not the slapstick logic — of the Coyote chasing the Road Runner.
Then there’s Abraham’s great-granddaughter, Ericka Van Helsing (Kathryn Hahn), who has more or less inherited the family trade and is out to succeed where her great-grandfather failed.
At this point, though, it’s clear that the Van Helsings are fighting a lost cause.
The original Hotel Transylvania took place in the shadow of centuries of alienation between monsters and humans, at least insofar as the latter were even aware of the existence of the former. Historically, it seems humans had persecuted monsters rather than the reverse; Drac, who never drinks human blood, lost his wife in an attack by an angry human mob and was bitterly anti-human as a result.
But Mavis’ open-minded curiosity about humans was clearly a harbinger of a more tolerant future — and in time, Drac realized that human society was evolving beyond its past prejudices.
In the first sequel, the monster community came out of the shadows and found the human world generally ready to welcome them. There were holdouts, of course, like Drac’s traditionally human-hating father, Vlad, voiced by Mel Brooks. In general, though, both sides were ready to let go of the hate.
Van Helsing is an old-school hater on the human side who will, of course, learn by the end to let go of the hate, too. This is such a foregone conclusion that as early as that 1897 prologue Drac is already mocking Van Helsing for his hopeless crusade and urging him to “let go of the hate,” which seems more progressive and less bitter than the Drac we met in the original movie. (Drac’s monster resort was founded a year later, in 1898. No, I have not seen any of these films more than once and don’t know the franchise that well. I’m looking at transcripts on the internet.)
Like Mavis in the first film, Ericka has been brought up to hate the other side, and, while she has been effectively brainwashed in a way Mavis never was, Ericka may not quite be the true believer grandfather is.
Somehow the Van Helsings lay a trap for Drac, whom Mavis believes is overworked and needs a vacation. The truth is that Drac is lonely after centuries of widowerhood and doesn’t believe he can connect with someone new, since the “Zing” — magical monster love at first sight — comes only once in a lifetime, or so we’ve been told since the first film.
Then Mavis books a monster cruise for them and all their family and friends, including Kevin James’ Frankenstein, David Spade’s Invisible Man and Keegan-Michael Key’s Mummy. The moment Drac lays eyes on the cruise ship’s female captain, he knows it’s possible to “zing” again. (“Zing” started out as a noun but was quickly verbified, as “Mavis and Johnny zinged.”)
The catch is that the captain is Ericka Van Helsing, and the ship belongs to her and her great-grandfather (or what’s left of him, after all that opening crashing and burning). See, this is the trap, though why the Van Helsings happen to own an ocean liner and then their archenemy goes on a cruise … sorry, I overthought that one.
Overthinking the plot, I’ll apologize for. Themes are another matter.
I found the first film’s “humans are the real monsters” theme tiresome, although in fairness the movie was really about overcoming mutual prejudice, and the premise was that neither humans nor monsters were truly the monsters the other side thought.
The monsters could be understood allegorically as a misunderstood invisible minority, although in that case the movie would seem to be saying that the minority needed to let go of their suspicions and recognize that the majority was ready to accept them, which I’m not sure is a message the filmmakers would have intended.
The target audience, of course, won’t be paying much attention to these themes of prejudice and tolerance. They’ll be laughing at gags like Drac trying to talk to a smartphone that mishears everything he says or little Dennis and his young werewolf gal pal Winnie (Sadie Sandler) trying to disguise Dennis’ elephant-sized puppy Tinkles with a trenchcoat and a tiny hat.
Adults may chuckle at a few gags, including a chupacabra joke and the weariness of Steve Buscemi and Molly Shannon’s werewolf couple who are overwhelmed with their large litter.
Still, just because it’s a dumb kiddie film doesn’t mean the ideas don’t matter. Hotel Transylvania told us that the “Zing” comes once in a lifetime, and when it hits it’s for life (whatever “life” means for vampires and mummies and walking skeletons). This is the kind of “Someday my prince will come” romanticism for which Disney has been doing penance in updated fairy tales like Frozen and Moana.
I’m not thrilled about the lack of worthy romantic leading men in recent Hollywood animation, but I prefer the theme in Frozen, about needing to get to know someone before deciding to get married, to this series’ magical, inexorable “Zing” moment.
In Hotel Transylvania, Mavis worried that maybe the “Zing” between her and Jonathan was only on her side, not his. (Internet transcript, I promise.)
This threequel makes it clear that “zinging” is destiny, and even if it strikes one person before the other, it’s still meant to be. So if Drac “zinged” when he saw Ericka, but Ericka didn’t “zing” back, Drac must still pursue her, even if she told him in so many words that she could never be with a monster. In the real world this translates to harassment and stalking. (Are male vampires who love human women ever not stalkerish?)
All three Hotel Transylvania movies were directed by Genndy Tartakovsky, most celebrated for small-screen fare like Samurai Jack and Dexter’s Laboratory. His often frenetic style and one-dimensional characters work well in short bursts on the small screen, but pall at feature length. Drac remains a dull protagonist, too lacking in self-awareness or substance for his father-daughter relationship with Mavis to have the appeal it should.
The animation is energetic and character design remains a strength. A race of fish-men, including a cruise host named Stan (Chris Parnell), are so visually striking they look like they belong in another movie, such as Rango. (Disappointingly, Stan gives the final destination, Atlantis, such a buildup that it’s a disappointment to arrive at what is more like Atlantic City, complete with a crooner Kraken who looks like a cheap knockoff of Jermaine Clement’s magnificent giant crab Tamatoa in Moana.)
The best sequence is Drac and Ericka’s dance of death in an ancient Indiana Jones-style deathtrap temple, with Ericka flinging herself at one booby trap after another and Drac either whisking her out of harm’s way with split-second timing or using himself as an inhuman shield. If the whole film were this memorable, you would be reading the last sentence of a very different review.
Caveat Spectator: Fantasy action violence; mild rude humor. Kids and up.