Twice isn't enough to make a trend, but it's maybe cause for hope: apparently any animated franchise, no matter how crappy, can reach its third entry and simultaneously hit the "we don't give a fuck" point, and suddenly become good. In 2012, Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted succeeded in being the first Madagascar film that was worth watching, almost entirely because it went off the deep end into acutely weird silliness. Something awfully similar has happened with Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation, a movie that has decided to look at the Hotel Transylvania series' central concept - Count Dracula (Adam Sandler) now runs a hotel for monsters out of his crumbling castle, while his free-spirited daughter Mavis (Selena Gomez) navigates young motherhood with her human husband Johnny (Andy Samberg) - and sagely concludes, "yes, but also on a boat, and about Dracula's sex life."

More importantly, the film finally tips over the point that 2015's Hotel Transylvania 2 was heading towards, but never reached: it's ceased to be an Adam Sandler vehicle and has instead become a Genndy Tartakovsky project. Not, to be sure, the project that Tartakovsky - a specialist in the flat, angular, brightly-colored TV animation of the 2000s, including the greatΒ Samurai Jack, which he created - would likely have made if he was left to his own devices and Sony wasn't such meanspirited assholes (the last several years of the director's career has consisted of Sony promising him a chance to make something he wants to do if he'd make a Hotel Transylvania first, after which he is told that he can't make that original project anymore, but they'll let him make another Hotel Transylvania). But it is a movie that he's taken control of more thoroughly than its predecessors, starting with the fact that it's his first writing credit on the series to date (he co-wrote the script with series newcomer Michael McCullers).

We'll get back to that, but first the dreary part: it's still a Hotel Transylvania, and it's still largely insipid as a narrative. After a prologue in 1897 establishing the run-in with tenacious vampire hunter Abraham Van Helsing (Jim Gaffigan) that led Dracula to build a safe haven for monsters in the first place, the film skips ahead to the present day (the very present day: it starts on 13 July 2018, also the date of its commercial release), to find that Dracula is sad because he's been single for more than a century. And unfortunately, the particulars of vampiric sex drives means that Dracula can only fall in love - or "zing", in the annoyingly over-used term this series fancies - one time in his life. Mavis misunderstands his sullen moping as a sign of overwork and stress, and so arranges a trip on a cruise ship for the whole gang: Dracula, reanimated corpses Frank (Kevin James) and Eunice (Fran Drescher), werewolves Wayne (Steve Buscemi) and Wanda (Molly Shannon), invisible man Griffin (David Spade), mummy Murray (Keegan-Michael Key), Dracula's dad Vlad (Mel Brooks), and little half-human grandson Dennis (Asher Blinkoff). All is fun and games, and romance is even a-brewing when Dracula finds himself zinging for human captain Ericka (Kathryn Hahn). The hitch is that Ericka is the great-grandaughter of Abraham Van Helsing, who still lives as a kind of steampunk cyborg in the bowels of the ship, and the entire cruise was concocted by the pair of them as a trap to kill off as many monsters as possible in one fell swoop.

There's really not much to say about any of this. It takes the path of least resistance to solve its central conflict, and diminishes every single established character other than Dracula. The verbal jokes are almost uniformly thin, sad little things, made worse by Sandler's mixture of his stock baby-man voice with a Bela Lugosi accent, Hahn's powerfully anonymous voice, and the unseemly haste with which the film speeds through its dialogue scenes. It's telling that Ericka's ancestry is revealed so very early on the proceedings: it knocks a lot of the interest out of the film as a story, giving the audience so much more information than the protagonists that it's hard to care about them or anything they do for the entire central act. What it does do is allow for a lot of gags as Ericka tries and fails to kill Dracula in a whole litany of wacky ways, and this is clearly the point of it. Hotel Transylvania 3 is less a narrative than a feature-length version of a short cartoon from Warner Bros. or MGM in the '40s, the kinds that establish the loosest kind of scenario and setting and then reel off as many visual jokes as can be stuffed into 7 minutes with room for the illusion of a resolution. It can't entirely commit to that, given the commercial realities of making an animated feature on Sony's dime, but there's a fair amount of comic business that exists more or less solely for Tartakovsky and the animators to play around with their characters' boneless bodies and endlessly malleable faces.

The result has a lot of Looney Tunes in it, especially the work of the great Bob Clampett, a pioneer in the plastic, physics-defying humor that typifies that breed of American cartoon (there's a ebullient sequence with a gremlin-run airline that's much too long and narratively pointless to be anything but Tartakovsky's tribute to Clampett's gremlin's, as well as Joe Dante's). But that's not all it has. The design of Ericka, with bulbous facial features and stretchy limbs, feels like she's a refugee from Tartakovsky's Popeye the Sailor feature that Sony killed off a few years back, and the rubber-band movement of the characters, jolting into place with floppy arms and necks, is an obvious extension of the character animation in the last twoΒ Hotel Transylvanias, taken to a new extreme. This is also true of the wonderful way the characters walk, with their upper bodies and lower bodies totally divorced from each other (and in this case, it's an extension of the character animation Tartakovsky has favored throughout his career). The film's climax is a caustic parody of dance party endings that reads as an animation lover's long, drawn-out "fuuuck youuuu" to the state of the industry over the last fifteen years.

It's a very pleasant movie to look at then: the characters move like sentient putty, the jokes joyfully ignore physics and continuity to embrace bold poses, bolder lighting, and boldest-of-all colors (one running gag is that Ericka's face is drenched in unmotivated cherry red light when she prepares to attack Dracula). It's a love-letter to the medium as a place for big gestures and no realism at all, and even when it locks its characters into static positions - as, for example, when the werewolves stand in shell-shocked amazement at having been able to drop off their unruly children at a "kids' club" - it's still attentive to the 2-D animation principles of strong expressive poses. This is a movie made by somebody who loves animation and wants it to be better, and not for one scene do you forget that. Unfortunately, it's still a children's comedy in 2018, still beholden to the tacky humor of such a thing (garlic doesn't kill vampires, as it turns out, but merely makes them fart), and shackled by its frankly dumb story. It's the most enjoyable Hotel Transylvania by a long shot, but it's still a Hotel Transylvania, and the best thing it could ever do in the world is give Tartakovsky a chance to make something else. By this point, it's hard to remain optimistic.

Reviews in this series
Hotel Transylvania (Tartakovsky, 2012)
Hotel Transylvania 2 (Tartakovsky, 2015)
Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation (Tartakovsky, 2018)