by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
I have been given crap for my review of Tinker Bell & The Pirate Fairy because I dared to compare it to other, far superior animated movies on the market; your Lego Movies, your Mr. Peabody & Shermans, your Frozens, even your How To Train Your Dragons. I got stick for commenting in detail on the animation quality. I got stick for attempting to evaluate the film despite not being part of the target audience. (I also got stick for not having familiarised myself with the series beforehand which is a fair complaint that I will admit is unprofessional of me.) I have even been accused of being the kind of guy who nitpicks at supposedly perfectly good films for no other reason than I like to and that I am the kind of guy who has forgotten why I go to the cinema: to have fun.
I don’t feel shamed by any of this. Really, I don’t. I don’t feel any remorse whatsoever for that review and I don’t feel any remorse for my continuing love and harsh criticism of animated films. Do you want to know why? It is not because I am a fun-hating killjoy with a giant stick shoved right up where the sun don’t shine. No, it is because I love animation. I adore animation. I always have and, goddammit, I always will. The medium is one filled with boundless, near-limitless storytelling potential. A chance to create and display images of astounding beauty that would be impossible or near-impossible to replicate in live-action. The possibility to take the viewer on a trip to brand-new worlds, the likes of which one has never seen before. A chance to make the kind of films and tell the kind of stories that would never get funded in live-action, wouldn’t have the same experience as in live-action, and to create a timelessness that telling the story in live-action might lack. Pixar (circa 1995 – 2010, minus 2006) were kings at crafting lived-in worlds, Disney can pump out strong, memorable characters in their sleep, DreamWorks at their best know perfectly how to balance comedy and strong character work, Persepolis (although not a kids’ film) is one of the most beautiful and emotionally affecting films that I have ever seen and could only be told in the way that it was via animation.
So, no. I will not apologise for the way I review animated films. I will not be forced to apologise for holding animated features a higher standard. Because I know that this medium can do better. I know for a fact that it is better and deserves better than the crap that is constantly pumped out cynically for a quick buck. I know that shovelware is going to crop up for all mediums and that live-action cinema, in all of its forms, has just as much, if not more, crap than the animated landscape ever will have. And guess what? I’ll call those out for being terrible, too. But animation means a whole lot to me and to be accused of being a fun-killer for not giving a pass to every cheap mediocre-or-worse slop that is plopped down in cinemas for the sole purpose of sucking parents’ wallets clean because, “Hey, the cinema’s cheaper than a babysitter,” infuriates me. I hate because I love, I hold animation to a higher standard because it can do better and I don’t just give slop aimed at the youngest and stupidest of children a pass because, guess what, they deserve better. And they can get better; turn on the TV to quite literally any cartoon channel nowadays and they will get better for free! There is no excuse and I will never apologise for the way I go about reviewing these films.
I bring this up because The Nut Job is literally a walking example of everything that is wrong with animated kids’ films. This is a film designed by a committee for the sole purpose of making money. There is no heart, there are no characters, there are fart noises and Gangam Style music cues in lieu of jokes, the animation is mediocre at best and terrible at worst, the voice acting is boring and uncommitted, the art design and layout and storyboarding is all lifeless and uninteresting. No effort has been put in, not in conception, not in execution. The one interesting thing it has is the fact that it kind of wants to be a heist movie, but it bungles proceedings so thoroughly, and seems so uninterested in actually being a heist movie, that all it does is leave me wishing that somebody would make an actually good animated heist movie.
Think of something that happens in a bad kids’ movie and it turns up here. A cast of characters who have one single trait, go through pretty much no arcs, and who exist almost solely for jokes yet the film still wants you to care about anyway? Lame puns based on a word that is supposedly inherently funny but really isn’t yet the film stops to call attention to it before moving on? Sequences set to chart-ready pop songs, including one where the film stops dead for a good minute because it was popular when the film went into production? Disconnected story threads where the human villains get nearly as much screen-time as the animals that we’re supposed to care about, and who keep getting shoved back into the main plot despite their overall irrelevance to it? A section near the end where it looks like our hero has died, and the film acts like he has, but then it turns out he’s actually OK and you were crying for no reason (which is a trope/beat I am officially banning all movies of all kinds from using in the future)? A lead female protagonist who is supposedly tough and capable on her own yet whose only function is to be constantly rescued by our lead male protagonist? An “Obligatory Dance Party Ending Over The Credits”? Yes, they are all present and correct and done with so little effort or interest it’s insulting.
The jokes, meanwhile… oh, lord, the jokes. The Nut Job has all kinds of bad jokes. We got fart jokes, jokes based on characters very noticeably and clumsily dropping the word “nut” into a sentence, jokes based around characters dancing to Gangam Style, obvious blind jokes, jokes that just involve characters shouting lines of dialogue at one another, jokes that just involve characters screaming lines of dialogue at one another, jokes designed around the fact that one of the characters has a bird who looks exactly like one of the Angry Birds birds, and jokes based around how irritatingly stupid the whole cast is (a stupid cast is fine in a comedy, obviously, but you need actual jokes because otherwise you’ve just got annoyingly stupid characters). Each joke is pulled off with a total lack of skill, effort, construction and timing (said fart jokes genuinely just involves fart sound effects playing on a near-constant loop on the soundtrack at one point as everyone takes turns to say how disgusting farting is). There is one, precisely one, that got a positive reaction out of me and that involved two speeding vans passing a donut shop, upon which point every cop inside collectively have their heads rise up like an old broken-down animatronic on a fairground ride. Everything else landed with a thud at best, or a sigh of derision at worst.
Animation is all over the shop. At the best of times, it’s half as good as Monsters Inc. from 2001. Character models lack detail but they are passable enough, scampering is clearly hiding a limited budget but at least fits considering the fact that we’re talking about squirrels and rats and the like, and there’s a bit in the finale involving water that doesn’t look horrible. Otherwise, this is hideous. Lighting is dreadful, sequences set at night barely look any different from sequences set in the day except that the sky is now purple. Everything lacks detail, something that’s especially prominent whenever the famed and desired nuts get a close-up and just end up looking plastic. Character movements that don’t involve scampering are too restrained and unconvincing, especially whenever cartoon physics take over (there are multiple jokes that should end with one or more characters dead which, incidentally, saps any tension the later sequences should have). Facial expressions frequently border on completely lifeless and mostly just settle for plain boredom, the lone female human genuinely looks like a Barbie doll and it is creepy as all hell. And character designs are uninspired with some characters (namely that bird and any and all humans) looking like they don’t even belong in the same film as the rest.
Also, during the aforementioned end credits dance party, an animated version of Psy comes out to dance to Gangam Style and I am not kidding or exaggerating or anything of the sort when I tell you that it is genuinely the cheapest and lowest resolution animation that I have seen in a feature-length animated film released in cinemas in… in… You know, I honestly can’t recall ever seeing an uglier and lower-quality piece of a theatrically-released animated feature-film. It is quite literally unbelievable just how horrible the end credits look.
Also of note is just how despicably unlikable the lead character is. Surly (voiced by a Will Arnett who clearly does not care enough to keep up the Russian accent I think his character is supposed to have) is a thoroughly unpleasant lead who is mean to everybody, selfish, and isn’t even witty or entertaining to make up for that fact. He’s just a jerk, a complete and total jerk. And he remains that way for a good 80% of the film’s runtime despite needing to become a more selfless and heroic guy at the end. So, at the 80% mark, around about the time the film’s big lifeless final chase scene starts, he suddenly becomes a paragon of virtue. As expected, it didn’t take to me, and it especially didn’t take seeing as every other character in the film is a complete tool that nobody in their right mind would step up and defend or a really annoying one-joke blank slate (step right up, the groundhogs) that is impossible to care about.
Look, folks, I am tired. I am tired of animated films that are not trying harder. Before The Nut Job, a trailer for Jorge R Guitérrez’s upcoming debut feature-length animated film The Book Of Life was shown. In that one two minute trailer, I saw more imagination, invention, heart, character, love, visual splendour and overall effort than the entirety of The Nut Job. There was also a trailer for Laika’s third animated feature The Boxtrolls and that too displayed more imagination, invention, heart, character, love, visual splendour and overall effort in two minutes than all 86 of The Nut Job. I am tired of people not aiming for those levels, I am tired of people not trying. They don’t even have to be that good, just as long as everyone involved is clearly trying. So I am done giving crappy animated films a pass. In a year that has seen The Lego Movie, in a year that has seen Mr. Peabody & Sherman and in a year that has seen How To Train Your Dragon 2, there is no excuse for Escape From Planet Earth, there is no excuse for Tarzan, there is no excuse for The House Of Magic and there is no excuse for the cynical, soulless pile of complete tripe known as The Nut Job.
You want to distract your kids with cartoons for two hours? Turn on Cartoon Network, turn on Nicktoons, turn on Disney; turn on any TV channel that shows cartoons because there are brand new kids’ shows on the air right now who are of far higher quality than this crap and which will cost you pretty much nothing. Just do not take them to this because not only is there better, and not only do your kids deserve better, animation as a whole deserves better. Do not reward them for churning sh*t like this out.