Cue the sax, it’s the Failed Critics Podcast: Latenight Softcore Edition, where host Steve Norman finally gets his wish to make Owen Hughes review Emmanuelle In Space, possibly the boobiest of all our quiz booby-prizes thus far. If you giggle when you hear naughty words, you’re going to, well, giggle, when you hear our quiz.
Early this morning, podcast host Steve Norman took over the Failed Critics Twitter account (@FailedCritics) from around 9.30am for a very special tweet-a-thon. For almost 18 hours, Steve will live-tweet all eight Star Wars movies in sequential order, beginning with Episode I: The Phantom Menace…
“Don’t you want to be the hero?”
As much as it may force me to sacrifice one of my man cards (I’m a massive, tattooed, bearded, former cage fighter; I can spare a couple), I can’t help but love Disney animated films. I adored Zootropolis earlier in the year. Not because it tries to cure all forms of xenophobia with a cute bunny, but because it was a fun film to watch. To spend a couple of hours every other week for a couple of months watching it in the cinema with my three year old was an awesome way to spend my Saturday mornings.
It’s also the only film this year who’s cinema trips comes close to the number of times I saw Deadpool.
So now the House of Mouse have squeezed in a second feature for the year, screwing up my favourite animations list for the upcoming Failed Critics awards and, possibly, thrown a wrench in the works for certain other upcoming rewards.
Moana is the strong headed teenage daughter of a tribal chief on a Polynesian island. Having discovered “The Heart of Te Fiti” as a toddler on the beach, Moana finds herself as the one person, chosen by the ocean itself, whose destiny is to travel across the seas to find a long missing demigod, Maui (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson). Foregoing the responsibilities of being a future chief, the young girl follows what she believes is her destiny and heads out to the open ocean to find the shapeshifting god that can save her tribe’s island from dying.
But her travels aren’t easy, and even once she’s found the banished god amongst men, the journey to return the Heart to its rightful place is wrought with danger and the unlikely pair must learn to work together so Moana can save her people and Maui can be the hero he wants to be.
First things first. I went to see this film having read more than one review that said the Maui’s musical number “You’re Welcome” is a song to rival “Friend Like Me” from 1993’s Aladdin. I’ll be honest, this put my back up a little bit and I rolled into the screening already on the defensive. Between being my favourite animated movie ever, and having a real personal and emotional connection with almost all of Robin Williams’ comedy works, I was ready to tear this film apart.
But I can’t. It’s just amazing.
No, the song doesn’t compare with Williams’ musical numbers. But Johnson’s Maui (not Maui’s Johnson – that’s the Brazzers XXX parody you’re looking for) is easily the best sidekick SINCE the Genie.
Another strong female character for Disney, Moana is immensely fun to watch and cheer for. She’s not infallible and she’s not the smartest kid on the block, but to watch her grow up in front of us is awesome. She grows from simply being a hotheaded kid to someone who doesn’t just get done what she needs to get done, but learns about herself, her path and her destiny along the way. Guided by not much more than her gut and her determination, to see this youngster succeed is an absolute pleasure.
Like the Genie before him, Maui – and his tattoos – steal the show. This cocky, arrogant, cheeky demigod is simply The Rock’s personality transplanted to the magical hero. Maui is what drives the story forward. Painted like a bad guy by Moana’s tribe, when we finally meet him and his story is revealed, we get to see the big man – this God on Earth – as a humbled hero looking to prove himself not just to the world, but to himself as well. You can only get so far on confidence alone and we see Maui grow almost as much as we see Moana. I mean, there’s almost certainly some dry-humping do-gooder out there complaining that the representation of the demigod plays to overweight Samoan stereotypes, but screw those guys. He looks cool!
Maui’s history is told through his tattoos, a gorgeous traditional Polynesian design that the hero talks to. Marked by the gods every time he does something to earn one, his ink is a storyboard of his life that includes more than one depiction of the man himself. It’s this silhouette that Maui talks to, argues with, and he brings a huge amount of laughs with his relationship with his tattooed self. The pokes, prods and insults that our hero suffers at the hands of his tattoos are an absolute show stealer.
The bottom line, Moana isn’t a film with as strong and serious an undercurrent as Zootropolis. But it is a story with a point. It’s a story about a strong woman proving she’s strong. It’s a story about a strong headed woman pushing back against a culture that tries to stifle her. More than anything else, it’s a fun, feel good family adventure with laughs aplenty for kids and adults alike.
It’s an exhilarating 100 minutes that I’m genuinely looking forward to sharing with the wife and kid once it hits general release. I dare you to give me a better measure of a movie than one you’re excited to share with the family.
Moana is released in cinemas nationwide on Friday 2nd December.
Wahey look how quirky and gothic we are as hosts Steve Norman and Owen Hughes stumble around for far longer than they should on this week’s podcast discussing Tim Burton’s latest zany fantasy film, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. Ooooh we’re so weird. Steve’s got a face full of wasps and Owen constantly props himself up with sticks else he sinks into the ground. It’s fine though because of the randomness and wacky way we present ourselves so you’ll have to love it.
Oh, by the way, I was being sarcastic.
In less annoying Burton-esque tropes, the pair struggle to get a handle on why Disney are bothering to remake The Lion King and end the show rather unusually by trying to figure out exactly what’s wrong with the BBC’s sitcoms lately.
In What We’ve Been Watching, Steve also finally gets to see Don’t Breathe after its glowing review on the podcast a few weeks back, whilst Owen revisits the remake of one of his favourite ever movies in 2008’s Day of the Dead.
Join us again next week for a slightly more on track podcast (presumably).
“You is in giant country.”
While you lot were all worried about Ghostbusters ruining your childhoods, I had far bigger worries. I was crapping my pants that Steven Spielberg, a director I only really have a passing taste for, was about to actually ruin my childhood by remaking one of my favourite films from back in the day: The BFG.
But much like how that supernatural remake wasn’t aimed at me, I kinda thought that maybe this one wasn’t either, but still I thought I’d give it a shot. And much like Ghostbusters before it, not only did I love it, but I can’t wait to show it to my kid.
Orphan Sophie spends her sleepless nights wandering around the halls of the London orphanage she has known all her life. When her 3am excursions around the house mean she’s awake to investigate the noises outside, she discovers the unimaginable; a giant, roaming the streets of London. Things go a little pear-shaped when the giant grabs the young girl and takes her to the far away Giant Country where he lives.
Sophie and the giant soon become friends; and while he teaches her about his job, catching and storing dreams during the day and spreading them to children at night, she gets her hands dirty trying to help. But all is not smiles and happiness in Giant Country. It turns out that our Big Friendly Giant is in fact the runt of a rather large litter where both he and his house are subject to constant bullying from these enormous mounds of muscle that spend their nights hunting for children to eat! With the Giants wanting to eat Sophie, and with the BFG wanting to keep her safe, the pair must work together to keep each other safe.
Let’s start with something blindingly obvious: this is a kid’s film. It’s got production value – of course it has, it’s a Steven Spielberg film – and it’s got a $140 million budget. But at the end of the day, it’s a kid’s film based on a kid’s book and you should absolutely go into this the same way you would the latest Dreamworks or Disney animation. This isn’t like that time that Tim Burton made Alice in Wonderland look like a drunken acid trip, it’s a (relatively) faithful adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic book, aimed at kids – and it’s a load of fun.
At the heart of the film is Mark Rylance’s BFG who, for fans like me, gets the giant’s broken English down really well. His mannerisms too. OK, it’s a large amount of computer generated animation, but he just nails the part of the giant.
Just as important, or maybe more so, is twelve year old Ruby Barnhill in what I believe is her first feature film. She has set a very high bar for herself with her performance as Sophie, the brave orphan that befriends the giant. She looks scared when she’s supposed to and really convinces us that she likes spending her time with the BFG, especially considering that for a large portion of the time she must have been talking to nothing while she was making the film. She’s absolutely outstanding.
I sat and watched this film in a screening filled with kids that all loved their time with it. From the fantastical giant, who sounds daft when he talks, to the best fart joke pay-off I’ve seen in years; they loved every minute of it. Ok, I admit, the fart joke got me too! But as I’ve established plenty of times before, I’m basically a giant child with an unlimited card. It’s all about being able to sit yourself down and be a kid for a couple of hours, suspending your disbelief for a bit and actually imagining that maybe giants exist. I can’t wait to share it with my kid.
Remakes are a cause for concern in the world of cinema. Not many of them work, or can hold a candle to the original. An almost all CGI/digitally rendered version of the Jungle Book? Brave? Yes. Worth doing? No.
My thoughts until I saw the trailer.
It looked dark, exciting and very real, but that did not mean the film would be the same. Luckily it was.
Like most people who had a childhood, Disney films are remembered fondly. None more so than the 1967 version of Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book. The story, as I’m sure all the readers know: human child Mowgli lost in the jungle as a baby, raised by wolves and hated by the tiger Shere Khan. The movie is iconic for its characters and its catchy tunes.
The 2016 version, directed by Iron Man‘s John Favreau, is a darker and more grown up version but still retains its sense of fun. The plot is basic, but you don’t need something intricate; it is the performances, visuals and action that make the film a joy to watch.
It certainly is brave to make an almost exclusively CGI movie (I suppose it would have been braver to do a live action movie with a child acting with dangerous animals). We’ve all seen the flack that the Star Wars prequels and Hobbit movies got for excessive use of the green screen.
Here it works though. The jungle looks beautiful; from the muddy ravines and hillsides traversed by herds of wildebeests, to the wolf packs home and Baloo’s lush looking place of residence. The animals look amazing as well. Very real (I should know, I’ve been to Monkey World and Longleat) and you can see a lot of work has gone in to making both appearance and movement accurate. The only minor gripe is the smaller animals, which to me at least, looked very computer generated.
However, it is the voice acting that makes this film. Every single one is spot on. Idris Elba perhaps steals the show as the menacing Shere Khan, hell bent on killing Mowgli. He makes the character wonderfully menacing and intimidating. He really makes the tiger sound like someone to fear.
Of course, Bill Murray is great at as the fun loving Baloo. His singing voice might not be the best but if you cannot enjoy his rendition of the Bare Necessities then there is something wrong with you, you joyless misery. Sir Ben Kingsley is also wonderful as the wise protector of Mowgli, Bagheera.
You can almost run down the cast list and tick off every one doing a voice as top drawer. Scarlett Johansson in her brief appearance as Kaa is eerie and Christopher Walken puts in a great turn as the no-longer-an-orangutan King Louie.
Neel Sethi, as the only real thing in this movie, also does well. It seems a very natural performance and it looks like he’s having fun with it. Don’t forget this is a kid in his first major role working with, for the most part, things that are not there.
The best compliment you can give to the voice acting is that now, in my head, those actors and actresses voices are those characters whereas before seeing this I could still hear those from the 1967 version. Elba et al have over ridden those voices in my mind.
The Jungle Book is a beautifully crafted retelling of a classic story and well worth seeing. I only saw it in 2D but have a feeling it is one of few films where 3D works.
Oh and stick around for the end credits.
Sorry, you won’t find life’s bare necessities on this page. Life’s sort-of, not entirely annoying, mildly amusing leisure accompaniment? That sounds more like it.
I suppose that means welcome to this week’s Failed Critics Podcast, featuring the saddest sentence you’ll ever hear another human say, plus hosts Steve Norman and Owen Hughes are joined by Callum Petch as they attempt a review of Disney’s latest adventure movie, The Jungle Book.
As usual, we start the show off with a quiz, but unusually we don’t conclude it until the very end of the show. I blame Steve. In between all that we also try to round up the week’s film news, specifically looking at: the potential live-action Pokemon film series heading to our screens; our first reactions to the Ghost In The Shell remake that’s in the pipeline; and whether or not it’s fine to use your mobile phone in the cinema. We also squeeze into a packed show our regular ‘What We’ve Been Watching’ section, which sees Owen battle Batman Returns, Callum dances in step with Frances Ha and Steve goes all 30-year-old dismayed podcasting homo-sapien on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Ding dong, merrily on high – Steve’s pants are wet and minging.
Don’t worry. He just got a bit over-excited on last week’s Star Wars podcast. But before Steve worked himself up into that state, you can listen to his usual mildly-subdued-self as he hosted our Christmas special podcast, recorded the week before he exploded in a fit of fan-geekery over The Force Awakens.
Joining him in our festive celebrations during this most unholy Winterval and non-religion-specific season are Owen Hughes, Andrew Brooker and Brian Plank. As is tradition, we start off with a Christmassy quiz – quite possibly the worst quiz we’ve had on the podcast all year. Possibly ever. But moods are soon lifted as the team run through which Christmas movies they’ve been watching over the holiday period.
In lieu of any main releases to talk about, we have a special triple bill where each member of the crew pick their films of Christmas past (favourite first watch of a non-2015 film during this year), Christmas present (favourite 2015 release) and Christmas future (which movie they’re most looking forward to in 2016). It really isn’t as confusing as I’ve made it sound.
There’s still one more podcast to go this year – our Failed Critics Awards end of year wrap up (deadline for votes is 27th Dec) – so you can join us again later this month. Until then, Merry Christmas from all of us here at Failed Critics!
My love affair with Star Wars began in 1997 when they were re-released in to cinemas for the 20th anniversary of A New Hope hitting the silver screen. I was 10 or 11 and had not seen them on television before – or at least not to my recollection.
Sure, I’d seen other big action films before. I had certainly seen Jaws and Jurassic Park – and I am sure that I had seen Apollo 13 too. All great, but nothing blew me away quite like Star Wars.
When ‘A Long Time Ago, In A Galaxy Far, Far Away’ hit the screen, followed by the fanfare, opening crawl and shots of spaceships in battle, I was overawed and in love straight away.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m no geek or nerd, and you won’t find me at Comic-Con or bidding on eBay for the mint condition collectable of ‘second alien from the right in the Mos Eisley Cantina’. But if there are two things I’m obsessed with, then it’s football and Star Wars. That’s in spite of the prequels trying to dampen my love for them.
So, when Disney bought the rights from George Lucas and announced a new trilogy plus spinoffs, bidding to build a Star Wars version of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, my excitement was tempered by trepidation. Would this be another Gungan filled Phantom Menace, or a return to form?
I’m happy to say it was the latter; a fun film that just felt like Star Wars. There were no trade disputes or convoluted issues in the senate hall. It was fun, it was exciting, it was intriguing, it was emotional, it was laugh out loud funny and it was dark.
Luke, Leia, Han, Chewie, R2D2, C3PO and The Millennium Falcon all return to the franchise along with a number of background and secondary characters, giving call backs to the original trilogy (not much, if anything, from the prequels found its way to this to this corner of the galaxy) making certain that you are in Star Wars territory.
In fact, Han and Chewie are their usual, roguish, all-action selves. You can’t help but love the pair and feel a twinge of joy and nostalgia most of the time that they are on the screen.
However, it’s the new cast members that steal the show. This was John Boyega and Daisy Ridley’s big screen debut – arguably Adam Driver’s as well – and they perform admirably. Certainly adapting to and growing into their roles, as the reluctant heroes Finn and Rey, and the villainous Kylo Ren.
Kylo Ren is dark. Really dark. Darker than the darkside dark; conflicted and irrational. You get this real sense of menace from him. Although Snokes (his ‘boss’) lacked that and one of the downsides was his CGI appearance – not to give too much away, as I’m sure there’s more to come.
The Tarkin, to Ren’s Vader, was played by Domhall Gleeson. A small role performed well – again, hopefully there’s more to come in subsequent films.
It was as though Ridley and Boyega had to come out of this on top. One minor gripe from me: Their thick British and American accents respectively did grate a little bit.
Other than that though, they were both excellent. Especially when you consider it was two relative unknowns taking over the reins in cinema’s biggest franchise. I’ve no doubt big things await the pair.
Finally, Oscar Isaac was great in the limited role he was given as an X-Wing pilot and modern-day Han Solo, Poe Dameron. Charming, funny and adventurous; it will be good to see an expanded role for the Resistance’s best pilot in future films.
The action was as you would expect: Fast paced and fun, with jokes aplenty (more than any of the originals). Whereas the comedy in the prequels fell flat, this hit all of the right notes. And, of course, John Williams scores the film perfectly.
JJ Abrams has proven that he was the right choice for director. He rebooted Star Trek well enough for the big screen – although Into Darkness had its problems – and was trusted with this. He put the right team around him and successfully pulled it off.
I’m sure the film has its faults. Maybe once I calm down I’ll notice them? Still, it was a joy to watch and left me with a smile on my face, but still wanting more.
It’s not the best Star Wars film, but it is better than any of the prequels by some way and I think it is as good as Return of the Jedi, if not better.
Apologies for the… un-Christian… language in this week’s episode title, but when Steve goes off on one during the podcast recording – as he does this week – it’s hard to ignore.
For everyone but the Pope, welcome to another episode of the Failed Critics Podcast! It’s our last regular episode now until 2016, as Christmas, Star Wars and End of Year specials are the only thing left for us to record in order to see the year out.
As ever, this week’s episode starts off with a quiz, straight from Steve’s bulging sack. Yes, you guessed it! It’s Santa themed (that’s what you were guessing, right?) and swiftly followed by a look through a few of the winners at the BIFAs. We also make an appeal for votes in this year’s Failed Critics Awards! Last year we had record numbers of people submitting their top 10 films of the year to us, and we hope this year that you’ll help improve on 2014’s total! Voting ends on Sunday 27th December.
We also have a lengthy discussion about the relative merits of Star Wars Episodes I-VI that Brooker has been watching recently – and quickly preview what we’re expecting from Episode VII: the Force Awakens. We also have a moan about the new full Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice spoilerific trailer that came out this past week. Steve reviews a couple of films that he’s watched of late, including Tony Scott’s final movie, Unstoppable, and the Disney classic, Jungle Book. Meanwhile, Owen is back on the Korean movies for a review of the Hitchcockian crime-thriller A Hard Day, as well as recommending Danish Western The Salvation, starring Mads Mikkelsen.
All of this, plus three new release reviews! Festivities may be under way in Christmas With The Coopers, but Brooker doesn’t think it’s bringing much joy to the world. Similarly, he struggles to remember much about the awful Victor Frankenstein adaptation that came out this weekend. Finally, ending on a positive note, Krampus establishes itself as one of our favourite Christmas films of all time. Genuinely.
Join us again next week as Andrew Brooker returns along with Brian Plank for our Christmas special 2015!
…and, in fact, most animation studios in general.
by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
By now, you should have been able to read my review of Illumination Entertainment’s Minions. If you haven’t read it yet then firstly shame on you and why do you not want me to become successful? But, in any case, here are the cliff-notes: it’s really funny, I had a load of fun, Scarlet Overkill is amazing, and the Minions themselves are still wonderful comic creations. I really liked Minions. Still do, in fact, despite whatever I end up typing in this article. However, a nagging realisation has stuck with me since I got out of the film and it’s something that concerns me for the studio’s future.
I can’t really tell you what the difference is between Illumination and every wannabe-DreamWorks pretender to come along since the mid-2000s.
I mean, yeah, Illumination has Despicable Me, and that’s all well and good, but somebody asked me on Twitter whether they’d enjoy Minions as the humour of Despicable Me turned them off of those films and I honestly drew a blank when trying to describe what exactly was so special about the Despicable Me humour. I’ve spent the last few hours re-watching clips of both films to try and figure out what makes the Despicable Me brand, in comparison to any other animated brand out there, and the most I can come up with is that it’s willing to be a bit more openly cartoony than most other animated features. Sure, its character designs – and therefore, if the designs of The Lorax and the upcoming The Secret Life of Pets are anything to go by, the standard character designs of Illumination in general – are distinctive and unmistakeable, but that’s really all that makes Illumination stand out from the field.
Again, I really like Minions and I really liked Despicable Me 2 when I saw it, but I still can’t tell you what separates them from ten-hundred other American animated features desperate to become the next best thing, besides the fact that they’re really damn good at what they do. The one thing that does sort of separate them, slightly wackier humour than is usual in today’s animated features, is even running the risk of being outdone by Sony Pictures Animation if Hotel Transylvania 2 is able to deliver on the promise that the underwhelming first film had – since that and the Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs series might finally change the studio’s reputation to something other than “Those People Who Helped Make TWO Abominable Smurfs Movies”.
Instead, they’re still just yet another animation studio making family films in a medium already drowning in animation studios making family films. For example, tell me something that makes Hop different from any number of similarly-awful live-action/CGI hybrids from the mid-2000s besides the fact that this one paid Russell Brand money to voice act. Anything at all. This is an animation studio that managed to turn Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax, a brilliant low-key cautionary tale about the dangers of excessive deforestation, into another loud whizz-bang CG animation that’s nearly indistinguishable from anything released in, say, 2007.
Just over a week ago, Illumination released the trailer for their next film, The Secret Life of Pets, which you can view above. I really, really dug it. It may have reigned in the wacky cartoony-ness of the Despicable Me humour significantly, but it also couched that in reality. This was a trailer that got most of its laughs through exaggerating observations and ideas that we have about our pets, and its short little vignette form allowed it to maintain the quick pace that Minions has. It probably wouldn’t be sustainable if it were a feature film exactly like this, but it’s a strong basis and, even with the usage of pop music (although I do appreciate the leftfield choices of Basement Jaxx and System Of A Down), it has a unique feel and personality that’s decidedly lower-key than most of today’s animation.
Then I read the film’s plot synopsis. This is taken straight from Wikipedia.
Taking place in a Manhattan apartment building, Max’s life as a favorite pet is turned upside down, when his owner brings home a sloppy mongrel named Duke. They have to put their quarrels behind, when they find out that an adorable white bunny named Snowball is building an army of abandoned pets determined to take revenge on all happily-owned pets and their owners.
If you’re anything like me, your heart and enthusiasm promptly sank about 12 feet once you finished reading that. It just bugs and irritates the hell out of me to see a film with as much unique and original potential the The Secret Life of Pets’ first trailer showcased, instead turn out to be – or, I should actually say, appear to be, since who knows how the actual film will turn out – an animated version of Cats & Dogs, with the blueprint of a million other animated films buried in it, especially Toy Story. It could still be a great version of that loud whizz-bang CG animated family feature, but I’m tired of studios not trying to carve out an identity beyond “We make loud whizz-bang CG animated family features”.
I mean, it makes sense that Illumination have yet to establish a unique brand and voice, their founder is Chris Meledandri. From the early to late 2000s, he was the President of 20th Century Fox’s Animation department, with him being a big part of the early years of Blue Sky Studios, another animation company who – despite having released films for the last 13 years – have still yet to carve out an identity besides “We make loud whizz-bang CG animated family features”. That’s especially a problem because Blue Sky’s debut feature, Ice Age, actually did have a unique and distinctive voice and identity of its own, being more melancholy and reflective and (slightly) mature than other films that came along then and since, before the sequels (and everything else the studio has ever done) proceeded to stamp out the unique parts in favour of ridiculous cartoony spectacle. WHICH IS FINE, but it means that I have yet to see a Blue Sky movie that has truly stuck with me besides that original Ice Age, because their films, even Epic’s attempt at an action-fantasy, don’t do anything that a hundred other animated features aren’t already doing.
That means that, in the 13 years that Blue Sky Studios have been releasing movies, they still don’t have any unique or discernible identity besides “That Animation Studio 20th Century Fox Owns”. That makes them the studio equivalent of Silly Putty, they can mould and shape themselves into whatever they want to but they’ll never be their own unique thing because they’re too indebted to everyone else to have their own identity – which I guess does make them the perfect folks to make The Peanuts Movie after all (side note: PLEASE DON’T SUCK). Blue Sky have had 13 years to break out of that mould, and they’ve instead continued to settle for being Another One in a sea of likeminded competitors.
But, really, this is more just a problem with animated films in general, right now. Animation is a medium and therefore capable of so many things, so many stories, and so many genres. Yet American and British feature animation, and the foreign ones that manage to get a release in English-speaking countries, is resolutely family and kid-oriented, to tie back into that post-1950 belief that animation is only for children. But it’s patently untrue, the booming TV animation market should have dispelled that notion, yet we very, very rarely get adult or even teenage feature animation – the last one that got a wide release (which I classify as over 1,000 theatres) was 2009’s unfairly underrated 9, a PG-13 action-adventure that unfortunately bombed majorly because, well, animation is for kids, right?
It’s basically a self-perpetuating problem. Feature animation is in a sort of rut – and I want to specify the “sort of” because some outstanding and all-time great animated features are being made and released – because it believes that feature animation is only “loud whizz-bang CG family features”, a belief reinforced by a public who reject anything adult that isn’t tied to a recognisable property (hence why The Simpsons Movie was a mega-success) but keep flinging money at these mostly interchangeable films – in writing this article, I discovered that Ice Age 3 and 4 have made $897 million and $887 million worldwide respectively – which undoubtedly prevents these studios from creating their own unique identities because, hey, why turn away free money? And with foreign dollars being ever so important in today’s filmmaking landscape, and slapstick and spectacle translating flawlessly no matter the language, this probably isn’t going to change any time soon.
That’s ultimately a shame, because animation is capable of so much more than this, yet right now I honestly can’t tell you much of difference between any of the animated features that are not put out by Disney, Pixar, DreamWorks, Laika, or Aardman, and only Laika of those five is less than twenty years old. Animation studios need to carve out their own different identities, they need to aim to create something special, something unique. There really isn’t much separating Blue Sky Studios and Illumination Entertainment, at the moment, and this is not how things should be. Blue Sky have been around for 13 years, so they’re rather set in their ways and identity by now. Illumination are barely half a decade old. It’s not too late.
Tomorrowland just doesn’t work.
by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
Despite how I may come off on here and on my Twitter from time to time, I am actually rather much an optimist. Oh sure, I have cynical and realist tendencies – I write for the Internet, for god’s sake, they’re kind of a pre-requisite – but deep down, I am very much an optimist. I like to believe the best in people, I like to believe that bad people can change over time, that our planet is still salvageable, that one day we may end up living in some kind of wonderful progressive future of sunny optimism. We might not get jetpacks, but things may be more or less sustainable. And given the choice between excessively bleak and cynical verging-on-nihilist stories, or idealistic heart-warming tales of happiness and friendship, I will pick the latter almost every time. In some ways, this makes me childishly naive and unprepared for reality, but what is our day-to-day existence without some semblance of hope?
I tell you all of this not because I enjoy over-sharing about myself on the Internet, but because I want you to know that I agree with almost everything that Tomorrowland is preaching. That the future does not have to be set towards total annihilation through global warming or thermonuclear war or some kind of natural disaster, that optimism can triumph over cynicism, that those best qualified to save us from such catastrophes should be given free rein to set about doing so, that our obsession with violent destructive media that treats the apocalypse as nothing more than destruction porn is worrying and possibly sets back our willingness to take environmental threats seriously, that cancelling the Space program but keeping a nuclear weapons program going is inexplicable… I agree with pretty much all of that!
It’s also why I am incredibly disappointed to have to tell you that Tomorrowland just straight up doesn’t work.
I’m not going to mince words or delay the reveal, folks, the reason why Tomorrowland just doesn’t work is because it’s not really a story. Oh sure, the two problems that you were probably expecting to hear when the time inevitably came for the sentence “Brad Bird has made a bad movie” to be printed are also here. The last third is a total mess of prior foreshadowing that gets no payoff, that sidelines our supposed lead character, Casey (Britt Robertson), almost totally, and contains random robot violence and explosions that feel almost completely at odds with the “positive thinking can change the future” message that the film had spent 90-odd minutes preaching beforehand – all things that reek of executive meddling wondering why a $180 million Summer blockbuster doesn’t have any action to sell people on and forcing substantial rewrites. Meanwhile, co-writer Damon Lindelof’s grubby fingerprints are all over the abysmal pacing, structure, and plotting – no 2 hour movie should spend upwards of 70 minutes setting up its story – that kill almost any semblance of emotional depth and resonance.
Those are problems, but even if you stripped them out, this film would still not work. See, the messages that Tomorrowland wishes to impart are great messages… it’s just that Brad Bird, who directed and co-wrote the story and screenplay, forgot to fashion them onto an actual, y’know, story. This is the kind of film where characters will shout the film’s ideology back and forth at one another instead of actually performing actions that communicate them without incredibly clunky dialogue. There are multiple instances where the film will stop, physically stop in its tracks, whilst a character stares just slightly off to the side of the camera and monologues about the righteous indignity that Brad Bird has against our collective cynical apathy.
That second paragraph in this review? That is quite literally a 3 minute monologue that our nominal villain gives just before the really-quite-terrible whizz-bang action finale kicks off. I half-expected Bird to just at one point walk on-screen, tell everyone to take 5, and finish the rest of it himself. The cynical and optimist push-pull protagonist dynamic is the sole thing that Frank (George Clooney) and Casey’s relationship is built on, instead of it being only a part of two fully-rounded characters. There are no real characters, no emotional stakes, just endless sermonising, that I agree with which is something I find incredibly annoying, about how awful cynicism is and how things need to change.
In fact, I take back my complaint about Lindelof’s “mystery box” storytelling. He was only trying to hide the fact that there isn’t really a story to this movie, so let’s give him points for trying to make this an actual film instead of just an extended lecture from a High School principal about how very naughty we’ve all been.
Not to mention the times when its themes and ideas end up becoming contradictory for one reason or another. Tomorrowland believes that our best and brightest should be given their own perfect utopian space to work unencumbered by politics and the law and such, where they are free to create anything they want. Frank, however, was kicked out of Tomorrowland for… inventing something he shouldn’t have. There’s a setpiece set in a geek and sci-fi nostalgia shop that’s run by a pair of robot villains (a wasted Keegan-Michael Key and Kathryn Hahn) that insinuates that relaxing and regressing too much in nostalgia instead of thinking up bold new exciting futures is bad and a waste of potential. Tomorrowland itself… is designed almost entirely like how people in the 60s thought our future would look like and shares influences with the area at various Disney parks. The film keeps saying that positive thinking, non-violence, and forward-thinking will create a brighter future… but the finale boils it down to fighting robots and trying to destroy the one machine that is certainly going to kill the future.
What’s most frustrating about such massive systemic flaws is that I can see the film that Tomorrowland could and should have been poking through every now and again. Specifically, the film looks outstanding. I mean, of course it does, it’s Brad Bird! The man has always been gifted visually, and I honestly would have been offended if the film didn’t look fantastic. Besides, I’m a sucker for the visual designs of how people in the 50s and 60s thought the future would look. There’s a lightness and optimism to the film’s visual palette, a sincerity and love that communicates the general messages of the film in a way that feels natural instead of via the tin-eared lecturing provided by the plotting and dialogue.
There’s also Britt Robertson’s fantastic performance as Casey. Bird and Lindelof’s script doesn’t give Casey much of a character besides relentless and boundless optimism – this is a high schooler who sits through multiple lectures about how the world is doomed, is the only character who wants to ask the question of how we fix it, and leaves her lecturers speechless when she does, in case you want another indication of just how non-existent this film’s subtext is – but, dammit all, Robertson is going to try and imbue Casey with one, anyway! It’s a relentless charm offensive, full of charisma, wonder, and a quiet insecurity and sadness, the kind of performance that normally leads to deserved stardom and a long and healthy career. There are even points where she’s acting circles around George Clooney – who is often good, but feels more than a little miscast as the grumpy cynical member of the main cast that’s rounded out by Raffey Cassidy, as a pre-teen android called Athena, whose relationship with Frank is something I am not even going to touch with a ten-foot pole.
In all of Tomorrowland’s 130 minutes, there are precisely 5 of those where it works totally. Casey sneaks off to a large open field in order to discover the world that appears when she touches the pin without any of the distractions and restrictions of reality. So she touches the pin and is instantly dropped into the centre of Tomorrowland. It is an utterly magical place, filled with pristine surfaces, bright cheery colours, beaming sunshine, skylines, jetpacks, flying cars, rocket ships with seats just for you. Brad Bird demonstrates all of this in one shot, taking his time when following Casey through this utopia, letting that optimism sink in, as Michael Giacchino’s score emphasises the wonder that is adamant in Casey at this wondrous place. For 5 glorious minutes, Bird stops shouting at the audience and just shows. He visualises what our future could be like instead of lecturing us on it, and the sheer joy and childlike hope it features swelled my heart and almost moved me to tears. It is magical.
But then it is cruelly cut short, the utopia fades away and Casey is left back in reality, waist deep in a swamp. The pin was not a gateway to Tomorrowland, it was an advertisement for it, marketing for a utopia that exists but not in the way that it sold as. Infected by cynicism, hopelessness, and a leader that would rather sermonise the people he was originally trying to save instead of actively going out of his way to save them.
I can’t think of a better metaphor for Tomorrowland, really.
Callum Petch can give you a kiss in the morning and a sweet apology. Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch) and listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio every Monday at 9PM BST (site link)!
by Callum Petch (Twitter: @Callum Petch)
Spoilers of varying degrees for Gravity Falls abound throughout this article, up to and including a short scene from Season 2 Episode 8 “Blendin’s Game”. You are strongly advised to go and watch Gravity Falls before reading this article. Trust me.
Throughout Secondary School, I had a crush on a very close friend of mine. From pretty much the moment I saw her, I was rather head-over-heels – she was funny, tough, kind, smart, good-looking, and she voluntarily chose to acknowledge and associate with me, which meant a lot since my first year or so at Secondary School was a relentlessly lonely and miserable experience otherwise. We hung out a lot, talked a lot, there were frequent out-of-school-hours email conversations (not IM or anything like that cos have I ever mentioned that I was a really weird kid), and became really rather close.
I also never properly told her how I felt. I hinted a lot, wrote godawful blatantly manipulative blog posts expressing my feelings hoping that she’d never read them but steering her towards them anyway (because goddamn was I ever a sh*tty teenager), and one time – during a really, really stupid idea that our school only implemented once – I bought her a Valentine’s Day rose from our school reception and explained it away as a friendship thing. She almost certainly figured it out because I was nowhere near as subtle as I thought I was and she was not stupid, but we never openly acknowledged it, as if we realised that bringing it into the open would make things uncomfortably weird. And I planned to never tell her, because I could live with just being her friend.
Except that I couldn’t. I really couldn’t. Save for one very short and incredibly bad experience at the outset of Secondary School – another reason why my first year or so was awkward and horrible – I had never had a girlfriend (still haven’t to this day), but Secondary School is Secondary School and damn near every last one of my friends – and the majority of the people I was at least on good speaking terms with – ended up in romances of varying degrees of seriousness and success, which left me feeling left out and lonely, because I never had that experience. Further compounding the problem was that, as friends of mine typically tend to do, we started drifting further apart the older we got, going from tight-knit buddies in Year 8 to very occasional acquaintances by Year 10.
Having realised this, and likely spurred on by the fact that my crush on her just would not die, I asked if she could meet me one lunchtime to talk. I couldn’t have been any vaguer or, as far as my memory recalls, slightly creepy, which would have been part of the reason why she never turned up. I took this incredibly personally. Soon after, I arranged, through the school’s Student Services, to have her meet me for about half an hour so I could get an explanation and tell her everything, as if that would somehow change things. That second part didn’t happen. Instead, I non-specifically and non-committedly alluded to things in sh*tty ways, refused to accept her excuse of her having her own life and her own friends, and generally acted like a horribly possessive jerk. The meeting ended with neither of us satisfied and, for the remaining 18 months of Secondary School and 2 years of Sixth Form that we shared, we basically never spoke to each other again.
You know how I said earlier that I was a sh*tty teenager? That transcends just being a sh*tty teenager, for me; that was me being a pure bona-fide grade-A asshole. I have regretted everything to do with it for the past five and a bit years. I regretted it the moment I stepped out of that room and I still did nothing to make it right due to the resultant awkwardness between us keeping me from trying to make amends no matter how much time passed. Seeing her was just this constant reminder of how badly I screwed up and how utterly sh*tty of a person I was, how I refused to just accept being friends with her instead of slightly creepily possessively crushing on her, and I honestly don’t think I’ll ever forgive myself for it.
The Dipper Pines-Wendy Corduroy runner throughout the first season of Gravity Falls – where the 12 year-old Dipper develops a major crush on the 15 year-old Wendy – is a very divisive subject for fans of the show. In one camp, it’s a funny, sweet, and often painful to watch plotline that constantly finds new ways to cover seemingly old ground, and excellently and realistically handles the difficulty of being friends with somebody you are quite possibly in love with, especially accentuated by the fact that, since Wendy is 3 years older than Dipper, there is only one way this story can end. In the other camp, it’s pointless re-treading of familiar ground that wastes Wendy’s character potential by limiting her solely to stories about Dipper’s crush on her and her relationship with jerk-ass teenager Robbie, especially since there’s only one way this story can end so why bother dragging it out.
I fall into the former camp and it’s because of my experience with that girl – whose name I haven’t divulged here because she deserves better than being associated with my dickishness. That extended awkward push-pull between having a crush that causes you tangible physical anxiety every time you accidentally think of them in that way, versus wanting to not blow that friendship you’ve built up with them by openly admitting that feeling to them, is excellently represented in Dipper Pines, which in turn resonates deeper in me and causes multiple conflicting feelings every time the plotline is brought up. I sympathise with Dipper’s situation, I cringe and suffer along with him whenever he puts his foot in his mouth, I laugh at his jealous hallucinations of people like Robbie, I desperately root for him to beat his crush or to just admit to Wendy his true feelings, since I’d gone through all of this before myself – just without the age gap as she was in the same year as me.
It helps that Dipper shares multiple aspects with me when it comes to this type of thing: he stumbles over his own words frequently, he overthinks and over-plans every last scenario because he’s terrified of failure, he’s at his best when he just lets the situation overtake him, and he will never admit the truth to Wendy because he’s afraid of what will happen, but he also can’t just stay friends at this moment in time because the crush is killing him. This is not meant to short-change Wendy, incidentally, who is a funny, cool, sarcastic, well-rounded and flawed character who feels like a person, someone who clearly exists outside of the show’s usage of her. These two are incredibly well-drawn characters who feel real and that extra resonance that I have with the material wouldn’t be there if that depth wasn’t there.
This all comes to a head in “Into The Bunker”, the second episode of Season 2. It starts off like it’s going to be yet another episode in which Dipper trips over his feelings, which I don’t have a problem with as again this kind of constant circling really can happen, in a B-Plot whilst the A-Plot pushes forward the overarching mysteries of Gravity Falls, Oregon – which are way too numerous and in-depth to touch on here; seriously, this show has the kind of attention to continuity and plotting (without ever sacrificing them at the expense of character work) that would make most live-action adult dramas feel like they’re half-assing it.
Instead, the mysteries of Gravity Falls take a backseat to bringing this runner to its logical end-game. Despite his insistence otherwise, Dipper cannot keep hanging out with Wendy without telling her of his feelings. When he exposes Robbie’s deception and brainwashing in “Boyz Crazy”, he’s mainly doing it out of selfish desires of wanting to have Wendy to himself, although he doesn’t realise so until after he pushes his luck too far. By “Into The Bunker”, it’s reached breaking point, he even brings along his planned feelings speech, that he scrunched up at the beginning of the episode, in his jacket pocket because he can’t let it go. His twin sister Mabel, fed up with all of this and realising that the sooner that he admits his feelings to Wendy the better, proceeds to shove the pair of them into what turns out to be a Decontamination Chamber to make sure that Dipper has no way of avoiding the issue.
In the end, his constant dodging and inability to come right out and admit his feelings nearly gets himself and Wendy killed by a shape-shifter, and he once again only realises this when he thinks that she’s been killed. Running from his problems has solved nothing and if it hadn’t turned out that the ‘dead’ Wendy was actually the shape-shifter and that the real Wendy was just off-screen and heard every word of Dipper’s anguished and regretful admission of his true feelings, then he would have gone through the rest of his life carrying that regret and guilt, never letting him go. It is, to me at least, the literalising of what metaphorically happened to me, as my refusal to just come out and say it cost me one of the strongest friendships that I ever had.
That’s what makes the conclusion of the episode so goddamn beautiful to me. With the truth now out in the open, Wendy and Dipper sit down and talk. They actually talk. Wendy admits that she kinda always knew – “You think I can’t hear that stuff you’re constantly whispering under your breath?” – she lets him down easy, Dipper understands, and the two resolve to remain friends because that, above all else, is what matters out of all of this. And though Dipper doesn’t actually feel any better at the time by getting these feelings out in the open, the change sticks and Wendy’s subsequent appearances with the gang exist in awkwardness-free purely platonic friendship stakes. Hell, to further drive home the point, when Dipper and Mabel travel back in time about 10 years in “Blendin’s Game” and bump into younger versions of Wendy and Tambry, he feels super-awkward when Young Wendy mentions how cute he is, as if he now understands how he made Wendy feel.
And as I sat there watching the conclusion of “Into The Bunker”, through non-stop waterfalls of tears, the awful way that I handled the first friendship that I made in Secondary School came into clear-as-day focus. I always knew that I treated her sh*ttily, that I should have handled the situation better, that I was as pure an asshole as they come with regards to how things ended, but I don’t think I realised the extent of it and how much different things could have been until Gravity Falls laid it out in front of me like that. Because Dipper and Wendy are so well-drawn, because the writing felt so natural, because I saw so much of myself and my own experiences in the story’s progression, it hit me like a jackhammer-shaped freight train when the inevitable conclusion came around. “I should have just told her and moved on,” I thought to myself constantly over the next several days as the episode refused to leave my brain. “The aftermath may not have been as smooth, but at least we could have moved on. At least we may still have been friends.”
There is a tonne more to “Into The Bunker” – the absolutely terrifying John Carpenter’s The Thing-referencing shape-shifter villain, the outstanding animation, the way that the narrative excellently pulls the bait-and-switch on the seemingly answers-focussed plotline in favour of character-work, the badassery of Wendy, the way it balances horror and drama with comedy, The Gravity Falls Bargain Movie Showcase – and they are all individually reason enough as to why the episode could be inducted into this wing of Failed Critics, but they’re not the reason why this episode hits me so. It’s the payoff. It was always going to be the payoff, and though the show has and will improve even on this in the years to come – “Not What He Seems” exists, after all – for me it’s probably never going to top that final scene in the woods where Dipper and Wendy sit on the fallen tree branch and just talk. No other scene in television is going to hit me like that scene did the first time.
In a perfect world, I would have been more like Dipper Pines in that moment, where I accepted what happened, accepted the consequences, moved on, and tried to retain that friendship. I didn’t do that. That will stick with me for the rest of my days, but at least I know that Dipper will be OK. He did it right. One of us did.
by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
Last year, DreamWorks Animation celebrated its 20th anniversary. To mark the occasion, Callum Petch has been going through their entire animated canon, one film a week for the next 30 weeks, and giving them a full-on retrospective treatment. Prior entries can be found here, should you desire.
Budget: $145 million
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 74%
Rise of the Guardians is a bomb. It is a big bomb. Oh, sure, it doesn’t seem like it is, its eventual worldwide gross is double that of its production budget – the typical measure by which you determine whether a film is successful at the box office or not – but it is. Domestically, the film took 10 weeks to scrape and claw its way past the $100 million mark, and the longer a film stays in cinemas the less money the studio actually gets (you can get a full-on explanation of that here). Overseas, the film performed somewhat better but still not great, especially in comparison to prior DreamWorks films, and once the breakdown of the foreign dollar came in (and you can find out how that works here) DreamWorks still didn’t make a profit. In fact, they had to take an $87 million write-down on the film, the first time they’d lost money on a project since Sinbad nearly a decade ago.
So, why did it bomb? It’s not the fault of the film being bad – which was critically praised and is a damn good if crippled film, but we will get onto that later – so why did it just face-plant right out of the gate? That’s what most of this entry is going to focus on because that’s our through line for the last sixth of this series and it could provide us with explanations for the box office prospects of the remaining pair of films in this series. So, apologies for those of you who were hoping for an in-depth look at the film. We’ll look at it if there’s time, because it’s a damn good film with a killer final 20 minutes, but for this series we need to examine the box office performance of the film rather than the film itself, unfortunately.
Full disclosure, here: since Rise of the Guardians is a relatively recent film, and was the first notable major underperformer that DreamWorks had seen in a decade, much of the stuff that I’m about to say is being referenced and sort of lifted from websites who, at the time, were filing think-pieces on this very subject not even 48 hours after the first weekend totals came in. Many of the things that I will say here were theories that I had prior to going off and doing research anyway, but other writers’ reasons and thought processes helped open my mind a bit as to specificity. So, with that in mind, I’d like to give credit to HitFix’s Gregory Ellwood and Animation World Network’s Ed Hooks for helping, thanks to their respective articles, shape my thoughts and theories for this article. With that said, let’s dive in.
Undoubtedly, one of the biggest reasons is that the budget for this thing is ridiculous. Although it clearly makes usage of every last cent, $145 million for an animated movie in this decade is insane and unsustainable. Yes, Pixar and Disney blow that amount on every film they make but, as we have previously touched on, they can get away with it. Everybody else has realised that $150 million domestic isn’t guaranteed anymore, so they’ve purposefully started making films for less than/equal to $100 million to compensate. That’s why Aardman’s The Pirates! In An Adventure! With Scientists! was able to recover from a dismal American showing, it only cost $55 million to make.
DreamWorks, however, continue to pump all of their movies with the same level of money, increasing the risk if one fails and regardless of whether said pumping is necessary. If you’ve been following along, you’ll have been keeping track of the “Budget” segment of my article pre-amble and seen that no film post-Shrek 2 has come in at under $100 million. Now, in certain cases, like with this film or the Kung Fu Panda and How To Train Your Dragon series, that’s fine, as extra detail and money helps with the world and tone and such. But for animated comedies? Did Megamind really need a $130 million budget? Despicable Me came in at $69 million and it looks way more distinctive and, arguably, better than that film did. Or, in blunt terms, is there any reasonable explanation as to why the budgets for How To Train Your Dragon 2 and Penguins of Madagascar are separated by only $13 million?
That’s as good a link as any to my next point. The budget thing is also systemic of a larger problem: DreamWorks still trying to play like it’s 2005, like they’re the only non-Disney/Pixar players on the Western feature-length animation block. However, thanks to them blowing up the Disney dominance back in the early 2000s, more and more animation studios – and, specifically, distribution studios like Universal who are now more willing to get in the game – have now sprung up, creating further competition. They started poking their heads above the water tentatively in the mid-to-late 00s, when Laika would release Coraline and Blue Sky Studios – obligatory pleading to PLEASE NOT F*CK UP Peanuts – would quietly become a consistent and reliable studio, but 2010 onwards has seen them burst on through en mass.
2012, in particular, saw new efforts from recent upstarts Illumination Entertainment (The Lorax), Laika (ParaNorman), and Sony Pictures Animation (Hotel Transylvania), as well as long-timers Aardman (The Pirates!), Studio Ghibli (The Secret World of Arrietty actually opened on nearly 2,000 screens in a rare display of genuine confidence in that brand from at-the-time distributors Buena Vista), and Blue Sky (Ice Age: Continental Drift), in addition to Pixar (Brave) and a resurgent Disney (Wreck-It Ralph). When you also throw in DreamWorks’ other 2012 release (Madagascar 3), that is a crowded as hell schedule – one, relatedly, that has only gotten more crowded the further into the decade we get, which pleases me to no end – and one just cannot coast anymore. The days of DreamWorks being able to guarantee butts in seats, regardless of the quality of their films, purely because there is nothing else available have long since departed.
Not to mention that each of these films carried with them their own unique, distinct, and marketable identity that didn’t just rely on brand recognition. The primary trailers for The Lorax hit the “From the studio that brought you Despicable Me” and “Based on the story by Dr. Seuss” buttons, but also clearly outlined the premise and the film’s bright, candy-land colour scheme and art style. Boom. Sellable. ParaNorman had that gothic horror meshed with broad comedy feel and identity front and centre, albeit with its darkest edges sanded down to make it more palatable to, for some reason, snobby stop-motion-averse mainstream audiences. Boom. Sellable. Ice Age is Ice Age and came out when literally nothing else was in cinemas, Wreck-It Ralph slapped the videogame conceit over everything, Hotel Transylvania emphasised its loudness and physical comedy.
DreamWorks, however, still sell their films the same way they always have – some attitude, pop culture references, and licensed soundtrack for comedies; lots of flying, out-of-context gags, and emphasis of the 3D elements for more dramatic fare. They don’t sell individual films so much as they sell the DreamWorks brand – Home is even suffering from this, even though I actually rather like its trailers. This is fine for, say, a Madagascar sequel, because audiences already know what they’re getting and like what they’re getting and the trailer just needs to promise them more of the same, but becomes a problem when you’re trying to sell a new film, especially when you pump them out with the factory-like efficiency that DreamWorks do.
Here, for example, is the first trailer for Rise of the Guardians.
Now, that trailer does a lot of things right: it establishes a clear tone, introduces us to our main characters, has some mystery in there instead of simply showing everything off all at once, and it sets itself apart from most of the other animated features on the market. Yet, simultaneously, it’s a major failure. It relies too heavily on kids’ prior affection for seeing characters like Santa and the Easter Bunny teaming up to fight evil (more on that in a moment), it fails to properly establish Pitch Black and his motivations, our true lead character, Jack Frost, is nowhere in sight, and it doesn’t explain much at all. It’s a tough line to walk when it comes to trailers, show too much and you negate the audience’s desire to see it but show too little and you do just as much damage, and Guardians’ first one, although it does a lot for me, shows too little to engage general audience interest who like to have more than the sketchiest sketch of an idea of what they’re getting into.
In fact, to link into the film itself, that belief that audiences would be enamoured enough by the idea of Santa, the Easter Bunny, Sandman, Jack Frost, and the Tooth Fairy teaming up to fight evil feels sadly outdated. In the 21st Century, this worthless irritating and pathetic century, heart-on-sleeve sincerity and wonder is something that society very much seems to frown upon. That desire to be a little cheesy, to have fun, to be sweet and nice is something that we, as a culture for some utterly confounding reason, have decided is beneath us and that we must laugh out of the room at every opportunity.
Instead, the only way we can accept enjoying these things now is with a sort of ironic detachment – hence why 80% of movie musicals spend their entire runtimes apologising for being musicals, why romance films are so po-facedly serious about everything, and why sci-fi almost never kicks back and has any fun anymore. When something like that does come along, like this past weekend’s Jupiter Ascending because never let it be said that I don’t try and keep this column topical, everybody laughs it out of the room because we apparently can’t accept that sincerity anymore. Maker, animation has quite literally only just gotten over this image problem, and we can blame that tangible attitude of Shrek for sending us down that path whilst thanking this Second Disney Renaissance for finally pulling the public back out of it.
Therefore, you present the general public with a film like Rise of the Guardians – a film whose marketing relies on kids’ prior attachment and desire to believe, and whose finale literally involves the villain being defeated by a scrappy group of kids believing in wonder with all of their heart with no cynicism or sass from the film (and it’s f*cking amazing, for the record) – then of course it’s going to open poorly at the box office and never truly recover! Our society doesn’t foster that kind of genuinely sincere wonder and heart anymore, so most will just dismiss it out of hand and move on with their lives.
And then there’s also the tangible thing. A common complaint that keeps cropping up in people’s excuses as to why the film did poorly or just in general conversation about the film: Santa’s Russian accent. This is very much a creative choice that has baffled people, with some even thinking that that’s why the film failed. Because kids are familiar with Santa, err, not being Russian and that would therefore turn them off the film totally. I sort of get where they’re coming from, it’s the tangible element of a larger problem that not many people can totally figure out – in that the beefy, warrior-ised, badass designs of the Guardians fit their personalities and the more action-heavy moments but clashes with the sincere childlike hope of the rest of the film – but I highly doubt that it’s a reason all by itself for turning people away.
Finally, there was the release date: Thanksgiving weekend. I get the idea, it’s the holidays and a big family movie is just the kind of thing that audiences are in demand for. But, as we have previously talked about, thanks to the way they do business, DreamWorks movies aren’t Events like a Disney film or a Pixar film are. They’re films that come out on a semi-regular basis and you either watch them or you don’t. Even when the films are Must See viewing – and we’ve covered several of those in this series – their releases don’t carry that air, despite the millions of dollars that the company throws into marketing these things. So whilst Disney can get away with releasing Tangled or Frozen over that weekend, DreamWorks can’t because, unlike Disney, Rise of the Guardians is not an Event Movie.
Hence why the thing basically died in fourth place opening weekend behind Twilight: Breaking Dawn, Part 2 (second week), Skyfall (third week), and Lincoln (third week), and just barely fending off Life of Pi by virtue of that opening on less screens. All of those prior factors, with really sub-par marketing likely being the inarguable main reason and let us not forget general DreamWorks over-saturation, conspired to send Rise of the Guardians to an early grave. Many of these are actually rather recurrent in the reasons behind DreamWorks’ other recent failures, which means that we might get more time each week to actually talk about those goddamn films properly, but that’s also a really worrying sign that the company doesn’t seem to be learning from its mistakes. Rise of the Guardians is rather much Patient Zero for this recent commercial trajectory that DreamWorks have gone down and, for some reason, it’s been allowed to fester instead of being quarantined and dealt with.
So… with all of that said and sorted… how is the film? I realise that I have pushed it to the background here, much like I did with Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron way back when, but I needed to since, as we all know, this is the start of the spiral that DreamWorks are currently stuck in and to not talk about it is to do a disservice to this series I’ve been working on. It is, however, a shame because Rise of the Guardians is very much worth talking about. If I were writing for a website where 8 straight A4 pages of text could be presented in a way that wouldn’t cause one’s eyeballs to rip themselves out of one’s skulls and hightail it to the heavens to get away from the torture, I’d happily spend the next 4 pages talking about it. Unfortunately, I’m about 1 full A4 page away from my word limit, so I’m going to have to be very brief.
Rise is a very good film that could have been an outstanding film had it not been forced to bow to the unspoken decree that ALL ANIMATED FILMS MUST BE LESS THAN 100 MINUTES, OR SO HELP ME! The problem with it, and why it doesn’t work as well as it should for the first 70 minutes, is that it needs to be at least 2 hours and 10 minutes long instead of 89 (97 with credits). Rise of the Guardians is a film that is stuffed to the brim with content and plot and story. Not backstory, it’s smart enough to realise that you don’t need to waste time explaining the backstories of these characters, but story. This is a film that needs to chronicle Jack Frost’s life, his emotional insecurities, to parallel that with Pitch Black’s insecurities, provide arcs for the pair of them, fill in the cast enough that the disruption of their daily schedules carries actual emotional weight, build a world, kill someone to raise stakes, cause the viewer to actually care about the kids who will factor into the finale, provide several suitably exciting action beats, and provide enough scenes of the guardians just hanging out together so that one gets the sense of how they are outside of the film, among many other things.
Surprisingly, it pulls off more of this than I was expecting – the Jack Frost stuff is brilliant, the parallels between him and Pitch are called out in dialogue more than action but it still works gangbusters and is far better done than it is in How To Train Your Dragon 2, and it nails the kid stuff spectacularly which is why the ending works so insanely well (more on that in a paragraph or two). Unsurprisingly, though, it’s not totally successful, mainly because it never ever slows down. How can it? It’s got way too much content to have to get through, but it’s all necessary, so it has to pace itself like a drag race, never once letting up on the gas. This does mean, though, that much of the first two-thirds of the film don’t click as they should – in particular, Sandman’s initial death should be a majorly heartbreaking “we are not f*cking around here” moment, but we barely ruminate on it enough for it to have any real impact.
There are chunks of film missing, basically. The slower moments, the connective moments, where we ease up and relax with our characters. They do exist, but they’re brief and hint at the film it could have been if there was more of that breathing time. The best sequence not related to the ending involves the rest of the guardians helping Tooth Fairy with her job of collecting children’s teeth, because it allows the characters to just relax and be themselves. Admittedly by turning this exercise into a silly competitive mini-setpiece, but it still feels genuine. It deepens the cast, establishes their bonds, helps the viewer invest more, and the film needed more of that. There just quite literally isn’t the time to.
Fortunately, though, the film f*cking nails its ending. Seriously, the entire final 20 minute stretch, from Jack trying to help Jamie re-ignite his belief in Santa and the other Guardians, to the duo’s final goodbye, is damn near perfect. It accurately captures that sincere, heartfelt spirit of being young and wanting to believe. To believe that there are mysterious unknowable forces of absolute good in the world, that fear and nightmares really are just concepts that can’t actually hurt you, that you can effect real genuine change on the world through innocence and kindness. It’s one of the best examples that I can find in recent memory of a film just getting that feeling of being a child, since most films instead either overly patronise or barely mask the fact that these are just adults attempting to remember how kids are and act.
Its emotional beats pay off excellently, even with the truncated runtime that the film has had to set them all off, the animation reaches extra special levels of gorgeous, seeing the guardians finally let loose is thrilling, the return of Sandman is one of those “oh, HELL YES!” moments that great fiction can pull from even the stoniest of human beings, and it’s all so sincerely joyous and heartfelt. Again, the main narrative crux of the finale is whether a kid will believe hard enough that some kind of possibly unreal force of absolute good will rescue him from a nebulous force of absolute bad, and he and his friends are instrumental in saving the day purely because they believe hard enough. And this is all played dead-straight for pure, heart-warming emotion, because this sequence, and consequently the film itself, absolutely would not work if it did so any other way.
And that is almost literally all of the time that I have this week. There is so much more to talk about with regards to Rise of the Guardians – its sublime animation, the true extent of its pacing issues, its tone, how Chris Pine’s voice fits Jack Frost and unnecessarily distracts in equal measure, the marginalisation of Tooth Fairy, its themes of loneliness and how one can be shaped by that – but, much like with the film itself, I’ve tried to do too much in too little available time. If I ever stupidly decide to retrofit this ridiculous series into a book format, then you’d better believe that I will be expanding this section majorly. For now, though, Rise of the Guardians was a bomb, but it didn’t deserve to be, and it’s getting worrying that I can apply the first two parts of this sentence to more and more DreamWorks films as time goes on.
Rise of the Guardians was a major, notable financial dud for DreamWorks Animation, their first in nearly a decade. It cost the company substantial money and likely put the studio on edge as to its future – not unfounded considering how 2013 would wrap up. Rise also marked the end of the studio’s 8 year relationship with distributor Paramount Pictures as the success of Rango inspired the latter to make more home-grown animation, and DreamWorks’ desire for a deal with better terms for themselves. In August of 2012, they signed a five-year deal with 20th Century Fox, owners of Blue Sky, and began this new relationship the following year.
Next week, we’ll take a look at the first film to come from this new partnership, The Croods, speculate on why this one was a success, and try to explore the further ramifications of this move. Also, we’ll actually talk about the film this time.
A new edition of DreamWorks! A Retrospective will be posted here every Monday at 1PM BST!
Returning for his first appearance since the end of year awards episode is James Diamond, ready to demolish you with his reviews of Whiplash and all things Luc Besson. Joining James is horror-fanatic and best mates with ‘Scream Queen’ Jessica Cameron; it’s Mike Shawcross finally making his long overdue debut with American Sniper, Testament of Youth and 80’s b-movie creature feature Alligator in his sights.
Among a hefty discussion on the Academy Awards and Razzie nominations, Owen explains why not even Steven Soderbergh puts giant space baby in the corner* with his cut of 2001: A Space Odyssey, whilst Steve struggles to get his head around the popularity of Disney’s mammoth hit, Frozen. Let it go, Steve! Let it goooo…
Join us next week for reviews of Mortdecai, Ex Machina and Kingsman!
*credit to @naanbab for the (quite frankly amazing) pun