Tag Archives: Mr. Peabody & Sherman

Home

Home is not original, but I dug the hell out of it.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

home 1Home begins with an alien race called the Boov forcibly invading and colonising Earth for themselves.  They do this by arriving unannounced, forcibly relocating the natives – whom they deem as uncivilised, lower, unintelligent, and in need of saving and educating by the Boov – against their will, systematically going through everything that the Earth has to offer and keeping what they deem is useful (often by mis-utilising the items in question) and jettisoning totally what they don’t, and re-naming and re-shaping the planet in their own image.  The real life subtext that comes from this set-up I doubt is lost on you.

Home, however, is very much uninterested in following that subtext, likely because describing it in that way sounds very much counter to the good laughs and fun times that are typically required in animated family films.  We get the occasional glimpse at it here and there with what little we see of the new human city – located on Australia – but it is otherwise left untouched.  Is this a little disappointing?  Well, yeah, in the sense that it is always disappointing when a film decides to leave its original potential untapped in favour of the safe and familiar, but Home does still have subtext going on underneath its tale of unlikely fellows becoming strong friends.

Specifically, our protagonist is Oh (Jim Parsons, who is not just sticking to his Big Bang Theory safe zone, trust me) and Oh does not fit in with the rest of the Boov.  The Boov, you see, are a tightly regimented and dull alien race.  They are an arrogant, perfection-obsessed, and self-involved race whose extreme self-preservation instinct has kept them perpetually distant from one another.  They don’t particularly have time for one another and they, at least from what the film shows us, don’t bother to make friends, they’re that cynically detached.  Oh, however, is a heart-on-sleeve kinda guy.  He has that self-preservation instinct, growing up in a culture of fear will do that to you, but he’s also open about his emotions all of the time and he makes no secret about them.  He wants friends, he wants to fit in, but that kind of open joyous honesty is frowned upon in Boov culture and leaves him feeling isolated from his own race.  Again, with minor adjustments, hopefully the similarities between Boov culture and post-millennium culture aren’t lost on you.

Again, though, Home mostly pushes it to the side – mostly, it’s still easy to see it flowing through as the film progresses – in favour of telling a relatively simple story of two lonely people struggling to fit in finding each other by happenstance and becoming friends for life through wacky mishaps.  Oh doesn’t fit in with the Boov because of his eternally sincere nature and general clumsiness, Tip (a surprisingly brilliant Rihanna) didn’t fit in with humans because she and her mother are originally from Barbados – which is touched on briefly in dialogue as she explains why she never felt at home, but otherwise her race is not made a big deal out of – and she’s a bit of a whiz at math.  The two are thrown together after Oh accidentally texts the location of Earth to the Boov’s ever pursuant enemy, the Gorg, and he agrees to help Tip reunite with her mom (Jennifer Lopez) whilst attempting to lay low from the Boov’s commander, Captain Smek (Steve Martin).

If you’ve seen an animated film or five, you’ll know Home beat-by-beat without ever stepping foot in the cinema.  Again, this is a film that is brimming with potentially boundary-pushing subtext that it actively steers itself away from in order to tell the story that it ends up telling.  And yet, I don’t consider this much of a flaw because the film itself is that good and appeals that much to my sensibilities.  What can I say?  Give me two lovable characters who find it hard to fit in, and you might as well just start the countdown clock to the happy tears due to myself relating to their situation.

That being said, Home does do plenty of quietly great things that are worthy of note.  For one, there’s Tip herself.  She’s a black girl – the first lead black girl in any Western CG feature-length animated film, to my knowledge, which is going to be huge for a subset of children, I can already tell – and, again, her race and gender are not made a big deal out of, which is a major boon for the notoriously non-diverse feature animation landscape.  And though she is not the main lead of the film, Oh’s is the perspective that we are primarily given, the film still treats her with absolute respect and importance.  Tip’s quest to re-unite with her mom is decidedly more low-stakes than Oh and the Boov’s quest to keep the Gorg from finding Earth, but the film treats it as something equally as important, even with minimal flashbacks to how their dynamic was before she was taken.

The film never gives Tip the short-shrift.  She’s just as resourceful as Oh, she’s just as entertaining as Oh, and the one time that somebody in the film explicitly takes a swipe at her gender they are immediately proven wrong by Tip herself (and also by the fact that the Boov making that crack is pretty much an antagonist anyway).  There’s even a bit in the finale where it seems like she’s being carted off to the sidelines for Oh to resolve the main plot, but she then forces her way back in with vital action that Oh couldn’t have done.  She reminds me a lot of Vanellope from Wreck-It Ralph or Tigress from Kung Fu Panda 2, lead female characters who aren’t the main protagonists but whom the film treats as well as one anyway.  If Home didn’t do that, then I wouldn’t have been in floods of joyous tears at the incredibly sweet payoff to Tip’s story.

(Also, for a personal little plug, it’s very much a major step forward for DreamWorks Animation, who have had major troubles when it comes to the female gender in their films, as those who have been reading The DreamWorks Animation Retrospective will know.)

For two, I find the animation, and more specifically the art style, to be excellent.  Human character animations have the same weight, heft, and naturalness of How To Train Your Dragon, whilst the Boov are more susceptible to the occasional squash-and-stretch of various intensities, and the two gel very smoothly with one another.  But it’s the art style that really grabs my attention.  There is a lot of detail going on, all of it very pretty but most of it arguably unnecessary, but the world itself has this very smooth feel.  Places, people, and animals all have this soft, often curved design that creates this warm, huggable, inviting feel that, combined with the bright primary colours colour scheme, I found it very easy to lose myself in.

It’s all best demonstrated in the design of the Boov.  They have this very simple cylindrical body shape that extends to their multiple feet and fingers (which both lack any noticeable tips), and that curves instead of points idea extends to their noses which, in their resting state, curl in on themselves, their teeth which gently curve with noticeable gaps, and their eyes which are wide and expressive.  They are very eminently huggable, which is a characteristic I like in this kind of genre.  Boov also change colour based on their expression – red denotes anger, orange denotes happiness, green denotes lying, etc. – which provides a fun extra layer of information about Oh at any given moment and helps make the designs and world pop that much more.

And for three, despite walking a lot in the same sweet DNA as Mr. Peabody & Sherman – lots of heart, funny but not overly so, not re-inventing any wheels – Home manages to avoid that film’s structural mistake: forcing an action-packed finale.  Home seems to be heading towards a superfluous big stakes action finale, but pulls back at the last minute to resolve its central conflict in ways more befitting what came before.  The threat of global destruction is there, because of course it is, but the stakes are primarily focussed on our two leads and the set-piece itself only really qualifies as a set-piece because of its placement and general expensive look; no giant chase sequence.  Since many animated films lose their nerve and force a last minute action climax, seeing Home pull back is a nice pleasant surprise and display of self-confidence in its storytelling.

(Also, the film takes the DreamWorks licensed soundtrack thing to its logical endpoint and, at multiple points, backs proceedings with songs written specifically for the film.  When it actually commits to this idea, it’s a rather neat and non-distracting choice, even with most of them being by Rihanna and Jennifer Lopez.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t commit enough to the idea for me, with the really good score handling the vast majority of the film and the songs popping up very sporadically.  The songs are good, I rather like them, so the lack of time devoted to them makes it all feel like a bit of a wasted opportunity for me.  Ah, well, the soundtrack album will probably be pretty great, though!)

As I said earlier, Home does not re-invent any wheels and it’s not a majorly necessary and vital entry into the Western feature-animation landscape.  It’s not laugh-out-loud funny, although the kids at my screening never tired of the Boov’s constant inability to use correct syntax and proper grammar, and it’s not a market leader when it comes to heart or anything.  But I really, really dug Home.  It’s adorably sweet and sincere in the way that great animated features often are, its two leads are a joy to spend time with, its animation is great, and its vocal performances are surprisingly really strong.

In my review of Penguins of Madagascar, I noted that not all animated films have to reach for the stars.  They can aim to be more modest, lightweight entertainment so long as that is all executed with heart and joy by the filmmakers.  Home has enough heart and love visibly poured into its creation that I didn’t mind in the slightest when the Dance Party Ending reared its head to send us all home on.  That, my friends, is true praise.  I dug the hell out of this one.

Callum Petch got his friends by his side and that’s all that matters to him.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch) and listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio every Monday at 9PM BST (site link)!

Turbo

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.


turbo-sq1000_s8_f122_cc-2_rgb27] Turbo (17th July 2013)

Budget: $127 million

Gross: $282,570,682

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 67%

I really couldn’t have planned this better, folks.  Turbo really is the perfect note to send the Retrospective home on – film-wise, in any case, we still have two weeks left – because it not only perfectly demonstrates why DreamWorks Animation are currently struggling at the box office, but also excellently embodies the evolution of “The DreamWorks Movie”, the type of film that animation fans like to deride and flanderize DreamWorks as only making, which, as this series should have proven, is mostly patently untrue.  In a perfect world, I’d have the time to look at the film in-depth from both angles, but word counts are word counts, so we’ll speed through the box office stuff and then dive into the true meat of the matter: the film itself.

Turbo bombed.  Turbo bombed.  It didn’t cost DreamWorks Animation as much as Rise of the Guardians did, but it was still the second write-down that the company had to take in as many years – not to mention that Mr. Peabody & Sherman would force them to take yet another write-down not 9 months later.  Two straight bombs for an independent studio sure as hell rattles investor confidence, although confidence in Turbo’s TV spin-off – Turbo: FAST on Netflix, one of the shows that we’ll be looking at next week – may explain why Katzenberg broke the news by basically going, “Well, at least it was ONLY $13.5 million this time!”  (Plus another $2.1 million later once the film finished underperforming overseas.Turbo failed to break $100 million domestic, becoming the lowest-grossing CG DreamWorks film domestically ever – until Penguins of Madagascar managed to sail under even that low bar – and you don’t even need to adjust for inflation as it grossed even less than Antz!

Unfortunately, for those of you looking for a giant point-by-point breakdown as to precisely why a film like Turbo failed, much like I did for Rise of the Guardians a fortnight back, the reasons as to why Turbo failed are extremely simple and honestly rather justified.  The first is that release date: July 17th 2013.  It is like 20th Century Fox and DreamWorks were trying to kill the film before it had the chance to get started!  That is a release date that came a month after Monsters University, two weeks after juggernaut Despicable Me 2 – which actually beat Turbo in the latter’s opening weekend, which is sorta tragic – and two weeks before Planes dropped.  Not to mention the fact that Summer 2013 was, erm, CROWDED, to say the least.  Animation fatigue, coupled with the fact that all of those other films are connected to already-liked franchises and DreamWorks’ prior-discussed problems with oversaturation, undoubtedly lead to a belief in the general public that they could give Turbo a miss and have no protestations from their kids.

The other problem stems from Turbo looking incredibly, kinda insultingly generic, unoriginal, and rip-off-y.  I mean, look at this goddamn trailer.

Does anything about that trailer scream anything other than “Generic DreamWorks Film #278”?  It’s a talking animal movie (check) about impossible dreams (check) where the message is that you can totally achieve those unachievable dreams if you wish hard enough (check) with an all-star cast providing the voices (check), including some prime A-grade stunt casting (big check), all set to a licensed soundtrack (check) and a whole bunch of jokes that come from pop culture references, animals doing and saying non-animal things, and silly catchphrases for the kids (check, check, and WHITE SHADOW!).  Oh, and that DreamWorks smirk (checks the size of George Clooney’s starring fees).

By this point in time, “The DreamWorks Movie” had bled over into popular consciousness.  No longer just a derogatory thought process held by film critics and snarky animation buffs, it seems that the mainstream audience were now tired of the DreamWorks schtick.  What was once a fresh, original voice in a stale animated feature landscape is now itself the stale voice in a fresh, original animated feature landscape.  As previously mentioned, DreamWorks were still trying to party like it was 2007 and they were the only names on the block, so people would have to turn up to their films.  Unfortunately, nowadays, animation is very competitive and one needs to have a new, exciting voice to stand out.  Pulling the same trick out with seemingly no variation makes you seem disposable, and parents don’t have time for disposable films in today’s ultra-competitive animated landscape.

No, seriously, look at this upcoming slate of animated features of the next 22 months.  It is ridiculous in the best possible way!

And DreamWorks’ constant returning to that “The DreamWorks Movie” formula, even whilst they tried to re-invent their image with more dramatic, emotionally-engaging, and (for lack of a better word) prestige pieces – said returns coming from films like Megamind, Puss In Boots, and now Turbo – can lead to backlash, as people return to the Shrek series and Shark Tale and realise that they weren’t as good as they thought they were.  This is why Shrek Forever After did badly by Shrek standards, yet Madagascar 3 shattered box office records for its series.  The former refused to adapt sufficiently, making tentative steps towards a newer, less pop-culture focussed identity but pulling back to safety at every opportunity, and was punished for it, whilst Madagascar actively found its own voice, as a wild silly cartoon, committed to it, and was rewarded forty-fold because it was something different.

Hence why Turbo was probably doomed from the start, even if it wasn’t released immediately after two guaranteed monster hits.  It looks like the kind of film that DreamWorks should have stopped making by this point.  Christ, it even has Ryan Reynolds in the lead role, who had just come straight from DreamWorks’ own The Croods from back in March, using the exact same voice as the one he used in The Croods!  Now, I know what you’re expecting, by this point.  You’re expecting me to now turn around and refute this entire assumption, reveal the film to secretly be some kind of pro-feminist piece or secret satire of the kinds of knock-offs that the studio had spawned and indulged in since their success or something.  That’s pretty much been my thing with this series, after all, going far deeper than most people are willing to go to when looking at and analysing these films, finding new angles and such.

Well, not this time, because they were right.  Turbo is “The DreamWorks Movie”.  Those trailers and awful aggressive pun-based taglines – “He’s fast, they’re furious”?  Oh, God, just kill me already – were not setting up some kind of Bee Movie-style refuge in audacity bait-and-switch.  Turbo is the movie that you’re being sold.  It’s a film with pop culture references as the primary source of humour in a landscape where the most successful films get their jokes from physical comedy and character work.  It’s a film that casts Snoop Dogg and Samuel L. Jackson as snails whose roles are basically “Snoop Dogg” and “Samuel L. Jackson”, in a landscape that casts Idina Menzel in a big Broadway-style musical and gives her an actual character to play.  It’s a film with an unnecessarily large budget in a landscape where non-Disney-affiliated outlets aim to produce quality at a sustainable sub-$100 mil budget.

It’s a film that stops for a full minute to poke fun at annoying auto-tuned YouTube remixes of stupid stuff, long after those stopped being entertaining prospects in their own right, by doing its own annoying auto-tuned YouTube remix of stupid stuff, and it is exactly as awkward and unfunny as it reads on paper.

So why do I really like Turbo?

I mean, from everything that I’ve written about the film so far, I should hate the damn thing, and that YouTube remix really should have murdered the entire film by itself.  So why, despite setting off every single goddamn alarm bell that I have, do I really like Turbo?  Well, much like every other answer in this article, it’s quite simple: there’s heart here.  There’s heart in the film’s central dynamics – it’s a tale of two sets of brothers, Turbo & Chet, the snails, and Tito & Angelo, the humans who end up spiriting them away and looking after them, and the film does a good job at playing with the parallels – but that’s not what I mean when I say that there’s “heart”.

What’s the typical mode of attachment with “The DreamWorks Movie”?  Does it have genuine affection for its characters, set-up, mechanics, and general existence?  Or is it distant, snarky, and dismissive about all of that?  Well, if it was the latter, then I imagine that Shreks 2 and The Third, Shark Tale and, arguably due to its occasionally cruel tone, the first Madagascar wouldn’t be so reviled.  Formula is rarely noticed so readily and so dismissively by the general public if the film itself is happy to be here and happy to be doing what it sets out to do; once again: The Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Most of the lower-quality DreamWorks films – again, the first Madagascar is only included here because of those occasional moments where it forgoes its own voice in favour of sticking to formula – feel cynical from frame one, a conscious decision to just redo the Shrek formula for money instead of telling the stories they want to tell.

Turbo almost never gives off this feeling.  This doesn’t feel like a film by formula because Katzenberg wanted to guarantee a profit, this feels like a film by formula because the people making it genuinely seem to love working from it.  They recognise that it’s not perfect, hence the injection of genuine heart to ground proceedings, but they love it anyway, and that shot of love and energy is what proves to be the revitalising spark required to make the film work.  That’s why the pop culture references inspire some genuine laughs and chuckles instead of just sighs of derision, they’ve had full-on thought put into them: for example, Turbo’s radio problems received genuine laughs from me because the songs fit the situation, the animation has a field day, and each instance of the joke doesn’t outstay its welcome, in contrast to the Pied Piper from Shrek Forever After.

That’s why Samuel L. Jackson playing Snail Samuel L. Jackson works, because the love for that idea means that the film commits to it.  Robert de Niro playing Shark Robert de Niro in Shark Tale was lazy, never fully committing enough to the idea and instead just having him say vaguely Robert de Niro things in a kid-friendly manner, as if the film is constantly stopping to remind you of its joke.  Turbo, though, commits and so we get a snail who has the same kind of attitude, authority, and gravitas as Samuel L. Jackson, but who manages to still feel like a distinct entity because the film doesn’t bend over backwards to remind you that, “No, guys! It’s Samuel L. Jackson as a snail!”

That’s why the extremely generic nature of the entire film – it’s basically a pastiche of A Bug’s Life, Antz, Ratatouille, Toy Story, Cars, and at least a dozen other animated films that have slipped my mind right now – works, because it cribs and borrows from so many elements yet the Frankenstein’s Monster hybrid still feels uniquely Turbo thanks to a focus on a more Latino viewpoint with the human cast.  That’s why the constant licensed music cues work, because they’ve been carefully matched for optimal strength – OK, “Jump Around” is majorly on-the-nose for its scene but it’s still a great drop, and the mashup of “Eye of the Tiger” and “Holler If Ya Hear Me” is both frickin’ genius and the best usage of “Eye of the Tiger” in years.  That’s why that DreamWorks Smirk works, because its deployment in-film is legitimately awesome!

It’s a laundry list of DreamWorks tropes, yet almost every one of their usages works, even having Angelo’s character design heavily resemble that of his voice actor, Luis Guzmán.  Therefore, it might come as both a major and not-at-all surprise to discover that the Turbo’s director and co-writer (from an idea of his own), David Soren, has been a mainstay at DreamWorks for most of its history.  The “not-at-all” part coming from the fact that this is a film that could only have been made by somebody who has been a long-time member of DreamWorks and who is determined to remind the viewing public that formula and tropes are not necessarily bad things.  The “major” part coming from the fact that David Soren was the Head Of Story of Shark Tale and, as we already know, Shark Tale is one of the absolute worst films ever released.

Yet, here, he is energised, he is happy, he is heartfelt, a man with something to prove.  The idea was his own, the result of DreamWorks holding an internal one-time only competition for a one-page film pitch that he won by pitching exactly what you’re thinking Turbo would be pitched like, and it had been gestating for years before finally getting made.  Soren is clearly in love with his idea, he’s also in love with the formula – I don’t know why I don’t put quotation marks over every instance of that word, this series has hopefully shown you that DreamWorks didn’t really have a pre-ordained formula and it’s a common misconception – and he’s clearly excited to be making this film.  That’s why nearly everything works!

In fact, I’d argue that Turbo is actually a better Cars movie than the original Cars.  There are distinct Radiator Springs feels towards the Starlight Plaza strip mall that our human characters reside in, a corner of Los Angeles that nobody visits and who just want people to patronise their businesses.  Then, in flies this hotshot racer, by accident, who may just be what they need to save their forgotten part of town.  Where Turbo surpasses Cars in this department is in characterisation.  Cars clearly sketches its supporting cast in a way where they are solely defined by their one character trait – the hippie, the drill sergeant, the sassy black female – and where it’s hard to imagine them as anything else.

Turbo barely features and characterises those non-Tito good humans, which kinda begs the question as to why you’d hire Michelle Rodriguez but hey ho, but that makes them contradictorily much deeper.  By not defining them as anything specifically, besides the most minor of glimpses that we get, then they feel less stereotypical, less rigidly defined.  I find it easier to see them as full-on people instead of walking stereotypes, who have lives outside of the plot of the film, whereas I just find the secondary cast of Cars to be, well, the secondary cast of characters in an animated movie.  I can’t really explain why, but it just works and that makes me care more about them as a result.

Of course, this all being said, Turbo is not a particularly great movie.  By its design, the most it’s aiming to be is a fun way to spend 95 minutes whilst telling a story with heart and proving that formula is not necessarily bad.  It’s a fun time with a nice heart-lifting centre and climax, but nothing that connects on an especially deep level.  Penguins of Madagascar aims for a similar thing but its deviations from formula and the sheer surprising extent of its heart make it ascend past the level of fun, diverting entertainment.  Turbo doesn’t quite manage that, although it really tries, especially by having a lead character who is just the definition of “lovable determined underdog that you can’t help but root for”.

More problematic is the film’s gender issues.  This is resolutely a boy’s tale, which means that the three female characters with speaking lines are shunted to the side-lines; not inherently a bad thing.  The problems set in with the characterisations.  The lone female snail, played by Maya Rudolph, is an aggressively flirtatious being whose sole defining trait – hence why I praised the purposeful malleability of the human cast earlier – is that she is stalker-obsessed with Chet, recalling the purposeful marginalisation of female cast members in at least half of DreamWorks’ filmic output.  Michelle Rodriguez’s character mostly just exists, but the real problem is Kim-Ly, an elderly manicurist played by Ken Jeong.

Yes, really.  Her character is fine – again, malleability – but it’s the fact that Ken Jeong was hired to do the voice.  On its own, in the context of this film with the rest of DreamWorks’ history put to one side, it’s a bit of slightly racially insensitive stunt casting but mostly slips by fine on the strength of Jeong’s committed performance.  In context with the studio’s history, it’s those things and also a perfect encapsulation of their typical depiction of women in their films: love interests, or barely there non-entities whose existences will be undercut at every opportunity for gags; gags like, “Ha! That woman is being voiced by a man!”  Let’s not forget, this is a company that released two Shrek sequels where their interpretation of The Ugly Stepsister was that she looked like a transsexual and was voiced by Larry King and “Eeeeeewwwww!!!”

Again, this isn’t really a knock against Turbo, per se: the film is very good and I really like it.  But Turbo is also a walking embodiment of DreamWorks The Studio and its evolution from Shrek 12 years earlier to near-enough now.  DreamWorks The Studio has nearly always had a problem with the female gender and Turbo, by pure accident, demonstrates why.  DreamWorks The Studio is rarely the most original studio on the block, and Turbo ends up being a collage of nearly every animated film released in the previous decade.  DreamWorks The Studio, due to its multiple films a year production model, doesn’t aim for the stars with every film, and Turbo shows that that’s perfectly fine when the film is really good but also explains why many of the studio’s films are underperforming: it’s not essential, which doesn’t cut it so well in today’s landscape.

Turbo, essentially, is a film made like it’s still 2007, like its mere existence guarantees that it will be a success because DreamWorks are on a roll and why would anybody watch anything else over this?  Again, this is not to disparage the film which is a very good film that I really like, but it is as perfect an encapsulation as any as to why DreamWorks are not doing so hot right now.  For example, that budget means that the film looks damn great, but I think that the art style and colour scheme are strong enough on their own that the excess detail is unnecessary gloss that over-inflates the budget – I think you could get a film that looks close to as good as how this one looks for about $30 million less if the excess detail were stripped out.

But I feel there’s no better indicator as to where DreamWorks currently are in the animated feature landscape than this comparison.  Turbo is a film that teaches viewers that you can follow any dream and succeed with a whole lotta belief and little bit of luck.  In the same twelve month period that Turbo came out, however, Monsters University and Wreck-It Ralph taught viewers that there are, in fact, limits as to what you can achieve, but that that’s OK and that giving up on your dreams in favour of finding something else you’re good at that can bring you joy is not necessarily a bad thing.

Disney had begun re-inventing itself by offering more modern messages, stories and ways of communicating both, re-establishing themselves as must-see viewing.  DreamWorks were still doing what they were known for doing nearly a decade ago.  Their successes came from divergence from that, but their inability (and I mean they literally cannot afford to) to move away from an efficient factory-like release and production schedule means that those get hobbled as they are still not truly must-see viewing.  Feature-length animation is leaving DreamWorks behind; they need to adapt or die.


Next week, we take one last detour into the world of television to look at the studio’s various televised spin-offs of their successful (and not so successful) movies, as we try and figure out why the studio seems to be having more luck in television at the moment than they are film.

A new edition of DreamWorks! A Retrospective will be posted here every Monday at 1PM BST!

Callum Petch’s God in him saw the Devil in you.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch) and listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio every Monday at 9PM BST (site link)!

The Nut Job

No.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

the nut job 2I 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.

Callum Petch wants to run til we meet in the night.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!