Dr. Toon addresses the summer hits and misses.
Part I: Get Bent! Would I kick a man while he was down? Get me my Doc Martens. Would I beat a dead horse? Get me my sledgehammer. Would I really? Sure, especially when the man and horse are metaphors for a movie studio and a once-hot director coasting on his one-shot rep. By now you all know that Paramount Pictures, Nickelodeon and M. Night Shyamalan's The Last Airbenderis one of the most spectacular critical failures of this or any summer.
In the graveyard of disasters that are live-action animated features, the tombstone for this monument would be taller than Dubai's Burj Khalifa skyscraper. Reading the reviews for this film is an exercise in horror surpassed only by actually sitting through this abomination. Better yet, don't. Just read my March 2009 AWN column; it's all you'll need to know.
Readers, I'm no genius, far from it. I can't foretell the future, and I can't channel your dear deceased aunt, either. However, The Last Airbender was a not-so-fastball down the middle of the plate that even Stewie Griffin could have put over the wall. As long as movie studios make these live-action adaptations of animated series, they shall cry, bleed and stone themselves after the fact until the streets of Hollywood run red.
At the time of this writing, this wretched feature has failed to earn back its production costs. As for M. Night Shyamalan, he gets no pass from me, either. He has never worked in animation, doesn't understand the medium or its unique form of narrative and is less knowledgeable about cartoons than anyone -- anyone -- reading this column. That being said, he should have turned this project down. Hey Paramount, Nick -- you want a profitable movie out of your Airbender property? Draw it.
Part II: Of Sudden Death and Purple Drank
Is there a more successful branding machine in America than the National Football League? Ever since Pete Rozelle took the commissioner's seat after the death of Bert Bell, the NFL has become an expanding cultural phenomenon that now claims top spot in professional sports. Through use of variant merchandise emblazoned with the colorful logos of NFL teams the league makes fashion statements as well as producing an exciting sport that has a rabid fan base. The present commissioner, Roger Goodell, has seemingly made it his goal to globalize and expand the league into universal consciousness. Now, it appears, the NFL has finally spread its ubiquitous marketing arm into animation and we have another one of those beloved intersections between animation and American culture.
Nickelodeon and the NFL have teamed up to produce a new series of animation ultra-shorts (three to five minutes apiece) that will air in 22 episodes from September to February during the 2010 NFL season. An hour-long special tying up the storyline will air the day before the season's penultimate event, Super Bowl XLV. Get ready for Rush Zone: Guardians of the Core. The hero is 10-year old Ishmael (Ish) who discovers that the 32 NFL stadiums house the legacy of an advanced alien planet; pieces of the planet's core. These pieces can enrich or destroy humanity. Also after the shards are Sudden Death and his evil legion of Blitz Botz. Ish has friends in high places, though: Real NFL players and coaches and a sage named O.T. Can Ish handle the job?
A semi-tongue-in-cheek description of the show would actually read like this:
10-year- old Ish has learned that an otherworldly force has been stashed in all 32 NFL stadiums (apparently the otherworldly stashers can't count; there are only 31 stadiums. The Giants and Jets share digs). Ish faces off against the evil but misnamed Sudden Death: He should be called "Sudden Death Under Regular Season Rules," since the format is now different for the playoffs. During the playoffs, the villain would be called "Sudden Death if the Team Winning the Overtime Toss Kicks a Field Goal and the Subsequent Possession by the Opposing Team Results in a Field Goal." However, the villain can situationally be called Sudden Death if the Team Winning the Overtime Toss Scores a Touchdown on That Possession." Got it? Good.
Sudden Death etc. is aided by an evil legion of "Blitz Botz" (actually players arrested or under suspension for things like dog-fighting operations, involuntary manslaughter while driving drunk, dealing cases of "Purple Drank," attempted rape, illegal firearm possession, doping and/or domestic/interpersonal violence). Some of the Blitz Botz are, it should be noted, far more benign. They are simply holding out to have their contracts redone for much more cash even though there are still two or three years to go on the bloated originals. Others may be preparing to split during the free agency period even though Sudden Death has them under contact for the 2010 season. They tend to become locker room cancers.
Is it a good thing that Ish has the help of NFL coaches, some of whom are not on speaking terms with each other and half of whom are on the "hot seat" from intrusive owners and angry fans for not winning four Super Bowls in five years? Ish must hurry, since many of these same owners are clamoring for new stadiums built with municipal funds, so that that the onerous burden on the fans can be compounded by the selling of Personal Seat Licenses, which are prerequisite for obtaining season tickets. Hopefully, the all-powerful shards can then be placed in all-important luxury boxes. Otherwise, the owners might move the teams to other cities and leave the core shards lying out in open fields. Not good.
BTW: Can an otherworldly civilization actually hide the pieces of their shattered planet's core in an NFL stadium and not have anyone notice?
Peyton Manning: Who the hell left this glowing piece of alien rock in the whirlpool?
Reggie Wayne: Don't go near it, Peyton! It looks radioactive!
Joseph Addai: Holy Jesus! Call a bomb squad! Call anybody!
I also hope that the NFL players are committed to Ish and his quest, since they face a potential work stoppage and lockout during the 2011 season. At last glance, the NFLPA (the player's union) has ascertained something like "110% certainty" that there will be a labor stoppage and no pro football after this season. Core shards may need a long shelf life if Ish can't get the quest done in 2010. It is also hoped that none of the players tagged to appear as Ish's allies misbehave in the manner of a Blitz Bot during the season (asPlaxico Burress did); some episodes might have to be cut and we won't know what happened to the corresponding shard. Don't you need all 32 to make a planetary core?
Hey, it's still got to be better than Where's Huddles, right?
Don't get me wrong. I love the NFL. I have cheered for the same team since 1967, have the DirecTV Sunday ticket and have been known to parade around at work clad in the jersey of my team's quarterback during the playoff season. Yeah, I play fantasy football and can name the entire starting offensive lines for every team in the NFC East. I have exhibited fits of startling immaturity, during which I have called innocent players on the Dallas Cowboys names that their worst enemies would not utter. I'm a rabid fan. But I have my reservations.
This show will be targeted toward young children, and my concerns go beyond the usual mega-marketing-to-kids issues. This show ignores the fact that the league has a very dark side. For all its might, the NFL has serious problems, and all kids will see is a highly positive, greatly sanitized version of the sport, the league and the NFL brand. The greater the degree of idealization, the greater the possible disillusionment when there is no football in 2011, the Michael Vicks of the league exercise paranormal stupidity or a kid's favorite player ditches town for free-agent riches, leaving the poor tyke with an expensive, outdated jersey.
Part III: 4 + 3(D) = Million$
Oh, the rush of 3-D spectaculars this summer! Towering IMAX theaters playing to full houses, an audience sporting the latest in cinematic eyewear, animation mavens turning nifty tricks until every protruding pixel has been milked to maximum effect. Happily, the efforts have largely paid off and we have, to date four critical and domestic box office champs since March. All of them happen to be in 3-D, if you want to see them in that format. Shrek Forever After admittedly showed signs that the franchise had lost steam, so DreamWorks wisely made this the last sequel. Still, the film was not a bad coda to the series, and at last glance was headed toward the $240 million mark. DreamWorks had an earlier spring hit with How to Train Your Dragon, an exceptional animated treat that raked in $217 million and already has a sequel in the works for 2013.
Despicable Me is a surprise hit from Universal's Illumination Ent. that exceeded expectations, and rightfully so. Although the film has some emotionally manipulative moments, it is a well-written, well-staged and thoroughly enjoyable romp. With very strong reviews and a box office take of $209 million, expect this film to make an impact on the market and possibly the Oscars. Finally, what more can be said about Toy Story 3, a nearly $400 million juggernaut that also happens to be the year's top grossing film at the mid-point. The Pixar trilogy reached a shining apogee with this marvelous tale of living toys finding their final destiny.
Now…does this fantastic four owe part of their success to 3-D, or are they just great films that would have succeeded in traditional style? The 3-D experience, which has now spread to home television, has never been as prominent in entertainment, even though it has existed for decades. While the neo-novelty of depth in films is generally an enhancement, this summer's crop of winners would likely have done just as well on a flat plane. Story and characterization make animated films live, not images viewed through a pair of chromatic glasses, and these four films have these qualities in abundance. Some critics aver that the recent spate of 3-D films represents a passing phase, while others have decried 3-D as a gimmick that detracts from a film's narrative task. Those critics are missing the point: a film as exceptional as Toy Story 3 will be exceptional in any viewing format.
If three-dimensional novelties are the newest flavor and are doomed to fade away by, oh, 2014, so be it. If the same gimmick thrives and comes to be expected as a matter of course by future audiences, that's fine too. Just keep giving us inventive films with memorable characters and great scripts, and animation will continue to thrive on the big screen for many summers to come.
Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.
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