ALL AGES ADMITTED

There are a select few movies that defy the need for recommendation; achievements in popular filmmaking that soar to a pinnacle of entertainment excellence that not only set the standard, but eclipse it so completely, they humble even the most accomplished competitive efforts. Such a film is the 1938 Errol Flynn classic “The Adventures of Robin Hood”, seamlessly directed by Michael Curtiz and William Keighley. This is a motion picture impossible to resist, featuring endless swashbuckling delights and one of the great tales of romance in the history of film. Even al-Queda would have to love this film.

What ever happened to the family friendly movie? The proliferation of kid films and animated features would convey the illusion that all is well with the world and that the family feature film has been warmly embraced by the current Hollywood establishment as a mainstay of their production output; that family audiences are not only desired but perhaps, despite the continued objections from those who insist Hollywood only caters to 18 to 24 males, the targeted demographic for box-office lucre. This is a gross misconception, as what Hollywood is after is what it has always been after: your money. Simply put, if the major studios could get away with the dangling of a shiny bead in front of your eyes (at twelve dollars a pop, that is) they would do so. And that is exactly what has happened to the family feature film. It has become a shiny bead. A hypno-disc worthy of the hoariest William Castle marketing scams. The formula is easy, take the most pliable of minds, who have yet to develop evaluative faculties and throw any colorful, active mediocrity their way, and when it succeeds, throw a succession of progressively insubstantial sequels their way. Repeat process. Ad infinitum.

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the croods     “The Croods”      (2013)

     For an example of what is despairingly wrong with modern animation features, one needs look no further than “The Croods”, an example of what appears to be the new industry penchant for “animation release of the week”,  with all of the apparent thought put behind the project that such accelerated production schedules might indicate. The film begins promisingly with a whimsical family history told through animated cave paintings, but the magic is quickly extinguished with the look of three-dimensional plasticity that has croodsOSbecome de rigueur for all contemporary studio feature animation and an opening sequence which flaunts one of the curses of the cinema’s reliance of computer imagery, either live-action or in animation: busy action which defies the laws of gravity and general physics to the point of making Wile E. Coyote’s antics seem like a demonstration of quantum mechanics. (All this and the intrusive visual references to football- or is it rugby? -while the entire sequence is scored using Lindsay Buckingham’s Tusk, a bizarre example of anachronistic overkill that would make Fred Flintstone wince with embarrassment.

     It is immediately apparent that the contemporary tradition of the avoidance of trained and talented voice artists will continue with an assortment of  the all too recognizable (Cloris Leachman giving the same damn overexposed grumpy granny performance she’s been hauling around for decades) or, more damagingly, the vocally unmemorable who seems to be hired by the stature of their recognition by the film industry rather than their usefulness in being able to create a distinctive character solely through their voice. The flat timbres of the vocalizations of croods1Nicholas Cage, Catherine Keener and Ryan Reynolds should come as no surprise to anyone who has ever seen a performance by any of the aforementioned, yet it is a persistent habit of today’s studios to insist that marquee names (Remember Brad Pitt as “Sinbad”? Neither does anyone else.) provide a greater guarantee of financial success worthy of the artistic compromises. Unfortunately, much as the screenplay by co-directors Chris Sanders and Kirk DeMicco creates distinctive personalities for all but one of the seven core characters (Keener’s maternal Ugga simply gets lost in all of the calamity), the monotonous quality of the acting simply drags down the more colorful aspects possible in the characters. That real connections with resulting emotional resonance are  occasionally developedcroods3 between several of the characters, especially between the inquisitive, restless teen Eep (with well matched vocals, played with real pizazz by Emma Stone) and her dad, the loving but obsessively overprotective Grug, is fairly miraculous in itself for a film without a real story (These moments also demonstrate the depth of feeling the film might have striven for in developing character rather than being content with wall-to-wall action and slapstick.), in what is essentially a series of noisome events following the same tired premise since cinema immemorial which tells of a trek to a promised land absent of volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, droughts or any other form of environmental catastrophe. The episodic nature of the narrative- in which a new and more explosive bit of action occurs every five minutes or so -gives the audience the impression of being trapped inside a pinball machine: its all very colorful and detailed and painstaking, but we’d rather know more about the central characters who are not well developed as idiosyncratic conceptions, but are locked croods2into stereotypical models- the sexpot teen, the nasty grandma, the oafish son, the strong but brainless dad. Still, there is sufficient humor which works well enough within the script’s limited vision, and- oddly enough -the central character tension between Grug and Eep, following a universal path of teen rebellion versus the burdens of worrisome parental responsibility, manages to sneak in several moments which reach a satisfying and honestly earned level of poignancy. Indeed, there are several moments which are truly striking: Eep’s first discovery of the dancing embers of fire; Guy’s saving of Eep from a deadly cloud of birds which strip flesh from the bone with piranha-like efficiency; a truly hilarious escalation of feral behavior by the youngest, a nappy head little tot named Sandy whose entire means of expression is encompassed by growls or dangerously chomping teeth, a playpen version of the Tasmanian Devil.

      Eventually, the film plays with the sentimental tropes of domestic family comedy (Grug and Ugga might be identified as history’s- in this context anyway -first potential empty nesters), but as with most contemporary animated films shies away from prolonged exposure to sentimentality, as if its audience might shun contact with genuine human emotions like a virulent pathogen. (Substituting a world in which every movement is met with the effect of bounding and tossing like Superman playing with a Frisbee becomes tiresome- and stupidly undercuts the climax of the film -hardly engaging the emotional appetites of the viewer.) No matter what technology the studios and theaters contrive to project their animated visions in, without the reemergence of genuine heart into story lines, the characters will forever be consigned to the world of the 1D movie.movie

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4 Responses to ALL AGES ADMITTED

  1. bijoux82 says:

    I agree, and I think the images you picked for this section speak volumes. I can’t really put my finger on when “family-friendly film” became synonymous with such crud, but I do think that an examination of older family films and newer ones suggests this subgenre has headed in a disastrously disparate direction. One of the simplest observations I’ve made: Family films now, if not animated, must feature children or a youth young enough to still pass as a high-school aged person in prominent roles. “Are We there Yet,” “Home Alone,” “The Princess Diaries.” I’ll see your Ad Infinitum and raise you an Ad Nauseum (and I’ve never played poker so I do apologize if that was the worst sentence you’ve ever read). But your picture of “Robin Hood” shows that family-friendly shouldn’t mean “how many families we can feature in a film” (and today, you should typically feature one family that is struggling with a major issue, but will overcome using love, and one family who must learn the power of love from the protagonist’s clan). Another gorgeous family-friendly film I remember is “The Thief of Bagdad.” (Yes, I know it had a teenage Sabu in it.) I don’t have a lot of wonderful insight on this subject, but I’m glad you brought it up. (I do have to admit I sometimes get intimidated responding. Your blogs, even the short snippets, are always so good that my inadequate ramblings feel embarrassing to post).
    Oh, and don’t forget: That shiny bead can now be re-released in 3-D.

    • chandlerswainreviews says:

      Bijoux-
      Just as long as there’s no mention of ad hominem I find your sentence perfectly palatable. (I have no idea what I’m talking about, but Aristotle once said: “90% of genius is artifice.” [I doubt he actually said that- as I just made it up- but go with it as he’s not around do dispute the attribution.]) I don’t recall having a great love of “kid” films (as most live action Disney films were sophisticated enough to be considered general releases (Love that MacMurray) and Hayley Mills projected an attitude of premature maturity- sort of a surrogate adulthood- that in retrospect was probably what made her more palatable to other kids back then) at the theater when I was a child, as my usual fare ran along the lines of “The Longest Day”, “Grand Prix” and “Hatari!”, though on TV, I had no end of fun avoiding Saturday morning cartoons in lieu of the local broadcasts of Tarzan films, Toho epics and the occasional oddball cult item like Cameron Mitchell in “Maneater of Hydra” or “Dungeon of Harrow”. But films with people my own age when I was that age (what??) I didn’t care for. (Except for Disney films with lovely Annette– because I’m not dead and actually have a pulse.) I don’t understand this self-absorption of kids wanting to see themselves (or their alter-egos) reflected on the screen. It seems this is a stifling of the adventurous imagination, which may explain why when they (ahem!) mature, they spend most of their social hours staring at their iphones at pictures of themselves. As far as the depressing state of family fare, I blame this entirely on the parents who should know better than to drag their kid to every stupid vehicle with computer characters (Just how many fuzzy badgers does it take to stunt a child’s developmental growth anyway?)and then stack those same films like DVD firewood in front of the TV instead of encouraging them to experience something out of the ordinary? “The Thief of Bagdad” is an excellent suggestion. I think a comparative look at the Korda version (I DO like Sabu!) and the Fairbanks version merits a post on it’s own. Don’t mind my ramblings: I am a 2-D person living in a newly 3-D world. (By the way, I’m watching “Manon 70” right now and have a question: Was Sami Frey ever seriously considered to be charming? He seems rather reptilian to me. But Deneuve seems content so I guess there’s no accounting for taste.)

  2. Katharine says:

    I think it’s spelled “al Qaeda.”

    • chandlerswainreviews says:

      Actually, although commonly spelled al-Qaeda, it is also commonly seen as al-Quada, al-Qu’ida, al Quedda and in one instance Al Akyda who is a fabulous haberdasher in Duluth. However, in the interest of not further annoying the terrorists (like forcing them to alter their organizational stationery) we’ll go with al-Queda. Thanks for the astute eye.

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