Every Saturday, Check the Reel features Trailer Trash, a close look at previews, trailers, and sneak peeks for films not yet released. What does the rest of the year promise for theatres and Netflix accounts? Which are the masterpieces? Which are the flops? Serbian Filmmaker reaches into the future and tells you what to expect from Hollywood’s up and coming.
Imagine you’re a Dreamworks animator: not easy shoes to fill. You’ve been chasing the specter of multimillion blockbuster success since Prince of Egypt opened the floodgates of your career, but after that initial gush of praise and fortune you found the lake wasn’t quite so deep and the torrent became a thin, leaky stream around when Sinbad debuted. Disney rode the traditionally animated gravy train to its death while Pixar took the reins on a new movement, that CGI thing people were starting to rave about, so you and your team jumped aboard with Shrek and it shook the world: hundreds of millions of dollars, an Academy Award over Pixar, and Dreamworks could finally claim to have inspired other studios’ films (i.e.: the zero-parts inventive, all-parts dull Chicken Little.)
Even then people knew your team as Pixar’s lesser, more slapsticky brother. You followed their Finding Nemo with your Shark’s Tale. For every Shrek 2 there was A Bee Movie, a Shrek 3, or – worse – Shrek Forever After. Sometimes you settled with riding the coattails of hired studios, watching Aardman charm critics with stop-motion while you wearily milked the celebrity voices and pop culture jokes. Your bosses were happy, of course – they’re getting the money. It’s your artistic integrity on the line.
Lucky for Dreamworks they’ve spent the last five years in image rehab. Kung Fu Panda played its “animal martial arts” premise with conviction, unusual for the cartoon kings of “wink-nudge” level subtlety, and How to Train Your Dragon didn’t need Jack Black’s name on the poster to pack theatres. The transition was in earnest; Dreamworks had grown up enough to balance comedy with concern for story, theme, and character. This month’s Rise of the Guardians might be the peak of that maturity: holiday figures fighting the forces of evil? And not a fart joke or Robin Williams in sight? I’m excited.
So forgive me if The Croods, the prehistoric romp following Rise of the Guardians, doesn’t fill me with equal thrill. Make no mistake: tone is spot-on, the film convinced of its reality as much as the characters, and the environments brim with endless minutiae thanks to attention-to-detail I can only describe as “very Dreamworks.” The Croods does not feel like a blow-off project. It’s clear the hypothetical animator has done a damn fine job.
And yet we’ve seen prehistory played out to extinction and beyond in the cartoon world. Walt Disney discovered the surfeit of wonder and mysticism afforded by Earth’s early years when he set Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring to the creation of life in Fantasia. Half a century later: The Flinstones, Land Before Time, Ice Age, We’re Back!, Meet the Robinsons, Dinosaur (Remember that? Disney’s first photorealistic CGI film? I don’t either), the dinosaur movie Pixar’s making, all the sequels and spinoffs to any of the previous titles… Do we need to see more jungles, volcanoes, and sabertooth tigers constructed on computers? Does Nicholas Cage doing a bad impersonation of himself and a “I want to be free” female story ripped from the most washed-out pages of animated lore and presented by Brave‘s Merina teleported into cavewoman wear justify another trip down Pangaea Lane?
It’ll take a lot more convincing than what the trailer provides. If there’s any hope, it’s the emphasis on the Croods facing each conflict as a unit. The would-be Merina voiced by Emma Stone initiates the plot, while her father (Nick Cage) establishes himself early on as “overbearing dad,” but in the end this is less about individuals than a family … in theory. In execution – Oh, hey. Dreamwork’s making a film the combines traditional animation and CGI? Sorry, The Croods. There’s bigger fish to fry, more promising films to see.
Proving trends aren’t just started by people or things with revolutionary ideas, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, middling revisionist chop-schlock though it was, transcended its quality (and box office predictions) by creating a new genre of film, or at least reviving one restricted to Hollywood’s more… peculiar minority, probably known only by Scorsese and Tarantino. But I digress. Just as Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland still lives on through the twisted fairy tales it inspired, AL: VH could be the first in a long string of films starring historical / mythical figures as exploitation flick badasses if Norwegian director Tommy Wirkola has his say. And with a film named Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, he has pretty loud say.
The story: Hansel and Gretel go on their timeless trip through the wood. The witch in the gingerbread house invites them in, hoping to make a quick meal, but ends up as smoked meat in their place. We already knew this. The film’s twist: they’ve lived ever after seeking vengeance on the whole witch race. It’s Grade-Z trash dreamed up by an 8-year old Adderall addict. One of Bismark’s many domestic achievements in 1800s Germany, apparently, was supplying its citizens with enough crossbows, rocket launchers, and gatling guns seamlessly built into wood staircases to put a coven of steampunk writers out of work. Leather trench coats and tights were already the fashion before film noir or The Matrix, and the definition of a witch is taken very loosely, considering it allows for naked Siamese-twin witches who look like Silent Hill rejects. And an orc, because when witches are around an orc must follow. Of course.
What catapults Hansel and Gretel from grindhouse reject to mainstream wildcard is the presence of Jeremy “Hawkeye” Renner, an actors designed by fate, luck, genetics, and/or God to look permanently war-torn and brooding. Some actors spend years fighting for legitimate mainstream roles (Notebook-era Ryan Gosling, Rooney Mara). Jeremy Renner’s basked in legitimacy from the start, and only now after two Oscar nominations and twice as many big-bang blockbusters under his belt does he decide a B-movie might be worth investing in. Hey: even the best need a break.
Regardless of his motives, Renner is Hansel and Gretel’s best bet at success. Hansel and Gretel has more leeway than Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter in teasing its protagonists – they’re not historical figures with real accomplishments to their names – and Wirkola takes pride in mixing the absurd and obscene like he did when slapping Nazi zombies on a mountain (Dead Snow), but its best laughs, like Abraham Lincoln, like the best from Abraham and the Zuckers, engages the ridiculous with a straight face. Nobody can carry a deadpan as far as Renner, or say “eat your kids” so genuinely.
But Renner’s prominence comes with caveats. The movie title – Hansel and Gretel, brother and sister, 1 and 2 – suggests a buddy film, two heroes sharing the spotlight as they trade guns and backflip off each other. Responsibility is evenly split; though their personalities clash they’re evenly matched for power, and so they balance out… in theory (notice the trend?). But with Renner carrying greater clout than rising star Gemma Arterton, in the role of Gretel, it’s less “male/female Starsky and Hutch” and more “big, cool man and his curvy ball-and-chain.” Count the number of one-liners, cool stunts, and posturing the trailer gives Renner. What does Arterton get? Kidnapped, then punched in the stomach. “They took my sister!” Hansel snarls. If she’s one of the best witch hunters in the world, can’t she save herself? Maybe she will, but Renner’s name and Wirkola’s track record with strong women (in Dead Snow: 0) gives me pause.
Expect gratuitous blood, physics-defying stunts, and Jeremy Renner at his most shameless. Higher expectations than that and you’ll be disappointment.
After expending near 700 words each on the previous movies, what can I possibly say about The Smurfs 2. Let that title resonate a moment: The Smurfs 2. Just reading it you know how you feel. If you’re not eight-years old or the parent of an eight-year old, your first thought is probably, “Oh God, why, why, WHY?”
There’s no trailer posted on the Internet yet, although go see any family movie currently in theatres and you’re bound to catch the thirty-something second clip of Clumsy Smurf pointing out that, yes, The Smurf 2 is in production, it will be in 3D, and it’s still reliant on terrible wordplay and a strange obsession with treating the word “Smurf” like a grab-all profanity substitute (There’s nothing about the word that sounds obscene, no harsh sound or offensive connotation; if anything, it’s more like the grunt when you fall face-down on a pillow). Maybe we’ll get a larger trailer later this month attached to The Rise of the Guardians. We’ll have some story to go off of, some examples of the fart jokes they intend to include this time around, a hint of whether Neil Patrick Harris can maintain his perennial charm or buckle under the fact he’s signed on for a Smurfs sequel.
But then you remember: none of that really matters. The film’s audience was set, its box office receipts pre-written, from the moment your little niece Annie saw the film title and yelled, “YAY! THE SMURFS!!” Brand recognition doesn’t need to argue its merits. It’s like the phone call reminding you of your doctor’s appointment on Wednesday, 11:30 AM. You know what will happen in advance and when. It’s only a matter of the date rolling around.
Sony’s not working a sweat over advertisement: they were thinking of The Smurfs 3 as soon as they started making The Smurfs 2. Any trailer released from here until the film’s release is for form’s sake, and that’s just a sad fact when you deal with franchise money-rakers or 3D re-releases. Did the Alvin and the Chipmunks sequels have to do anything with their trailers but show Alvin singing the most recent Top 10 hit? Does anyone know the plot to Despicable Me 2? Just that it’ll feature the-fan favorite Minions doing silly things with silly voices, but they’re not even the main characters!
With trailers like these you can’t say it stinks and expect the world to conform to your judgment. Going against everything I’ve argued and implied by writing this column, there are some movies where the contents of a trailer don’t matter. It’s the purest and yet most sinister form of advertisement that relies just on the announcement that a film exists. From there the deed is done, the money made months in advance of any ticket sales.
That sounds cynical because it is and I’m 100% with you in crying foul. It’s a symptom of a diseased industry that blocks out original properties to focus on tried-and-true formulas for success. Why risk arguing the merits of an untold story when you can show the name of a TV show we watched as kids and say, “It’s a movie now”? So long as that strategy succeeds in paying dividends it will remain part of Hollywood’s marketing tool set. Want to see change? Then you have to take initiative and argue with ten times the effort studios are putting into these trailers. Show potential audience members the damage of supporting soulless franchise zombies, why it keeps us from having movies like the classics, from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to It’s a Wonderful Life. You have to do the work because the filmmakers don’t want to.