Thursday, June 30, 2016

We Need to Talk About the Anthropomorphic Elephant in the Room

I've seen nine movies in the theater so far this year, and I can't help but notice the four best are all made by the same company.

Disney. I'm talking about Disney. Obviously.

Before you assume I'm only looking at this subjectively, three of the four Disney movies in question are also the top three highest grossing movies of 2016 so far (the fourth, Finding Dory, is almost certainly going to join them soon enough). Also, all of these movies have a Freshness rating at or above 90%.

Oh, and I'm not even considering The Force Awakens, which opened late in 2015 and made a ton of cash both years. That's at 92% Fresh, incidentally.

Disney's making more money faster than their competition, and they're doing it far more efficiently. Year-to-date, Disney's commanding 32% of the market share with nine movies. WB can't manage half that with 21 movies.

Okay, there are caveats and forces and side notes and all that... but those are ultimately excuses. The simple fact is that Disney's making vastly superior movies than the other studios, at least looking at high-budget, effects-heavy productions.

I think that's an important distinction - there are, I'm sure, numerous phenomenal low-budget, award worthy movies being made across the board. Hell, Disney might even be behind the curve on that. But I'm focusing on the blockbusters: things budgeted at and/or raking in hundreds of millions of dollars. The event films, love them or hate them, are what the movie industry exists to produce.

Disney's not just dominating this category: no one is seriously even challenging them. WB's closest attempt was the dull, pointless Batman v Superman. 27% of critics were generous enough to give it a pass, and it made what may be the bare minimum possible for a movie commanding that kind of IP. Enough for the executives to argue it's not a total failure; not enough to beat the worldwide haul of The Jungle Book.

Look back over the last few years and it becomes clear this isn't a new phenomenon. There's the occasional exception, like Fury Road, but for the most part, there's only one company that delivers movies that are both high grossing and well reviewed, and that's Disney. Sure, they've got their missteps (Age of Ultron had some serious issues), but they're the one company that seems to be on an upswing.

To their credit, I feel like Fox is at least staying in the game. But it's notable their highest grossing movie so far this year, Deadpool, is one they tried their damndest not to make. It only got greenlit when the test footage was leaked, and even then its budget was hilariously low.

In other words, even when they produced it, Fox bet against it. They were expecting to make a fortune on X-Men: Apocalypse and Independence Day: Resurgence. While both these movies were bailed out by Chinese audiences, neither performed up to expectations. That should be a massive red flag that the people at the top don't know what they're doing.

Meanwhile, with the exception of Alice Through the Looking Glass (which was also saved by China), Disney's having a flawless year. Every big-budget production they've released has been critically and commercially successful.

I find it remarkable that their rivals seem complacent in the face of all this. The industry's falling apart, and Warner Bros is producing movies like last year's Pan. That approach isn't going to fly anymore.

If other studios want to compete anywhere near Disney's level, they need to take a long, hard look at every step of their process. Otherwise, we're going to quickly reach a point where it won't matter what the movie is - audiences will learn to skip anything that's not from the House of Mouse.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Movie Review: Finding Dory

Finding Dory is the third Disney movie featuring talking CG animals released in 2016 so far, and the third to exceed my expectations. If you haven't seen it yet, I'll tell you it's surprisingly intelligent, extremely entertaining, and hilarious. It returns to the world and characters of Finding Nemo, and even uses a superficially similar premise, but the movie doesn't rehash the same story or concepts. It could have - I don't think anyone would have complained if it reused the same epic adventure template that made the first a success, despite the fact it would have felt a little like a cash grab. But it didn't feel like Finding Dory was conceived as a cash grab: it felt like they saw an opportunity to tell a different story.

And, if you haven't seen the movie, that's your cue to stop reading until you've rectified that. From here on out, we're crossing into deeper waters. And spoilers lurk within these depths.

While its predecessor was an external adventure - a father's odyssey where he overcame obstacles in an attempt to get his son back - Dory's journey is primarily internal. Marlin and Nemo have a B-plot in which they're looking for her, but this is a red herring (or clown fish or whatever). This is a movie about Dory finding herself.

In a lot of ways, Finding Dory is as much a companion piece to last year's Inside Out as it is a follow-up to Nemo. Only while Inside Out was about emotion, Finding Dory explores memory and identity. Symbolism is used heavily, with dark depths standing in for lost memories, coral reminiscent of folding brain tissue, and even the music evoking firing neurons.

But while there's a cerebral aspect to Finding Dory, the movie also provides zany antics, ridiculous characters, and a little excitement. On top of the cognitive science, there's a sort of heist/escape movie going on, centered around a Marine Life Institute in California. Despite the film's layered themes, this is one of Pixar's most cartoonish productions - they play much faster and looser with animal behavior, appearance, and abilities than they did in Nemo. A few minor characters feel more like they wandered in from a rival studio, but the movie does a good enough job developing relationships to avoid any issues.

Without a question, the movie's break-out star is Hank, an octopus who just wants to retire and live in a tank somewhere. He's grumpy and timid, but he's also something of a master escape artist, able to infiltrate anywhere on land or sea.

Sigourney Weaver's minor role is also fantastic (not to mention reminiscent of her part in Wall-E). I hope Pixar finds a way to slip her into more movies in a similar fashion. With all due respect to Pixar's good luck charm, I'd have a lot more fun trying to spot Weaver's cameos than Ratzenberger's.

If I had to log a complaint, it would be that Marlin's story felt wedged in here. He essentially winds up having to grow and develop in almost the same way he did in part one. His scenes were still fun, but it was the one part of the movie that felt redundant.

Asking whether Finding Dory rises to the heights of Finding Nemo is the wrong question. Wisely, Andrew Stanton didn't try to compete with the classic. Instead, he saw elements in the character of Dory that could support a very different movie and offer a completely different experience. This was a great film that exploited our affection for the character of Dory and delivered an entertaining, thought-provoking story.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Give Us Your Worst, Part 28: Fantastic Four (2015)

Welcome to the twenty-eighth installment in my ongoing series exploring despised superhero movies. If you'd like a better explanation, I'll refer you to my 2011 introduction post expanding on the concept.

There have been four attempts at adapting the Fantastic Four for the screen, and to date none of them have been good (if you seek wordplay or puns, try elsewhere - I take my responsibilities more seriously than that). At nine percent, this is the lowest-rated movie in its franchise by a factor of three. I skipped this in theaters last year but it finally showed up in my Netflix queue.

First of all, this movie is underrated. It's not good, but it's easily the best movie ostensibly about the Fantastic Four that's been made. I can't quite bring myself to say it's the "best Fantastic Four movie," because that would necessitate equating the characters in this movie to Marvel's first family. And, while this is the best film, it's the furthest from an accurate adaptation, at least of the classic incarnation of the team.

These aren't the FF, and this isn't a superhero movie. It's a science fiction film where the characters get powers halfway through, and the movie falls apart as a result.

Until then, I actually thought it was pretty good. It opens with Reed and Ben as kids. At this point, the movie feels like an 80's adventure story - think ET or Goonies - which is a fairly inspired way to re-imagine Reed Richard's childhood. Unfortunately, we only spend a few minutes with this before jumping ahead to them as young adults.

The movie doesn't lose all its energy yet - as it introduces the new Sue, Johnny, and Victor, it swerves into standard SF material. None of these characters resemble their comic alter egos, but they're likable enough as scientists in a cheesy genre movie.

It's when they get transformed that things take a quick turn for the worst. The plot falls apart, and the characters stop being interesting. As the movie careens towards a contrived and ultimately meaningless action sequence where the fate of the world hangs in the balance, it becomes tedious and dull. There are a few moments when the action and effects offer an interesting image or sequence, but not nearly enough.

I remember rumors that this production was marred by studio interference and altered plans - I can't imagine that wasn't the case. It felt like someone had a vision for what this could be, but that whatever that vision was, it got dissected by committee. There was no way this was ever going to be a perfect adaptation, but it could have been a solid re-imagining. For a while, it was exactly that, but it couldn't sustain that level of quality past the first act.

Instead, we're left with something that's hard to pin down. It's nowhere near as bad as its 9% score suggests, but it's not some sort of misunderstood gem, either. It's a movie that's got very little reason for existing - obviously, Fox was trying to keep the rights, but they had no interest in the classic version of the team. They turned to the Ultimate Fantastic Four for inspiration, then used it as an excuse to cast young actors. But the Fantastic Four were about nostalgia when Stan Lee made them in the early sixties - the name itself rejects attempts to modernize it. The hilariously pitiful box office response demonstrates that. If the world wants a Fantastic Four movie, it wants one that pays homage to the team's roots.

Hopefully, Fox will toss in the towel and hand the rights back over to Marvel, so we can finally get a decent cinematic version of the team and their nemesis. I'm sick to death of these technorganic monstrosities sullying the name of Victor von Doom.