Reflections on a Cinematic Thanksgiving Holiday by a Dad

First and foremost, please understand that while I am very critical, I am not a “film critic.” For one, I pay to see movies. Also, I don’t have that certain level of pretension where I believe my opinion to be more relevant than anyone else’s who loves going to the movies. Don’t forget, too, that I work (at least sometimes) in the industry, so I have a very unique perspective which I am sure skews how I see things away from what a “casual” movie goer might experience. At the same time, I’m pretty mainstream in my tastes…I thought “Drive” was boring, for example. I preferred the completely ludicrous bombast of “Fast Five.” Maybe because it had some actual driving in it. I don’t know.

Anyway. I put over a hundred bucks on my credit cards going to movies with my family over the past week. There were a lot of movies marketed to families this Thanksgiving, more than usual. You usually get a couple. But this year, there were four. I saw all of them. I want to address my experiences, and how they juxtapose with the nation’s critics’ opinions (according to Rotten Tomatoes rather haphazard ratings system.) If you are a person with a family, and you had the money for a proper vacation instead of my poor man’s stay at home and go to the multiplexes to escape vacation, then you may not have seen all of them. Hopefully, this will give you a more clear idea of what you are getting into because both the critics and the marketing campaigns can be very misleading.

HAPPY FEET 2. As far as the critics are concerned, this is the one I am most in line with. It scored poorly on Rotten Tomatoes. And it deserved it. I liked the first one, very spirited and well animated, and I enjoyed all the singing and dancing, even if the use of current popular music can be considered a cheap trick (used less effectively in movies like Alvin and the Chipmunks.) The sequel has animation that looks similar, but somehow feels less dynamic. That may simply be because it was more of the same, or perhaps less time and care was put into it. It felt like it was assembled by office drones promoted from their usual positions as data entry clerks, something that simply had to be done in order for a corporation to remain responsible to its shareholders. The story itself seemed assembled in the same way…if you can call a bunch of penguins trapped in a big ice hole a story. I felt like I was caught in a nightmare loop. The penguins are trapped, but if the animals not stuck in the hole can dance just right, they will be set free. But then the dancing is not enough, so Elijah Wood’s penguin has to go off and find more animals to dance. Then another dance sequence, but that doesn’t quite work, so off Elijah’s penguin goes to find more animals. Over and over until I really had no idea when the crescendo was finally reached. I didn’t get to breathe my usual sigh of relief during a bad family film when I can clearly see the third act resolution coming to fruition. The movie just stopped. My six-year-old was banging his head against the back of his seat for the last thirty minutes of the movie. Of course, he said he liked it.

HUGO. I was excited to see this one, as it was Martin Scorsese’s first family movie, and the trailers made it look like a fun fantasy adventure picture. Hugo features the most misleading ad campaign since that of Drive, because the movie is neither an adventure nor a fantasy. It is a long-winded drama about a boy helping an old man rediscover his joy of living. That’s it. The trailer is filled with action sequences, and what you see in the trailer is all you get…and in dream sequences no less. Action sequences that take place in someone’s head may be visually interesting, but they pack no wallop because there is no real threat in a dream sequence. Have we learned nothing from Sucker Punch? I suppose if all your children are in graduate film school, then you could consider this a family movie. It does utilize the 3D gimmick quite well, with long hallways and floating, shiny clock gears as well as falling snow to accentuate the illusion of three dimensions. And it is quite beautiful. But like any 3D movie, after about twenty minutes the wonder wears off, and I started getting restless waiting for the “adventure” to finally take off. It didn’t. And the plot itself is pretty thin, a boy has a mechanical man made up of clock gears that will write him a note if he finds the right heart-shaped key. That guy who played Borat chases him around a lot (he is actually kind of funny, and while a lot of critics say this character was out of place, I welcomed the humor because the rest of the movie is so damn earnest.) And in between chases the boy winds the clocks in the big train station. He eventually does find the key, but he never is terribly aggressive about it, he just lives his odd existence until he stumbles upon it during one of said chases. His little clock man, which the trailer suggested would actually come alive, simply writes a single note, essentially telling the boy to go to the movies. And then the boy and his little girlfriend (both fine actors, by the way) discover the wonder of the movies, blah, blah, blah. I had hoped the two children I was with would discover that same wonder, but unless constantly taking 3D glasses on and off and looking back at the projection booth to see where the light is coming from and smashing your body around in your chair is wonder, then the movie failed to capture what it was supposed to be about. The critics gave this movie 97% positive reviews according to RT, which is baffling to me. Do they feel compelled to like it because it is Scorsese, because it imparts lessons about film history, or because its cinematography is well realized? I don’t know. But they seemed to have forgotten that it is supposed to be a “family film” and as far as that genre is concerned, it fails completely. Just because a movie is not inappropriate for children doesn’t mean it is a family film. It is merely something you can watch in the presence of children, which is only good if you are in your own living room and the kids can get out there toys. I spent most of the running time asking the kids to sit still and be quiet so they didn’t disturb the other patrons. Of course, my kid said he liked it.

THE MUPPETS. This one scored as high as Hugo. But it is actually a family film. It is sweet and has lots of dumb puppet jokes. I liked it, but I am not the best judge, as I am a Muppet apologist. I am eternally tied to the cute little critters the way a generation of fan boys are tied to the Star Wars franchise, finding good even in the doldrums of The Phantom Menace. However, as much as I enjoyed it, I would say it is the least of the theatrically released Muppet adventures. I know a lot of people and critics slam Muppets From Space as a disappointment, but I thought that movie was a lot of fun and had a very original and heartfelt story about Gonzo, a puppet having an identity crisis. See, that’s what the Muppets have always been about: humor and thematic elements that tickled adults while the action and spirited music kept the attention of the kiddies. The new one is just a retread of the Blues Brothers “getting the band back together” thing. And I thought Jason Segel was very sweet, (and I’m sure Amy Adams is very professional, always showing up on time with her lines memorized) but it bothered me that a lot of the musical numbers were about his awkward dancing with other human beings in the street. It took way too long to get to the Muppets themselves. And the voice work for Kermit the Frog never bothered me after Jim Henson passed away, but in this one I felt the voice work substituting for the absent Frank Oz was a pale imitation. Miss Piggy and Fozzie the Bear just didn’t sound right. And the celebrity cameos? I find seeing actors like Ray Liotta or James Coburn being silly a lot of fun, but this one trots out the same comedic cameo performers we see in every single studio comedy that comes out these days (Neil Patrick Harris, Sarah Silverman, Jack Black, and the like) although I did enjoy Zach Galifianakis’s turn as “Hobo Joe.” Also, the funniest Muppet of all time in my opinion is Pepe the King Prawn, introduced in Muppets From Space, and there was precious little of him here. (Although he was featured prominently in the trailer.) Of course, this is just me, and it doesn’t matter. My son was still and enchanted by the whole thing, save for a few restless moments during the forced romantic interludes between the two human leads. He said he loved it.

ARTHUR CHRISTMAS. This was the best realized of the bunch. The animation was inspired, I thought, and the story was fun and clipped along. It was touching in all the right places, and had the kind of jokes that were not inappropriate but clearly aimed at the chaperones and not the kids. It scored lower than Hugo or The Muppets, for reasons I don’t understand, although it is still above 90%, so I suppose it doesn’t matter. The only time it suffered was when its action sequences became too repetitive in the second act because the animators clearly wanted to show off the 3D technology. I saw it in 2D, because even the kids who claim to like 3D don’t really as the glasses are cumbersome and give anyone a pain in the head, and after the two plus hours of Hugo, mom and dad weren’t going to do that again. Maybe in 3D the elongated sleigh rides in the sky might have been more captivating, but they should have trimmed about ten minutes for us 2D folk. But all movies suffer from that these days: an inability to get to the point. Still, the characters in this movie were very well crafted and it was easy to get lost in the story, even for a guy like me who has seen too many movies. Really, my biggest problem with Arthur Christmas was the absolutely atrocious Justin Bieber “Santa Clause Is Coming To Town” music video I had to suffer through before the movie started. My kid? He loved it. Both the movie and Bieber.

So. There you go. Just my opinion. Hope it helps somehow. Happy back to work after Thanksgiving week.

Leave a comment or scream in ALL CAPS