Mar 30, 2007

"EVERYTHING old is new again"(and again and again and again)

The title of this entry has quotes around it because it's an old, old aphorism.
[aph·o·rism [af-uh-riz-uhm]: a terse saying embodying a general truth, or astute observation, as “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”]

A cursory scan of a few reviews of a certain just-released animated film forced me to the laptop for this brief post. One of the more positive ones is sub-headlined, "Though impressive, the 3-D retro-futurist look and time-travel plot feel almost old-fashioned."

The first thing I think--instantly--is, "what exactly is "wrong" with "old-fashioned"? The reviewer is apparently implying that certain large elements are tired, been-there, seen-that--but when those elements are a lonely boy, or a beautifully-moderne design of the future...what the heck? I'm sincerely baffled with the problem.

See, as far as I can tell, every element of storytelling was "done" by the time those cave paintings were drying in France.
My previous post was a nod to a film from 1959, an "old" movie--a black and white movie, for heaven's sake--and moreover a film that was set in the jazz age of gangsters and flappers...old-fashioned stuff even then, 50 years ago. Describe any of the plot contrivances and see if someone doesn't say "but they did that in The Untouchables/Road To Perdition/Gloria/The Professional!" It neither takes away from or diminshes any of the subsequent movies that they share situations and themes. And I'm not even adressing the drag aspect.

Anyway, I haven't yet seen the film in question. In a few hours I will have. I'm looking forward to it.

But not having seen it, I can't defend anyone's take one way or the other. What I can do is protest the lazy fallback of too many film writers vis a vis animation these day--these reviews where the reviewer is bored to tears not because the movie is slow, or lousy, or stupid, or poorly-done(in fact, I've noticed that increasingly animation's artistry is virtually--gah! no pun intended --ignored as almost irrelevant...and when it is criticized, it's done from what often seems a very uninformed observer).

No, the reviewer is bored, or jaded, and why? A sighing plaint of "but...this is all so old fashioned. We've seen orphans before(really? Where lately?), singing frogs before (as if the existence of the short "One Froggy Evening" meant that 60 years later a filmmaker is risking ridicule if he uses a frog in an animated film, no matter the context? You've got to be kidding--yet a writer made just that beef in his review)".

And to them I say, well, [see post below]: did any of the characters come alive for you? Did you settle down and believe in any of it for any amount of time? Were you entertained, or is this all an intellectual reporter's excercise in animation overload?

There's no percentage in arguing reviews, none. But I do mind, and am bothered, when the reviews seem so disconnected from the actual film itself, and more a general indictment of my profession.
It's unfair and anti-film to look at ANY film and review it as if it owes its impact to any other film. This is where I guess a writer has to pretend as hard as he or she can that they haven't seen every. single. film. released in the last 10 years, and compare them to one another. Because each is made to be seen for the first time, and especially in the case of family audiences, many of the viewers will have seen none of the preceding movies that a new one is "too much like". When they do each and every individual film will stand--or fall--on its own merits.

And personally I suspect good movies are good not because everything in them is new! but because the things in them are old: warmth, humor, wit, friendship, awe, drama.

I hope this little screed makes some sense.


Siamang said...

Seven writers!!!!

A lot of the negative reviews talk about the number of writers.... SEVEN!... as if it were a salient criticism.

They need to be informed of the colaborative nature of an animation story team.

Jenny Lerew said...

Yes, I noticed that too(I think so far I've seen it mentioned in at least half a dozen reviews, clearly implied as a negative criticism).

It makes me wonder if the press info was unclear, or if the reviewers are looking at the credits for something to "blame"? They definitely need to be informed about the process.

Siamang said...

If they have the criticism that the film is disjointed, then that's a valid point and deserves looking into. There are a number of ways they can analyze the film itself and support that conclusion.

Instead they seem to think the cause is the size of the story team.

Kudos to Steve Anderson for giving his story collaborators such a large and prominent title card early in the credits. That's a magnaimous gesture in support of the brilliant story artists involved.

Steve's a class act all the way.

mark kennedy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
mark kennedy said...

Sorry, let me re-type my comment without misspellings and typos (I was on the phone). There weren't seven writers, they gave credit to all the storyboard artists that boarded and contributed screenwriting on the film, which is a gracious gesture on the studio's part. Too bad it is being singled out by ignorant critics as a negative sign, as if the number of writers had any bearing on the quality of a film.

Jenny Lerew said...

Hey Mark.
Yes, I thought it was a gracious gesture too--and moreover, completely deserved--as the same credit virtually always is for most of the animated features I know anything about. But I know too the studio doesn't have to do it, and I'm happy they did.

As for these comments by reviewers, Bruce is right when he notes that they've singled out those seven! names! as supposedly implying too many cooks(btw-makes you wonder if these folks whose job it is to understand film have any idea how many UNcredited people have been paid to write on 99% of all live action film releases). I guess Disney should have girded themselves by heavily emphasizing in their press packets, etc. that 5 of the seven are in fact story artists, and that that's what story artists do--write the story--with pictures and words. And having 5 story artists substantially contribute to the film (as is their function) is a GOOD, not a terrible, thing. Hopefully some writer on animation that gets some attention--Maltin? Solomon? Canemaker?--can correct the misconception in print.

narkspud said...

Just saw MTR, then came home and saw this post and the comments. At the risk of being branded a heretic, I can't help but think that the animation folks on here are misunderstanding movie critics more than the critics are misunderstanding them.

I did not read any of the reviews, but from the sound of it I seem to have pretty much agreed with them. I did find MTR disjointed, messy, loud, and cynical and clumsy in its application of what is often termed "heart".

Now, if I were a critic, and wondering why the thing is such a mess, I think the fact that 7 writers were credited might get my attention as worthy of a mention. I doubt that any of the critics would have mentioned it had the movie been better written and paced. The fact that they misinterpreted the writers' credit is immaterial to them and to the reader. It's a hyper, messy film that FEELS like a patch job of seven different scripts. That's what they're trying to put across to the reader. And they're right.

By the same token, a reviewer complaining about elements being old fashioned or recycled isn't commenting about recycling in general, but how it comes across in this particular movie. There was some stale stuff in MTR, and it seemed stuffed into the picture for no explanable reason, the frogs being a good example. Singing frogs (mice, slugs, whatever) can certainly work wonderfully in a movie, and have done so repeatedly. But they seem quite pointless in this one. So they got mentioned in the reviews.

If the characters had come alive etc., you can bet that most of the critics would've happily said so. But what would you have the critics say about a movie they don't care for, or that didn't entertain them? They have to explain it to their readers some way. They aren't there to point out fine character animation or explain production processes. They're there to say whether the movie as a whole is any good or not.

That's not to say some critics aren't idiots. But they don't all deserve to be lambasted for trying to explain why MTR just didn't work for them. It didn't work for me either. The Mickey Mouse cartoon that preceded it was much better.

Jenny Lerew said...

It was a Chip and Dale/Donald Duck cartoon. Are you sure you saw the same movie? ; )

But seriously...

I can certainly respect your thoughts on "Robinsons"-but before I'll cop to "misunderstanding" the reviewers I've read--in particular the one in the New York Times--I'd ask that you read them--several of them--in full as I have.
I'm a film buff of longstanding, with omnivorous tastes. I've both loved and hated reviews by such as Andrew Sarris, John Simon and Pauline Kael(for those old enough to remember them when they were published every week in the Village Voice, New York and the New Yorker). All three, as an example, were educated, dedicated, thoughtful,pithy, enthusiastic and sometimes infuriating. That's where I set my bar for film writing.
I don't mind at all disagreeing with a reviewer(or anyone else) if the review is both accurate in non-subjective terms(i.e., the review doesn't contain literal mistakes in recounting the film--which happens way too often these days, or errors about its production that are used as excuses for criticizing that production). I like a healthy debate. I love hearing differing opinions, pro and con. But take the way the frogs and the "orphan" aspect was dismissed: it wasn't imho kosher--as you've made it, in your description--it gave the reader no clue about why the reviewer disliked the film so much, instead coming off as peevish and the overall pronouncement of MTR was way over the top.

I admit, I hadn't seen the film at the time I read its review this morning, but I just couldn't believe it could be THAT bad. Now I have seen it. I have a lot to say about it that I won't post here for public consumption, but I wll say that personally I am relieved and not terribly shocked to find that indeed, "Robinsons" is far from the film the NY Times guy asserts it is.

I don't think at all that a critic "deserves to be lambasted for trying to explain" why a film doesn't work for them--believe me, I don't. That approach would be fandom at its most unhelpful. But there are unfortunately plenty of not so thoughtful, knee-jerk, tossed-off reviews out there that throw the entire thing out based on very little but what seems to be a jaded ennui with animation as it more or less exists today.
I don't expect a reporter to point out fine character animation, and I'll NEVER expect them to "explain production processes(come on!)". There's a way to express "wheter a movie is good or not"--and frankly, you've done a decent job in your brief report here.
But this?
"Lonely orphans? Hey, this is Disney; they practically invented lonely orphans. If you like time travel, they have that too. Lessons for the children: take your pick. Warm fuzzies for the grown-ups? That’s what lonely orphans are for. But if that’s not enough, the movie also has singing frogs — hey, it’s not like Warner Brothers owns that idea or anything — a lovable T-Rex and a bowler hat with claws. And a kid from the future with Jimmy Neutron’s hair! And an amusing talking robot like the ones in “Robots”! And a crazy extended family like the ones in lots of other movies! And Tom Selleck! And Rufus Wainwright (singing on the soundtrack). Rufus Wainwright? But did I mention the bowler hats? They’re plotting to take over the world."

This is just being mocking. Yes, "they have to explain it to their readers some way", true; but how about being a little less childish and a little bit more adult about it? I very much doubt the guys who spent years of their lives working on this project were trying to personally annoy this reviewer--heck, I actually believe(and know)they care deeply about what they do.
But that's his attitude, seems to me.

David Germain said...

I remember reading one reviewer's take on Finding Nemo. He said "I guess it was well done but I have a hard time getting into dialogue that isn't spoken by humans." Geez, how anti-animation can you get? >:P

narkspud said...

>>how about being a little less childish and a little bit more adult about it?<<

Taken line-by-line, that paragraph is pretty snarky. But it also captures very well the relentless overload of ideas - some good, many not so good - that inhabit MTR. And getting snarky at movies you really dislike (which this reviewer certainly did) is a time-honored tradition of movie criticism.

I'm more concerned about his comment about it being the worst Disney theatrical feature "in quite some time". That says to me that he isn't paying very close attention. ;-)

In defending the critics who I hadn't read (maybe not the wisest choice, now that I've had a chance to sleep on it), MY review made it sound like I hated MTR more than I did. It was OK. It had its moments. I'm not sorry I went. Bowler Hat guy was brilliant -- a really interesting and fun villain, especially earlier in the going when he wasn't overwhelmed by dozens of noisy family members. (See, I'm doing it too.)

BTW . . . viewers of the 3D version saw Chip and Dale. Us flat-earthers got "Boat Builders". So I guess we didn't see EXACTLY the same movie.

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

'Haven't seen the film under discussion but I do wince whenever I hear the term "old-fashioned."

A lot of people think of time as a vertical line reaching from the past, which is way below us, to the future which is way above us. I think of time (as it relates to entertainment) as being a horizontal line with the past and future being like foreign countries lying across the ocean in our own contemporary world. To say a technique is old-fashioned is like saying it's French or Japanese. So what?

Jenny Lerew said...

Ha! Eddie, I couldn't have said that better myself(though I've thought that way often enough)! Thanks for commenting. : )

And thanks to you too, Pedro & David & Narkspud(!).

davecobb said...

I, for one, LOVED "Meet the Robinsons", and am really REALLY shocked at the bad reviews.

Here's my review of the film: