This summer’s movies have sucked. There’s no getting around it. Maybe it’s just the cycle of production, but when a decent remake of the Karate Kid looks like a font of creative genius, you’ve got a baaad summer at the movies on your hands.
Kick Ass, which barely counts as a summer movie, was a fun, albeit thin start to the summer. Looking to turn Super Hero convention on its head, it was a fun adult comedy that showed some originality (note I say “adult”—this one may be a comedy about teenagers, but it’s not a teen comedy). Iron Man 2 was even less weighty than Kick Ass—a visual treat with Robert Downey Jr. giving a fun performance, but full of sound and fury…signifying nothing. Shrek IV was also a charming bit of fluff—a nice way to end the franchise, but “It’s A Wonderful Shrek” was hardly a creative breakthrough.
Those mild surprises are awash in a sea of derivative drivel, from the rehash of Robin Hood to M. Night Shyamalan’s razzie-fest better known as The Last Airbender (meriting a stunningly low 8% freshness rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Makes me sad as I do want to see an Unbreakable sequel, but I don’t want it to suck).
I am hopeful that Inception will be the grown-up movie savior of the summer, but on the family movie front, two films really pulled up from a very mediocre pack, and I was surprised by them both for very different reasons.
I’ve been seeing previews for Despicable Me for a while now, and never once in any preview did this film look worthwhile. It seemed to be “A Christmas Carol” on steroids, both with the super-baddie bad guy, and the ultra-cute orphans who melt his cruel, cold heart. I know I’m always going on about how films have an opportunity to show the redemptive power of love and cooperation to change a person and society. But in reality, that didn’t happen with this movie—and that’s exactly why it worked.
Gru, the protagonist and wanna-be No. 1 evil-doer never sees the light. His burgeoning relationship with the orphan girls (which were really given some quirk and depth, rather than the industry-standard Tiny Tim knockoffs) actually creates a working-parent conflict that many of us moms and dads can identify with, rather than a battle for Gru’s soul. It was the mundane made extreme that made this film click. Rather than having the clonflict between the ball game and the big meeting, Gru was torn between a dance recital and stealing the moon to hold it for ransom. Gru never once questions his career choice because of his new found love for these kids, and the kids never question their newfound devotion to him because, well, he’s evil.
In many ways, this is the spiritual successor to The Incredibles, which used the Super Hero convention in a similar way. It was an even more delicate balance making this work on the villain side, and the decision to make the evil into something of a backdrop, instead of the central device pushing the arc along, was both daring and genius. I’ll be curious to see whether the somewhat similar tale that Will Ferrell’s Megamind looks to be can stack up, but I’m guessing it’s not going to be quite a s clever.
I’m not going to go on quite as much about Toy Story 3, even though I think between the two, TS3 was the better film. I simply bow to the continued genius of Pixar, who’s string of hit movies, not just in terms of dollars, but in terms of quality, remains unbroken. As sometimes forced the final chapter of Shrek felt, Toy Story 3 felt like a seemless, natural, and totally heart-felt conclusion. Any film that makes Barbie the defender of an open and participatory form of governance gets an auto-A right there.
But I must, must, must wax rhapsodic about the short film before TS3, Day and Night (not to be confused with Knight and Day, another log in the summer cesspool). Talk about the power of pictures over words. It’s hard to remember a time when a story about learning to understand, live with, find out the usefulness of, and ultimately fall in love with the differences of others was so expertly or innovatively told. I must say, it took a moment to understand the concept, with translucent people living with their environment on the inside of their body, rather than surrounding them on the outside was more than simply visual gimmickry. But once I caught on…wow. If this doesn’t win the Oscar for best animated short, they might as well get rid of the category.
We’ll see if July and August can redeem this sub-par summer movie season, but at least there are a couple of real gems that show if you provide characters with quirk and depth, and let the road lead back to a central point that truly touches people’s lives, you can make a movie both big and intimate at the same time. To me, those are the most fun of all.