The Lorax: Here’s what I started thinking about while watching The Lorax: when was it that dancing in animated movies started to look super cutesy and also smugly faux-ironic? I don’t want to go to obvious bugaboos, but I’m fairly certain the answer is somewhere between “computers” and “DreamWorks.” The Lorax isn’t a DreamWorks cartoon, but like its studio-mate Despicable Me (and far less amusingly), it works more or less from the DreamWorks playbook (which is basically the Disney playbook with a label on it that says “so much cooler than Disney playbook!”).
To its credit, it still manages to be a full-fledged musical—that unhip format DreamWorks cartoons are too cool to use, except when busting out some 80s-radio bullshit for a big smugly faux-ironic dance number at the end. Yet while The Lorax thankfully uses original in-movie songs, there’s something about its production numbers that make them seem awfully plastic; I got the feeling I was supposed to find it hilarious that the animated extras looked kinda spazzy, like a cartoon parody of how people in musicals behave. The movie isn’t exactly soaked in irony (they save that for the promotional campaign that includes the Lorax shilling for SUVs, and it is a far bitterer variety than most mainstream cartoons produce on purpose), but the musical numbers feel a little distanced, like they want you to know that they know how cheesy musical numbers are.
Crazy as it may sound, a lot of that attitude, to me, boils down to the issue of movement. I think part of it is that during many of the songs in Beauty and the Beast or Aladdin, the characters aren’t really dancing. Sometimes they are (like the Genie in “Friend Like Me”), but more often they’re doing something that introduces us to their world or point of view. In The Lorax, the music kinda-sorta has this purpose, but the staging undermines it, not trusting the songs and characters to charm on their own merits. It’s weird to think of cartoon characters as mugging for a variety of reasons, but that’s what the musical numbers in The Lorax look like: expensively rendered mugging. It may also be that dancing is one of those actions, like gun battles or talking-head interviews, that simply don’t translate well to animation unless you’re a total genius. Some things are just more impressive when there’s an actual human body involved (just as there are a litany of things that would look ridiculous when attempted in live-action, even or especially when fudged with effects).
Anyway, the dancing isn’t really why The Lorax is a bad movie. David Goldman gets into its cluttered, fireworks-heavy approach to what should be a simple story. But it’s perhaps emblematic of the scattered, clueless take on high-tech hipness that second-tier cartoons so often attempt.
Project X: Is it even worth talking about the creepy Todd Phillips woman problem anymore? He didn’t technically direct Project X, but it’s the most deeply producer-stamped movie since George Lucas didn’t technically direct Red Tails, especially in the way it so blatantly treats women as Maxim-ready fantasies who materialize at the feet of doofy men-slash-boys-slash-man-boys as the non-story requires (and maybe, only occasionally, reject or berate men/boys at inopportune times). Other male-centric comedy directors sketch thinly conceived love objects; Phillips just all-out goes for the blow-up doll approach. When faced with a female character who can’t be dismissed as a foxy slut, like Kirby (Kirby Bliss Blanton), the merely foxy girl-best-friend character in Project X, Phillips and his team all but turn and run away, even when she’s supposed to be central to the movie’s story. This is maybe the first girl-next-door-versus-popular-bombshell plot I’ve ever seen that gives almost as much screentime to the bombshell, or at least makes the best-girl-next-door so negligible that it’s not even clear why or how she feels betrayed or forgiving when the time comes for either of those plot turns.
Anyway, this inability to write funny back-and-forth dialogue is paramount to the Phillips style of having dudes say nasty stuff and assuming the shock value will appreciate into actual humor. This is also why Starsky & Hutch, improbably enough, is his best movie by far: Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson, whatever their flaws in choosing materials or sticking to established personas, are more or less constitutionally incapable of just yelling a bunch of vulgar bullshit and hoping it lands as comedy. There are laughs in Project X, as detailed in my full review, but only to the extent that it can wriggle free of the Phillips brand straightjacket.
Being Flynn: This movie is based on the memoir Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. Obviously that doesn’t work as a movie title if you want to place advertisements for it, because “bullshit” is still a mostly forbidden word that will corrupt children if they hear it from people who aren’t their parents, siblings, or peers, so a title change was in order. When it was shooting in my neighborhood last year, it sounded like they were going with the generic but serviceable Another Night. But lo, Focus Feature has found another, far worse thing to call it: Being Flynn, referring to Robert De Niro’s crazy-absentee dad character. The movie is about being him! You know, like what it’s like to be this man, man. Yeah, it’s pretty much the worst title I could think of when given the prompt “Another Bullshit Night in Suck City.” I tried to think of worse titles, and all I could manage were That’s Life, Flynn’s Life, My Dad, On How Life Is, Delgo, and following the atrocious Hugo example, just plain Flynn (except it’s not as bad because it involves dropping the “being” part). In other titling news, the upcoming Will Ferrell comedy Dog Fight was recently renamed The Campaign. I wonder if that’s why there’s no Dark Shadows trailer yet; they’re trying to figure out how to get away with renaming it Dark Vampires or perhaps just Dark or Vampires.
Tim & Eric’s Billion-Dollar Movie: I’ve actually never seen Tim & Eric on Cartoon Network, so only have feelings related to its use of John C. Reilly and Will Forte (I’d probably love it!) and the way it helped with the inevitable tear-down of Cartoon Network’s mission statement (is it so hard to program only cartoons on the only major cartoon channel?!). I kind of want to go see this at the Landmark Sunshine even though it’s been available via On Demand for about a month, and find out if it’s as blatantly experimental as the Aqua Teen Hunger Force movie (although they probably can’t top Aqua Teen for subversion in the sense that, by hitting over 700 screens, it almost certainly played in at least a few malls!).