Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Creature (in space) double feature

There are certain movies I can tell I'm going to review, just by looking at them. Certain movies that exist at a middle- to low-brow level of appeal, that I've made my bread and butter over the years. I take a certain pleasure in pointing them out to my wife. And six months to a year later, sure enough, there I am, seeing them and dutifully submitting a review a couple days later. Hey, it's work.

Such movies usually bear the following traits: They are not hip enough for the regular staffers to want to review, and they have some humorous quality that I think would be fun to tease and prod in a review. If I haven't told you before, it's much easier to review a movie that's stupid than a movie that's smart. Sometimes, you have a good opening line even before you've popped in the DVD.

Within a month last summer, I twice had this premonition of my own reviewing future, with two very similar seeming movies: Space Chimps and Fly Me to the Moon. I found it odd that two movies with such similar themes, aimed at such similar demographics, would come out just four weeks apart (July 18th, August 15th). Usually they have the decency to avoid each other by at least a couple months (see Deep Impact/Armageddon, Dante's Peak/Volcano, etc.).

So when I was approved to review these movies about three weeks ago, naturally, I decided they would make a perfect double feature. A perfectly ghastly, terrible, torturous double feature.

Well, at least they'd each be under 85 minutes.

Sunday was the day, so I bunkered in for the double feature, with a Red Sox-Yankees game in the middle to cleanse my palate.

Without further ado, a side-by-side comparison of the movie about chimps in space and the movie about flies in space.

Title: Space Chimps sounds like a movie title you'd find in a movie that satirizes the movie industry. You know, kind of like Beverly Hills Chihuahua. (Oh wait, that's real too). Fly Me to the Moon, however, is a clever pun that also allows the playing of a Frank Sinatra classic during the opening credits. (Let's ignore the fact that the title probably inspired the script, and not vice versa). Advantage: Flies.

Celebrity vocal talent: Space Chimps boasts SNL star Andy Samberg, Curb Your Enthusiasm's Cheryl Hines, animation stalwart Patrick Warburton and Jeff Daniels. Fly Me to the Moon settles for over-the-hill Christopher Lloyd, Nicolette Sheridan, Kelly Ripa and Tim Curry. Advantage: Chimps.

Total number of astronauts: Three flies, three chimps. Tie.

Credibility of premise: Even though NASA's paranoia about contamination would make it unlikely, it's feasible that three flies could hitch a ride on Apollo 11. More so than three chimps being sent through a wormhole to a planet on the other side of the universe. Even if such a wormhole existed, and even if NASA could determine that the ship had made it safely through, they'd only need to send one chimp to test whether the trip could be survived by humans. Advantage: Flies.

Credibility highly strained: Assuming you accept that there's a planet populated by pink and purple aliens on the other side of the universe, it's still a bit much to accept that they speak English, or that a communication device in the shape of a banana -- designed by one of the monkeys -- would be enough to send transmissions across the universe. On the other hand, since the flies' decision to catch a ride on Apollo 11 was rash and last-minute, how the hell did they get little fly-sized space suits? Advantage: Flies.

Usage of chimpanzees: Fly Me to the Moon shows "historical footage" of a chimp blasting off, and an older fly trying to sneak inside his helmet before liftoff. Space Chimps ... well, there are chimps throughout. Advantage: Chimps, on sheer volume alone.

Usage of comic fainting: An Indian NASA scientist faints several times in Chimps; in Moon, the mother of the main fly, Nat, faints whenever she hears the newest danger threatening her son. The scientist's glasses fly off when he faints, so that's funnier. Advantage: Chimps.

Inevitable references to 2001: A Space Odyssey: A close-up on the eyes of Ham III, the main chimp, as the ship goes through the wormhole, and a horizon of strange colors rushes toward him. Moon is less subtle and more extended, as the flies do a zero-G dance to the tune of Richard Strauss' Also Spracht Zarathustra. Advantage: Chimps.

Ways it's too babyish: The aliens are too cutesy, especially one voiced by Kristin Chenowith that looks like an actual baby with a large head. Then again, all the fly characters are ridiculously cutesy with their big bulging eyes, which stand out against the photo-realistic backgrounds. Advantage: Chimps.

Ways it's surprisingly un-babyish: In Moon, characters briefly discuss drinking, and a fly refers to a dung ball as "full of crap." In Chimps, one alien has to exit the stomach of another through its anus -- though it's more implied than shown. Advantage: Flies.

Ways it's old: Each movie has a salty old graybeard lending wisdom. In Chimps, it's an old chimp named Houston, who buddied around with Ham's grandfather. In Moon, it's an old fly named, well, Grandpa, who flew across the Atlantic with Amelia Earhart, and prevented her plane from crashing by flying up her nose to startle her awake. Advantage: Flies.

Puns: Ham III says he's a "chimp off the old block." Nat's mother says "Oh my lord of the flies." Both are awful, but at least Chimps has a running gag about the use of chimp-related puns. Advantage: Chimps.

Stupid villains: Chimps has a megalomaniacal alien named Zartog who commandeers a piece of downed NASA equipment and uses its articulated clenching devices to dip his fellow inhabitants in silver goo that freezes but does not kill them. Moon has a team of Russian spy-flies that try to use firecrackers to damage the equipment at Cape Canaveral and prevent a successful return of the Apollo 11 mission. Neither is good, but points to Jeff Daniels for giving his all on Zartog's voice. Advantage: Chimps.

Quality of animation: Both are better than you'd think, with Chimps being more consistent across the board with its generally similar look throughout, and Moon caught between the extremes of its cheap-looking character design and brilliant-looking backgrounds. Advantage: Flies, just for how great everything but the flies looks, and how good I'm sure it would have looked if I'd actually seen it in 3-D.

Final analysis: The biggest shock about watching these movies is that I (gulp) liked both of them. I know, I know, I'm losing my edge. But seriously -- generally good animation, totally harmless, totally inoffensive, and written with a modicum of cleverness. Sometimes maybe you shouldn't write that first sentence in your head before you see the movie.

Slight overall advantage: Space Chimps.

God help me, I'll never be able to show my face at the next film critics' convention.

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