Friday, November 22, 2013

Three-star animation

I've seen two objectively subpar animated movies in the past ten days - Alpha and Omega and Escape from Planet Earth - and given them both three stars on Letterboxd.

My son saw the Netflix ad for a third objectively subpar animated movie - Hoodwinked Too! Hood vs. Evil - pop up after Planet Earth, so he's in there watching it now. I'm in here, typing this, to prevent myself from giving the supposedly terrible Hoodwinked sequel three stars as well.

Something seems clear: I have a harder time recognizing mediocrity in an animated movie than elsewhere.

It's three out of five, not three out of four, but the fact remains that I am giving a passing grade to movies that should probably flunk the test of being worth my time.

I'm entirely too comfortable with rewarding an animated movie for being a "good try." I know that Disney, Pixar and Dreamworks represent really daunting standards to live up to, both in quality of writing and quality of animation, so I'm acknowledging the handicaps that other movies start out with. But that doesn't mean that all other movies deserve the star rating that translates as a modest recommendation.

There are a handful of reasons I think I'm as easy as I am on these movies:

1) The animation, especially these days, is good enough to contain some "wow" moments. Plus, I know how hard they worked on every little detail. Most animated movies are a labor of somebody's love. It's much easier to mail in a live action film.

2) Animated movies tend to get top-flight vocal talent, mostly because it's an easy paycheck and does not carry any particular stigma. Studios will be glad to learn that their money is well spent, as I do tend to be impressed by the fact that William Shatner (who, let's be honest, will do anything these days) voices the villain in Planet Earth.

3) Animated movies are usually smart enough (i.e. safe enough) to stick to conventional plotting with familiar character types. With the amount of money invested in the polished final product, it does not pay to take risks on the story, nor is it possible to slide any remotely objectionable content through.

Vanilla, though, should not be worth three stars. It should max out at 2.5, even if it's pretty well-made vanilla.

However, as I've written before (though never specifically about animated films), I feel like giving something 2.5 or less means it's a thumbs down, an entirely too grumpy dismissal of a movie that's okay to pretty good.

In fact, the last animated movie I remember really slamming was one that did take an apparent risk with its plot -- an impulse I probably should have rewarded, except I thought it was just too wrong-headed of a narrative choice. That movie was Brave, which offered us some cockamamie plot about people turning into bears. I gave it 2.5 stars, but these days tend to think of it as a two-star movie.

So am I saying I like the generic underdog hero story and panoply of colorful sidekicks better in Alpha and Omega, Escape From Planet Earth and (let's throw in one more I saw earlier this year that fits the description) Planet 51? Are they better just because they don't make any egregious errors? Are they better just because the plot was deemed safe enough by every interested financial backer?

I'm a slow learner, apparently, because this is not the first time I've tried to get tougher with my star ratings. It's not even the first time this year. You may recall that back in April, I wrote this post after seeing Trance, frustrated by the instinct that made me want to award it three stars. And I still haven't figured out how to award lower when movies deserve it -- at least not consistently, and especially not with animation.

Maybe this time, I'll do as I write. "It didn't offend me" should no longer be the standard for what gets three stars.

The generosity ends ... now. Again. 


Travis McClain said...

I suspect part of it is that you and I are from the last generation to view animation as kids' stuff to be outgrown in adolescence. Even though we individually have respect for the medium, there's that glass ceiling ingrained in our consciousness somewhere. We hear "It's just a cartoon" in the voice of some fussy grownup scoffing at how excited we were about something on TV in our youth.

You'd think this would keep us from responding favorably at all to animation, but the prejudice is countered by our innate fascination with film in general - an adoration often missing in the more outspoken naysayers. Ergo, we tend to view three stars as the norm for animation.

Our inner child has to be really turned off to go any lower, but it's similarly difficult sneak an animated movie past our inner grump to a fourth or fifth star.

And, of course, the other part of it is that you and I are both from the school that holds most movies start out at a 3-star rating and have to do something conspicuous to move up or down. Given that, and your observation that animated movies tend to play it safe, it's uncommon for the typical animated movie to fall outside the 3-star range.

If you want to assert yourself over animation, my advice would be to seek out some more mature animated features to watch without your son. Carve out some time for things like Persepolis or Waltz with Bashir (I'm too lazy to check your Letterboxd to see if you've already seen either of these; I'm sure you understand.)

And, as you've done with your ongoing series dedicated to bombs, periodically subject yourself to something by Ralph Bakshi. God, I hate that guy's work.

Vancetastic said...

I share your antipathy for Ralph Bakshi. There's just something so unwholesome about his work. (Not that it's particularly trying to be wholesome, but there's a way to adult-oriented animation without making it skeevy.)

I like the notion that three stars is a starting point. I think others would say that 2.5 stars is the starting point, but three is more fair. I mean, we do profess to love movies, right? I tend to be the forgiving kind of movie lover in general, just as I also try to be a glass-is-half-full person in life. Some people can derive a sense of critical snobbery from telling you all the movies they hate, but I'm not one of them. Every movie I see is innocent until proven guilty. Thanks for finding the right words to make me realize that.

I have indeed seen both Persepolis and Waltz With Bashir. I had very high hopes for Persepolis, and therefore, I was slightly let down by it. Objectively it is a good movie and I think people should see it, but its narrative arc left me unsatisfied. On the other hand, I love Waltz With Bashir and have seen it twice.

You may be right about the generation we're in, but for me, I think of it more as remembering a time when animated movies were more of an event. Since so few studios had the ability to churn out a first-rate animated movie, there would be fewer than a half-dozen a year, and they would all be sit-up-and-pay-attention type movies. The last vestiges of this perspective are still within me, even though there are now at least a half-dozen leading studios who may put out multiple films a year, and each calendar month (even January and February) can expect to have one or two releases.

Thanks for the comment!

Travis McClain said...

Ralph Bakshi's work reminds me of that guy in middle school who thought it was clever to make a flip book out of his English textbook of something anatomical, only instead of ever expanding his palate, he just keeps making the same flip book.

2.5 stars may be the mathematical median, but I think you'll agree with me that half stars are a supplemental range and not part of the official reviewing spectrum. They're to be used as a tie-breaker in the event that a movie really is better than the next lowest full-star, but not fully deserving of the next highest.

Excellent point about the frequency of animated movies. They really were an event for folks of our vintage, made all the more impressionable on us since typically, animation was relegated to TV. The idea of a cartoon playing in a theater was a pretty big deal.

Oh, and as for Persepolis, I agree that the narrative is truncated and stilted. If you haven't, you should read Marjane Satrapi's original graphic novels (two volumes originally, but there's a collected, one-volume edition). It goes a lot farther into some important subjects and is more satisfying than its abridged adaptation.

Still, I think the point stands that it can be helpful to scope out animation that isn't targeted at your son if you want to maintain a more professional/academic perspective on the medium.