WALL*E — hypocritical? too political?

Say what you will about Evan Almighty (2007), but you can’t deny that the filmmakers went out of their way to underscore, and live up to, the movie’s environmental themes. When I went down to Los Angeles for the press junket last year, the studio even made a point of sponsoring trees in the reporters’ names, among other things.

So it is a little strange now to hear that WALL*E and the hype machine surrounding it have been sending out some incredibly confused signals. The film itself seems to be a moral, cautionary tale about a future in which advertising and consumerism have basically ruined the planet and sucked the life out of humanity — but the press junket exhibited these same negative qualities that the film is supposedly satirizing.

I mentioned this in my last post on the film, where I alluded to something a colleague of mine had said after attending the junket. Now Devin Faraci of CHUD.com has written a full-blown editorial asking whether the film is “environmental or hypocritical”:

The truth of the movie’s intentions can only really be known to Stanton. On some level you have to take a filmmaker on his word, even when that word appears to be ludicrous. Still, although he won’t cop to making Wall-E a movie with a wonderful, socially conscious message in mind, he does admit that getting such a message out of his film is a good thing. The question becomes will that message ever actually make it out of the movie and into kid’s heads? . . .

When I got to the Four Seasons hotel the next day, the site of the junket for the film, and saw an entire room dedicated to showing off the marketing tie-ins, I lost the sense of irony and began to think what I was seeing was flat out hypocrisy. I wondered if maybe Stanton’s denials about the messages weren’t coming from a marketing point of view but from simple shame. . . .

I’ve had people on the message boards tell me that this doesn’t matter, that the message is all that matters. But just saying something is pointless – which is actually another theme of the film. The movie ends up with the idea that sometimes you have to make hard decisions, sacrifice comfort and easy living to do the right thing, to make things better. To, quite literally, save the Earth. This is an inspiring message… that is immediately undercut by walking out of a movie theater into a world crammed full of landfill-choking plastic Wall-E crapola. . . .

The truth is that Wall-E feels like a really well-made stop smoking ad starring Joe Camel. . . .

It’s important to keep in mind that none of this has to do with the quality of Wall-E as a movie on its own; my review of the film, which did not send me into space the way it did other onliners, will come as soon as the embargo is lifted. And whether or not Andrew Stanton wants to own up to placing environmental and political messages in a film that includes a robot recreation of a protest riot has nothing to do with whether or not they’re there, but I think everyone seeing the movie this coming weekend will have to admit that these messages exist. And most of those people will have to also admit that they’re good messages, the kind we should be happy are included in a kid’s film. The problem is that these messages – intentional or not – are being undercut by a cynical marketing campaign that will likely have a bigger impact on kids than the movie itself. And worse than that, it’s a marketing and licensing campaign that will help advance us just a little bit towards the environmental devastation shown in the film.

Interestingly, the seemingly disingenuous pattern of putting overt political messages into the film and then denying that they are there — or at least denying that they are intentional — can also be seen in how writer-director Andrew Stanton has dealt with the “stay the course” issue, which I also alluded to in my previous post on this film. From MoviesOnline:

MoviesOnline: If you’re not coming with a political or ecological message, you do have stuff about consumerism and upstairs we have a whole product suite. Is there…?

ANDREW STANTON: I wasn’t trying to be anti anything. I think I was just trying to go “Look, too much of a good thing of anything is a cautionary tale.” Honestly, everything I did was in reverse. It was like I’ve gotta go with trash because I love what it does to my main character and it’s very clear, and then I went backwards from that. I said “Why would there be too much trash?” Well it’d be really easy for me to show we’d bought too much stuff and it’d be really easy to show that without having to have it explained and it’s kind of fun. It’s fun to be satirical like that. You know we all have that sort of Simpsons bent, you know. So I just went with what felt somewhat true. I mean I think we’ve always felt that we have to be sort of disciplined in that area.

MoviesOnline: You do use the phrase “Stay the course” in the movie. That’s a pretty overt political statement.

ANDREW STANTON: It just was such a natural thing to say at the time. I said “Screw it! It’s funny.”

However, Fred Willard, the actor who delivers the line, is pretty clear that there is a political subtext there — though that wasn’t the only thing inspiring his performance:

Flying into space seems like a fool proof plan, right? Nothing could ever go wrong there. “They asked if [I] based him on any political people. I based him more on the pilot of an airplane. We get on an airplane and that very soothing voice, ‘We’ll be taking off very shortly. Flying time is 3 hours and 40 minutes. Get comfortable.’ And then you sit a long time and something’s up. ‘This is your captain speaking. Unfortunately we have a little delay. ‘ And then by the end it’s, ‘I have some bad news. We’re going back to the gate. The flight has been cancelled. We should have you on another plane in no time.’ That night you’re in a cheap motel waiting to fly out the next morning. That’s his idea. Keep a good front, do the best they can. Everyone is doing the best they can but it’s out of everybody’s hand.”

When it is revealed how bad things really got, Willard’s character even says, “Stay the course.” “That’s obviously a salute, an homage, to George W Bush. It was in the script.”

It remains to be seen whether this line — and the context within which it is uttered — will tick off the average moviegoer to the degree that it has ticked off conservative bloggers such as Kyle Smith, who has not yet seen the film but writes:

This kind of crack, lame as it is, also breaks the spell of the movie by hurling you out of the theater and back into reality. Moreover, animated films take so long to put together that the jibe may have been written two or three or four years ago. It doesn’t look like quite such a laugh line these days, when staying the course against hurricane-level opposition actually seems to have changed the game in Iraq.

Interestingly, Wikipedia indicates that Bush used the expression “stay the course” repeatedly between July 2003 and October 2006, when staying the course didn’t seem to be accomplishing very much — but then he stopped using it, only a few months before “the surge” began and started turning things around. So that may or may not make the line seem even more dated.

(Though as my friend thomwade puts it, the fact that Bush would use the phrase only when his policies are failing but not when they are succeeding is “a definite layer of funny.”)

Wag the Dog + Hell House = new satire.

Variety reports:

Mandalay Independent Pictures has acquired screen rights to “Salvation Boulevard,” the upcoming mystery novel by Larry Beinhart. George Ratliff will write the script and direct. . . .

“Salvation Boulevard,” to be published in the fall by Nation Books, has a satirical bent targeting organized religion.

The story revolves around a private detective who investigates the killing of a professor. The exercise proves to be a clash of faiths: The detective is a born-again Christian, the dead man an atheist, the accused killer an Islamic foreign student and the D.A. is Jewish.

“The book uses a mystery to examine the religious process, the mega-churches and how they manipulate minds,” said Mandalay prexy Cathy Schulman. “It is tricky terrain, but George is a filmmaker with a distinguishable voice.

Beinhart previously wrote “American Hero,” which was adapted into the 1997 Hollywood-D.C. satire “Wag the Dog.”

Ratliff, who directed the thriller “Joshua,” covered the hard-line faith biz in the docu “Hell House.” . . .

Whoo-ee. I liked Hell House (2001) well enough, but I have not seen Joshua (2007), so I haven’t a clue what to expect.

The new version of The New World.

Warner Brothers, which recently took over the New Line library of films, issued a press release today stating that they will release an “extended cut” of Terrence Malick’s The New World (2005) on October 14:

This edition of the critically-acclaimed, Oscar®-nominated epic recreating the turbulent first days of the new America now features more than 30 minutes of never-before-seen footage, heightening the viewing experience with more battles, more intensity and more visual splendor.

Jeffrey Wells adds the detail that this new version of the film will be 172 minutes long, or almost three hours.

So, that makes three versions of the film out there:

  1. The 149-minute version shown to critics in December 2005, and briefly to audiences in Los Angeles and New York so that it would qualify for the Academy Awards; this version has never been released to DVD in North America, though I understand it is available as part of a two-disc package in Italy.

  2. The 135-minute version released to theatres everywhere in January 2006, and then on DVD. This version added some new footage, in addition to cutting over 14 minutes of footage from the original version.
  3. The 172-minute version coming to DVD in October.

Now, when you think about the various lengths, you realize something: The new version is only 23 minutes longer than the longest version released to date — so if the press release is correct when it says that the new version will have “more than 30 minutes of never-before-seen footage”, it would seem that some of the footage from the 149-minute version, and perhaps even some of the footage that was unique to the 135-minute version, will remain on the cutting-room floor.

Or perhaps the folks at Warner have forgotten about the 149-minute version, or perhaps they are pretending it doesn’t exist.

At any rate, this is very good news for those of us who have been keen to see the three-hour version ever since the makers of this film talked about that version at the press junket two and a half years ago.

Osmosis Jones dodges a bullet-time list.

Inspired, if that’s the word, by the trailers for the new Angelina Jolie film Wanted, Christopher Campbell at SpoutBlog has compiled a list of “10 Awful Matrix ‘Bullet Time’ Spoofs”, and it covers the bases pretty well — though a few of his specimens, such as Wing Commander (released March 12, 1999) and the Gap’s ‘Khaki Swing’ commercial (debuted April 1998), actually pre-date The Matrix (released March 31, 1999) by a fair bit.

In fact, the people who created this special effect were expressing concern about “the spectre of overexposure” as early as this article from the June 26, 1998 issue of Entertainment Weekly. Little did they know that a movie was about to come out which would hijack the effect and stamp a catchphrase on it forever.

At any rate, I just had to say I am glad that Campbell’s list does not include Osmosis Jones (2001), which is not only one of my favorite cartoons of the past decade, but also — since it stars Laurence Fishburne as the voice of the villainous virus Thrax — features the only Matrix spoof that stars a member of the Matrix trilogy itself. Surely it deserves points for that, at least.

Canadian box-office stats — June 22

Here are the figures for the past weekend, arranged from those that owe the highest percentage of their take to the Canadian box office to those that owe the lowest.

Sex and the City — CDN $13,890,000 — N.AM $132,385,000 — 10.5%
The Love Guru CDN $1,400,000 — N.AM $14,000,000 — 10.0%

You Don’t Mess with the Zohan — CDN $7,210,000 — N.AM $84,055,000 — 8.6%
The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian — CDN $11,570,000 — N.AM $135,467,000 — 8.5%
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull — CDN $24,430,000 — N.AM $290,835,000 — 8.4%
Iron Man — CDN $25,280,000 — N.AM $304,788,000 — 8.3%
The Happening — CDN $3,540,000 — N.AM $50,267,000 — 7.0%
Kung Fu Panda — CDN $10,610,000 — N.AM $155,596,000 — 6.8%
The Incredible Hulk — CDN $6,440,000 — N.AM $96,476,000 — 6.7%
Get Smart — CDN $2,420,000 — N.AM $39,155,000 — 6.2%

A couple of discrepancies: The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian was #10 on the Canadian chart (it was #11 in North America as a whole), while The Strangers was #10 on the North American chart (it was #11 in Canada).

Baby booms and the death of kiddie films.

Demographics, as Mark Steyn likes to say, are everything — or very nearly everything, at any rate. Nine years ago, I wrote an article on the teensploitation craze for Books & Culture that began by looking even further back to a prediction that appeared to have come true at the time that I was writing that article:

There was a time, not too long ago, when conservative pundits liked to argue that family-friendly movies were, from the point of view of the major Hollywood studios, a safer financial bet. Restricted movies played to narrower, restricted audiences, while G-rated movies were free to play to as wide an audience as the market could al low. A number of hugely successful films in the early 1990s—such as Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin—seemed to prove their point.

But there were voices of caution, too. In 1992, Universal Studios chairman Tom Pollock told Premiere magazine that the movie industry was reaping the benefits of a “baby boomlet,” a natural result of the fact that many baby boomers now had children of their own. Pollock noted further that these children wouldn’t stay young forever: “They’re about to come into their teens, so we’re going to be having a whole raft of coming-of-age movies again. Everybody’s going to lose their virginity again.”

That raft is upon us now. Teen ensemble films are fairly cheap to make, and studios can usually count on at least getting their money back; in some cases, they can reap substantial profits. Clueless and William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet were decent-sized hits, but they didn’t prepare Hollywood for the success of Scream, a postmodern high-school slasher flick that opened three years ago and, to everyone’s surprise, quietly amassed a domestic box-office gross of just over $100 million. . . .

I was reminded of that article tonight while reading this paragraph from Mark Harris’s recent article on so-called “niche” audiences:

Here’s a genuinely surprising piece of news about the summer of 2008: In a season expressly designed to appeal to the hordes of kids who are out of school, two of the kiddiest movies so far, Speed Racer and Prince Caspian, have fizzled. And next summer, and for several summers to come, there’ll be fewer kids going to the movies, because there’ll be fewer kids, period. Apparently (this is the U.S. Census talking), we had a mini-baby boom between about 1981 and 1995. And then came a dip — a substantial dip — in the kid population. In other words, that mammoth group of youngsters that has reliably fueled movie grosses for almost 15 years is now looking less kidlike: They’re between 13 and 27. And getting older. And looking for movies that appeal to them. And they’re really not going to like being called a niche.

As Mark Steyn also likes to say, stability is an illusion and there is no such thing as the status quo; things are always moving in some direction or other. Could be interesting times ahead.

(Hat tip to Joe Leydon for the Mark Harris “money quote”.)