Monday, July 30, 2007

Two Trailers; Two Tragedies

While I'm in favour of copyright, allowing creative artists and their heirs to financially benefit from their creations, what do you do in cases where the heirs have no reservation about trashing the work they own in exchange for a few bucks?

I am not under the illusion that Alvin and the Chipmunks is, or ever was, great art. It started out as a novelty 45 rpm record by Ross Bagdasarian, a musician behind other novelty records of the time including "Witch Doctor" and "Come on-a My House." The chipmunk record took off and led to an early animated TV series and some merchandising. Bagdasarian was no Cole Porter, but at least his work was inoffensive.

What is it about toilet humour and animated films? We've gone from fart jokes to characters defecating on screen in Open Season to characters eating each other's waste material now. When did family films look to John Waters and Pink Flamingoes as a model? When did a porn fetish become children's entertainment? And who, at the MPAA, approved this trailer for all audiences?

My objection is not to the obscenity, it's the complete and total lack of imagination. In a medium where characters can do anything, they choose to do this? With the entire history of film comedy to draw on, this is the best they could do?

(And what about the general cheapness of the trailer? No shot combining Jason Lee with the animated characters? Not even an over the shoulder shot? Not only can't they write, they don't know diddley about directing either.)

No doubt the Bagdasarian family is hoping that this film spins off sequels and perhaps a new TV version. Much as I like to support creatives, I hope this project fails in a big enough way to bury the chipmunks for another generation.

Over at Blue Sky, they're adapting Dr. Seuss's Horton Hears a Who. No question that the art direction is attractive and they've done a great job of making Seuss's characters believably dimensional. However, good looking visuals are not enough. Seuss's language was at least half the appeal of his work and it's totally missing here. How many of you can recite some of Green Eggs and Ham by heart?

They've also failed to capture Horton's personality. Jim Carrey is fundamentally miscast as Horton, a character who can best be described as a plodder. Carrey is too high energy. The animators have no choice but to move Horton in unelephant-like ways in order to match Carrey's reading.

Furthermore, whoever is behind the screenplay doesn't understand how to write for animation. There's way too much dialogue and the animators are stuck looking for gestures to keep the characters alive while the dialogue drones on. I don't envy the animator stuck with that Steve Carell scene. It's a tough challenge, but he or she is making it worse by using gestures to illustrate words and phrases as opposed to thoughts. The character is overly busy and the gestures are mostly empty of emotion.

I once had great hopes for Blue Sky. Except for the first Ice Age, the visuals have accompanied structurally flawed stories. There is no question that they bring an enormous amount of art talent to each of their films, but there's a sharp divide between their visuals and their scripts. Either Fox is not giving Blue Sky enough freedom to rework scripts into animatable form, or Blue Sky itself just has no talent for story. They wouldn't be the first studio to have that problem.

These projects make it hard to justify the existence of copyright past a creator's death except for financial benefits. I can't believe that if the chipmunks or Seuss's work were public domain, we'd be doing any worse in the way of film adaptations. It's clear that the heirs don't understand what they own. What a shame that we have to witness the degradation of any creator's legacy at the hands of his or her heirs.


Anonymous said...

"I don't envy the animator stuck with that Steve Carell scene... The character is overly busy and the gestures are mostly empty of emotion."

My thoughts exactly on viewing that Horton Hears A Who trailer. The animation is technically accomplished , as we've come to expect from a studio like Blue Sky . I'm not casting aspersions on the talent contained in that studio (good artists stuck with doing the best they can with the story/voice material they've been given) .... BUT the tone is totally wrong. It's not Seussical . You're correct that the language is a main ingredient in Seuss's work.

Blah. The trailer lost me. I have no interest in seeing this ( or that chipmunk movie) .

Pete Emslie said...

Judging by these two trailers, I'm inclined to think that the "Horton" film is the bigger tragedy. "The Chipmunks" is certainly representative of what many TV cartoons have undergone in recent years in their being reimagined badly for the big screen, and that is certainly a sad state of affairs. But to reinvent Dr. Seuss by simply discarding his wondrous, rhyming, musical text shows that the filmmakers haven't got much clue as to the timeless appeal of his books. I'd had such high hopes for this adaptation back when I saw that first production still of Horton and the ants carrying off the speck on the dandelion, but now I can see that they've ruined the story with their insipid, sitcom dialogue. Dr. Seuss deserves so much better than this.

Bill Robinson said...

I wholeheartedly agree on both films. When I saw the Alvin trailer I was just sickened and shocked...that this is what animated films have come to. And then I saw Horton and I was so excited to see pretty art direction that I was able to overlook the awful dialogue and miscast characters for the length of the trailer. Then I saw it again and it all stood out to me. :[ I hope they prove us wrong...

Anonymous said...

Dr. Seuss in particular seems to be victimized, in the modern feature films, by the belief that his stories somehow call for a pointedly sarcastic, urbane, aggressively in-your-face comic: be it Michael Myers or Jim Jim Carrey (who takes his second Seussian role as Horton; I'm inclined to believe it's no coincidence).
This approach may well have been inspired by the aggressive, iconoclastic nature of the original Cat in the Hat; but the key difference is that the Cat was never aggressive or iconoclastic in the banal, almost bullying manner that Carrey and Myers have brought to these roles.
It effectively makes the characters and stories unpleasant and everyday where they were formerly delightful and fantastic. (Hmm... maybe I'm not saying anything that others haven't already observed.)

Anonymous said...

Er, I meant to write Jim Carrey, not "Jim Jim Carrey." It sounds like I'm trying to make some (inexplicable) joke, but I wasn't.

Pete Emslie said...

You're quite right, David, the approach taken by casting such actors is completely wrong for the subject matter. The whole point of Seuss's "Horton Hears a Who" was to show the visual contrast of huge elephant Horton vs. the infinitely miniscule Whos, yet portraying Horton as a the proverbial "gentle giant" who is capable of immense compassion for any creature he deems as being physically vulnerable. Casting the ironic and cynical Jim Carrey goes entirely against type. Though Carrey has certainly proven himself to be capable of playing characters with pathos in several dramatic films, it doesn't seem to be the case here, judging by the trailer. Instead we get the more familiar comically obnoxious Jim Carrey. A character like Horton requires a voice and performance of gentle sincerity. Frankly, Jim Carrey would be the last one to come to my mind as a casting choice.

Richie Blitz said...

You pretty much hit the nail on the head, exactly what I thought about the Horton trailer....such a shame.

Anonymous said...

Can't you folks even wait to see the Horton film before you start to trash it?


Anonymous said...

"Can't you folks even wait to see the Horton film before you start to trash it?"

Hi, Anonymous ,

Well, here's the thing : what's been trashed (apparently) is the book by Dr. Seuss .

So, yes, some of us are certainly expressing our grave concern for the apparent tin ear that the screenwriters have when they chose to substitute their TV sitcom dialogue writing style in place of Dr. Seuss's whimsical, musical rhyming dialogue.

If the trailer is an accurate representation of what the movie is like then I really feel no desire to see it , not any more than I needed to see the crass, ill-conceived live-action adaptations of The Grinch Who Stole Christmas or The Cat In The Hat.

Anonymous said...

big A
little a
what begins with a?
animation nerds
whith quite a lot to say.

big B
little b
what begins with b?
who like to disagree

c C c C
c c c
can't new
cartoon content
capture classic

-- and I don't even write sitcoms :) --

Erik Westlund said...

Why yes, Anonymous, as you can plainly see.

We bitter, boarding, blogging types all quite agree.

Seuss' harmonious sounds and such were nowhere to be found.

oh dear. oh dear. oh dear. oh dear!

They should have hired you to write what we all wish to hear.

-- and I won't even brag about for whom I don't write --

Amir Avni said...

Bob Clampett's 1942 short "Horton Hatches the Egg" is the best adaptation I've ever seen a Dr. Suess story.
The whole cartoon is available here.

Sant Arellano said...

"Honey, have you ever felt,
that feeling of dreadful fear
like an elephant speaking to your ear?"

Even if the animation looks very good, the Dr. Seuss language in the Clampett short will surely be missed by many.

I bet Jim Carrey could do Horton perfectly, he just needs to be directed along that path.

Erik Westlund said...

sant arellano, pretty much, I'm with you.

Jim Carey can be a lot more (or a lot different) than a giant caricature of whoever he is aping.

What direction what he being given? Really. The lead actor in "Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind" was played by the same actor as the lead in "The Mask" and the "Ace Ventura, Pet Detective" silliness.

What direction was he given?

This goes back the the director and the producers.

Animated performances look pretty good to me... but the animators are tools for the director as well.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the link, Amir!
Mark: as usual I agree with you completely and whole-heartedly!

Linda Smith said...

Mark, I ditto your thoughts 100% ... and I am an "heir" who is trying hard to preserve the work of my dad (Hardie Gramatky, Disney animator, author-illustrator of Little Toot books, watercolorist) in an authentic way that honors his creativity! I'd love to read more of your blog. We have a website ( but are just getting up and running. Thanks for the comment about copyrights not lasting after the creator's death plus a few years (we needed that to figure out how to do these restorations well). A restored edition of Little Toot is coming out in September, back to Dad's original colors and art! Yay. Best to you, Linda Gramatky Smith

Linda Smith said...

ooops, I forgot to ask what I meant to. I can't wait to get the More Silly Symphonies DVD with my dad as a young (23) man pitching on the Disney softball team! Can you imagine that at age 64 I've never seen a movie of him at that age? Really special. I loved some of the closeup shots you posted of Floyd G and others. Any chance you have a closeup of Dad's head? If so, please let me know. Thanks. Best to you, Linda (

Brandon Starr said...

While these both look awful, I'll take this new Seuss movie over both that horrid Grinch movie (also starring Jim Carrie) or the equally awful Cat in the Hat film with Mike Myers. At least this one doesn't make the main character look like some strange deranged man-beast.

Thad said...

I saw both of these embarrassing trailers last night at the Simpsons Movie. Phew- who stepped in that?!

Anonymous said...

"I wholeheartedly agree on both films. When I saw the Alvin trailer I was just sickened and shocked...that this is what animated films have come to. "

If you were actually sickened from this scene, I feel bad for you. Get a life. It was hilarious.

Anonymous said...

Most of you who are against this film are just jealous. Jealous just like people who think Barry Bonds shouldn't be honored for hitting his steroid-induced homeruns. Jealous just like those who are mad that George W. Bush stole elections and is leaving our democracy for dead in a dark Washington DC alley. You jealous do-gooders! Go away!

Larry T said...

All this has happened before and it will happen again, unfortunately.

When I saw the Alvin trailer preceding the Simpsons movie, the crowd in the audience booed. Even none of the kids in the audience laughed- they knew better.

It reminds me of a syndrome I witnessed in first-year animation college. When brand new 'artists/directors/producers" got the opportunity to test out the medium, they got a feel of what they could do.

Then one person got the idea to animate something somewhat risky.

Suddenly there were masses of people emulating this, but going way over the edge, not because it was necessary, just because they could do it. Their films became vehicles for their private repressions: scenes of characters being torn apart, guts splaying all over the place, perverse sexual scenes, urination, defecation, the list goes on.... Like a mad doctor who becomes power hungry.

Nothing about entertainment value, everything about what they wanted to see happen.

The Alvin incidence leads me to believe this is a 30-something director with the immature mind of a depraved 7-year old.

Praising this content type in this movie only reflects the maturity level of the one giving the praise.

Adam Kaszycki said...

Not working in film myself [yet], it seems to me that the creative forces at Blue Sky set about to make a faitful rendition of Seuss, but I'd bet money the suits at Fox forced them to miscast the voice talents and such to make a more "easily digestible" film. Seems the suits never learn that an original [even if wacky like the original Seuess, or loving rats in "Ratatouille" or even the zany Stitch from "Lilo and Stitch"] idea left un-dumbed down is many times eaten up by audiences, treasured and stands the test of time. The Suits seem to wanna make a quick buck with a bunch of known gimmicks and pop culture additives that seem to draw audiences to the movies- but I'm hoping the masses have just about had enough and can look past gimmicks to see there is no lasting substance in most of these films.

Kevin W. Martinez said...

Unlike my poor GAC compatriot Thad, I was at least spared the Chipmunks trailer when I saw The Simpsons Movie, so I'm not nearly as tramatized as I Should be.

Anonymous said...

I wonder, did the Suess books ever translate well into other languages. I have no idea, I'm just guessing the rhyming element meant they would lose pretty much.

So my theory, based on no evidence, is that they decided to get rid of all the rhyming language because it would be wasted on the foreign markets anyway.

Anonymous said...

I think what you mean by 'easily digestible' is 'appropriate for the target audience of today'. I certainly wouldn't want kids to see a fish blowing out his brains with a gun anymore! I think this old Horton movie has its charm, but it's way too slow and outdated. The repeating rhymes are a snooze.

I am an animator too, and I do think every Seuss movie that has been made until now has been horrible. But I think that setting the movie to the original rhyme is also a bore and doesn't make a complete film. I think outtakes of the rhyme in appropriate places is just perfect. I also think that typecasting the elephant as a large, slow creature is way too predictable, and wouldn't have made for interesting animation. The longer, funny dialogues is exactly what is in right now. As long as the dialogue is funny and solid, I would only think this would be a challenge to the animators, not a chore.

One thing that the Seuss books always did for me was capture the imagination of the worlds. None of the movies have done that so far with limited sets. I love the way they CG'd the world and the characters. I am hoping that they finally got it right, but it certainly looks that way! We'll know after we see the whole movie.

Anonymous said...

PS Alvin and the Chipmunks does look horrible, I agree there! But I don't think that you can put these two movies in the same category!