This is part of an ongoing series looking at the recipients of nominations for the Best Animated Feature Oscar. A more detailed explanation can be found at the beginning of part 1.
Surf’s Up (2007)
Ah, the penguin craze of the mid-2000s, what a stupid stupid fad. Coming off the inexplicable box office success of the blockbuster 2005 documentary March of the Penguins it was determined that the public had penguin fever and all sorts of people came out of the woodwork to exploit this supposed fascination. They even made a big budget CGI animated film on the topic; it was called Happy Feet and it was directed by George Miller of all people and it was very forgettable. Somehow that fucking thing won the Oscar for Best Animated feature for 2006 and was one of the most “you had to be there” wins in the category’s history. One would think that that stupid-ass movie (and its sequel) would be enough to satisfy the public’s hunger for animated movies about arctic waterfowl but apparently it wasn’t and the next year Sony Pictures Animation gave us yet another one… and in this one the penguins were surfers for some reason. Now, like a lot of narratives that whole recounting is a bit simplistic and ignores the fact that big animated movies like this actually take years to produce to completion; both of these movies were almost certainly being made before March of the Penguins became a surprise box office success and all of these movies proximity to one another may well have been one big coincidence… but that’s certainly not what it looked like to outside observers and by the time Surf’s Up came out in the June of 2007 it certainly looked to most casual observers like the lamest of Johnny-come-lately bandwagon jumpers. That is unfortunate because, despite outward appearances, Surf’s Up is almost certainly the better of the mid-2000s animated movies about penguins.
What differentiates this one, aside from the surfing is that it is a computer animated mockumentary, essentially a very large budget parody of extreme sports documentaries like Riding Giants or Step Into Liquid. It would be like if a major animation studio in a couple of years decided to make a parody of Free Solo starring an octopus. This is not exactly a great idea for a movie but it is an idea for one, which was more than I was expecting and the film does take its gimmick fairly seriously and manages to be pretty spot on in its adherence to certain sports doc clichés that aren’t necessarily super obvious to people who don’t watch a lot of them. Key to all of this is actually a pretty dedicated voice performance by Shia LaBeouf who makes this central penguin sound like an authentically withdrawn and mumbling teenager who’s trying to put up a tough façade, which fits well with this mockumentary gimmick and works better than the brand of exaggerated bumbling awkwardness we normally get from teenage characters in these movies. So that’s an element I find interesting but I also don’t want to oversell this thing. The animation is only okay, the story would feel more like a straightforward set of clichés if not for the mockumentary format, and there are comedic moments and soundtrack selections that are pretty lame. Were it not for very low expectations this would not standout as much of anything and at the Oscars it was clearly a distant third behind Ratatouille and Persepolis and is probably not worth revisiting if you’re not doing some sort of retrospective of Oscar nominated animated films.
*** out of Five
The Pirates! Band of Misfits (2012)
The Pirates! Band of Misfits (AKA The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists!) was the feature length return to the stop-motion style that made them famous after a probably misguided foray into computer animation. In 2006 they followed up their Academy Award winning Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit with a film called Flushed Away, which took models that were designed in the Aardman style but were then translated into computer animation instead of rendered through stop-motion. The idea was presumably to bring the Aardman charm and humor to the screen but eliminate the arduous stop motion process and be more in line with what kids were coming to expect from their Hollywood cartoons. The movie got some respectful reviews at the time but it didn’t light up the box office and it’s not very well remembered today and the decision to switch mediums certainly strikes me as a bad idea given that they basically sacrificed their signature craft which made them stand out. They followed that up with another computer animated film called Arthur Christmas, which also wasn’t a disaster but also didn’t really make much more than their stop-motion films do and on larger budgets and ever since then they’ve largely stuck to their stop-motion roots.
This is not to say that The Pirates! Band of Misfits is devoid of computer animation as they do incorporate it in some places, namely in the ocean that the pirate ship sails on, but for the most part it’s nicely elaborate stop motion like we expect from the studio. In the UK the film is called The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists!, which is the title of the book the film is adapted from, the first in a series of books with titles that all end with “in an adventure with [insert historical group]” which kind of makes them sound educational, which is probably what the international distributors were trying to avoid (I think similar decision-making was involved in changing the title of the first Harry Potter book). The thing is these books are not really educational, it seems like their whole premise is that they bring in 19th century historical figures like Napoleon, or Karl Marx, or in the case of this one Charles Darwin, but treat them in ways that has less respect for historical accuracy than Inglourious Basterds. In fact the whole premise of the series is completely anachronistic as they have these pirates existing in the 19th century when pirates as we know them were largely the product of the 17th and early 18th century. To give you a hint of how little of a fuck these books give, this one ends with the pirates fighting a katana wielding Queen Victoria on her borderline steampunk personal ocean liner.
Beyond the historical playfulness and the animation style I’m not sure there’s really a lot going on here. The story is something of a workplace comedy on board a pirate ship bring run by a rather inept captain who renders the pirates kind of harmless through his bumbling. There’s a goofy story here where the captain discovers his parrot is actually a dodo bird that has somehow survived extinction and essentially becomes valuable McGuffin in a tug of war between Darwin and Victoria, but describing it like that probably doesn’t convey how little the film takes any of this seriously, which it doesn’t at all. It’s very much a “romp” more than any kind of story with real takeaways, but it’s not an unenjoyable one and there is some inherent value in Aardman’s mastery of this Claymation medium and this one lets them let loose with that on a larger more widescreen scale in a lot of ways. There’s generally something of a ceiling on how enthusiastic I’m likely to get about an Aardman film, it’s a studio that largely gets by on charm moreso than any kind of real substance but they’re in good form here.
*** out of Five
Shrek 2 (2004)
The Best Animated Feature Academy Award has proven to be a pretty durable fixture after two decades despite a somewhat shaky beginning and no matter how long it lasts it’s probably never going to live down the fact that they gave their inaugural trophy out to one of the most rancid cancers eating away at popular culture: Shrek. Good lord do I hate fucking Shrek. It’s a movie that’s dumb on it’s very surface but what’s really galling about it is that it’s a movie that’s kind of like a dumb person’s idea of what satire and parody is supposed to be. It’s a series of very obvious jokes about fairy tale archetypes that are maybe a rung or two above what one might expect from the Friedberg and Seltzer school of spoof movies, and yet the damn thing seemed to make an insane amount of money and was by and large critically tolerated. What’s worse the movie seemed to usher in a certain dumb attitude that has pervaded mainstream animation and pop culture more widely. As critic Scott Tobias put it last year in an excellent take-down on the film’s twentieth anniversary: “it encouraged a destructive, know-it-all attitude toward the classics that made any earnest engagement with them seem like a waste of time.” Somehow that piece managed to make Tobias the “main character” of Twitter that day as waves of deluded dipshits accused him of being a contrarian troll as if this piece of shit movie is somehow above criticism, a whole generation blinded by what I can only assume is pure nostalgia into thinking this movie deserves even the slightest bit of respect.
Now, to be fair I haven’t seen the original Shrek since shortly after its original release, when I would have been about fourteen and that wasn’t necessarily a period in my life when I was at my most open minded. Turning on the film’s box office record breaking (and Oscar nominated) sequel I was ready to accept it if it turned out the franchise actually had more going for it than I remembered. Nope, if anything this was actually even worse than I expected. The film isn’t remotely funny. I remember the first movie at least having a couple of chuckle inducing moments but I watched this thing stone faced the whole way through. And as a piece of storytelling this is largely a lazy retread of the first movie where Shrek becomes self-conscious about whether Fiona can really love an ugly dude like him, something they seemingly got past in the last movie. What’s more Fiona does not actually say or do much of anything to give him this impression, it’s mostly something he intuits from her parents being snooty assholes to him and much of the film’s plot could have been circumvented if he had just had a conversation with this person who is supposedly his true love. From there we don’t get much else of value. I have no idea why Puss and Boots became some beloved character outside of this, he’s a total nothing of a character and the bad side characters from the first film are shoehorned into this contrary to any real logic. If there was ever anything remotely valuable or clever about this story it was used up in the first movie, this second one has basically nothing new to offer on top of it. Terrible movie, terrible franchise, I hope to never have to see three or four.
* out of Five
Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius (2001)
When the Best Animated Feature category was introduced in 2001 pundits thought it’s inaugural lineup would be pretty predictable. Shrek and Monsters Inc were pretty much guaranteed to get in but the third slot was a bit less clear but most critics thought it would be filled by Richard Linklater’s Waking Life, an animated indie for adults that would represent the artier side of the medium. While movies like that would go on to have a better shot in future years, the Academy clearly wasn’t ready to “go there” on year one. Instead they filled that slot with, of all things, a glorified pilot for an upcoming Nickelodeon show called Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius. Some think this snub happened because they didn’t want to muddy the waters with an R-rated movie, others think the animators voting on the nomination did not view the rotoscoping work in Linklater’s film to be “true animation.” But really there’s no excuse because even if they didn’t want to reward Linklaters film they certainly had other options. For one thing, Atlantis: The Lost Empire was right there. Nominating that would have been a nice bone thrown to the modern face of traditional animation and there certainly would have been symbolic value in pitting Dreamworks, Pixar, and Disney against each other in the first of these categories. And if they didn’t want to do that, there were some solid anime choices out there in Katsuhiro Otomo’s Metropolis and Cowboy Bebop: The Movie. Hell, even the misbegotten bomb Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within would have even been a more interesting choice than fucking Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius.
So, looking at the film was it actually any good? Of course not, it’s barely watchable. I have no idea what the Academy animation branch was smoking when they nominated it. I’m not going to sit here and recount all of its flaws in detail but to be brief: the animation is wretched both in terms of technology and design, the story is absolutely loopy, there’s this weird streak of casual childhood misogyny in it that’s treated as a running gag, it is ostensibly about scientific genius and yet it casually ignores anything resembling scientific accuracy, and the main character is probably the least sympathetic or interesting person in the whole movie. However, I would really feel silly taking time out of my day to write any kind of review of this thing in earnest because, frankly, this is not a movie that was ever supposed to be watched by a thirty four year old man over twenty years after it was made. This isn’t a family movie; it’s a children’s movie of the kind that exists to get five year olds to shut up for five or so years and give their parents some sanity. It was made for half of Shrek’s budget and a quarter of Monster’s Inc’s budget and it was always kind of supposed to be disposable trash. Railing against it would be like railing against, like, The Paw Patrol Movie or something. I’ll save my anger for the mindless Academy voters who elevated into a position that suggests that it should be judged like a real movie by adult observers, which is a level of scrutiny it never pretended it was going to stand up to. I’m honestly not sure why they even submitted it, it certainly didn’t help the film’s reputation, though I guess it got someone twenty years later to rent it from Netflix so maybe it worked out for them.
½ out of Five
Puss in Boots (2011)
I didn’t spend a lot of time talking about it when I reviewed Shrek 2 (because I knew this movie was in my future) but watching it I was absolutely baffled that the Puss in Boots character from that movie was considered to be some kind of beloved standout character. Why? There was absolutely nothing to him. The original Puss in Boots fairytale is about a feline who uses his wiles and trickery in order to raise the social standing of his master and thus himself, and the character in that movies doesn’t resemble that even a little. Instead he’s basically Zorro, a decision I guess was made to capitalize on the fact that they got Antonio Banderas to voice the character (even though it had been a good six years since he starred in The Mask of Zorro and that movie’s pop culture footprint does not seem that large). The whole one joke (if that) character seems to be predicated on the incorrect belief that seeing a cat speak in a Spanish accent is somehow inherently funny and after the character is quickly foiled in his inept assassination attempt on Shrek he basically doesn’t do anything besides hang around with the characters as they go on their journey and since Banderas is not a comedian it doesn’t really lead to any additional attempts at comedy. But I guess people ended up liking this character for some reason because he did not go away, in fact they gave him an entire spin-off in the form of the 2011 film Puss in Boots.
In a lot of ways this spin-off does feel different from the Shrek movies and mostly for the better. It takes the fairytale world of the Shrek movies a little (and I do mean a little) more seriously than those movies do and it dials down the anachronisms a bit. You would not, for example, see people watching televisions in this one and it’s less interested in being a parade of random fairy tale cameos. It’s also a more modern film and the animation generally holds up a bit better and there’s more of an emphasis on adventure here that occasionally lends itself to some decent set pieces. So on paper all of that is an improvement, and indeed it is, but that doesn’t mean that the movie doesn’t have plenty of problems of its own and the biggest of them is that it still stars this version of Puss in Boots who remains a total snore. In Shrek 2 this character is largely defined by his ineptitude and this movie is never quite able to decide whether they want to retcon him into a slightly more competent adventurer (thus turning a one-joke character into a zero joke character) or kind of keep him bumbling. The film takes forever to get going because it wants to give a whole backstory for this cat which isn’t interesting and which no one asked for, or at least no one should have asked for. When it does get going it mostly just feels like a standard animated movie, but one with a boring protagonist and in a silly and unappealing world. If it’s better than the movies it sprung from its only because the bar is so low and it only deserves so much credit for getting over it.
*1/2 out of Five