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 and part 2.
The Boss Baby (2017)
On February 3rd 2008 the online brokerage firm E-Trade debuted an advertisement during Super Bowl XLII in which someone dubbed over an infant with a bunch of stock trading jargon in order to convey that their web tools are so easy a child could do it. I always hated those ads, and I would have thought any other rational person would have as well, but life is full of surprises and apparently they worked because the company kept making them. Then for some ungodly reason Dreamworks Animation decided they wanted to rip off this campaign in the form of a 2017 animated movie called The Boss Baby in which Alec Baldwin voiced an infant who wears a suit and promotes synergy and shit. When I first heard about that I said “What the fuck is this this shit?” and once again assumed that was the reaction anyone else in their right minds would have, but once again I was surprised to find that this unholy thing was a blockbuster that earned over half of a billion dollars worldwide. Why? Even for a kid’s movie this thing looks dumb as hell. Why would any parent want to expose themselves to this stupidity while Moana, The Lego Batman Movie, and Hidden Figures were all still in theaters. Hell, even something as distasteful as the Beauty and the Beast remake would at least not be humiliating to have to buy a ticket to in the way that this thing is. But having now reluctantly watched the film I can say: this thing is even weirder than it looks.
When I glanced at the movie’s advertising back in 2017 my assumption had been that it was about some adult CEO being turned into a baby for some reason and learning some kind of Freaky Friday-esque lesson from the experience but that’s not it at all. Instead of something simple like that, this posits a fantasy world in which babies are manufactured on a conveyor belt in what is presumed to be but is never labeled heaven and then sent down to earth… presumably to be magically inserted into women’s wombs at full size (still not clear on the logistics of that, what happened to the fetus stage?), except that a small percentage of these conveyor belt babies who aren’t ticklish are set aside to remain in maybe-heaven to be their bureaucratic overseers and in order to do this are fed magical formula that instantly gives them the mentality of an adult CEO while physically remaining babies for some reason. This particular boss baby is then sent down to earth on a mission to discover why people are suddenly loving puppies more than babies and then infiltrates this family while wearing a full suit and carrying a briefcase. It’s is established that the mother was pregnant before his arrival so I’m not clear if he emerged from this woman’s pussy wearing the suit or what. Anyway, having to type out this absolutely insane and overly elaborate concept straight out of Children of the Damned is even weirder than having to watch it, and it only gets stranger from there as it gets into the backstory of the villain, a former boss baby who is trying to use magic from maybe-heaven in order to create an army of permanently young puppies that will end reproduction on earth, or something.
So, do I need to explain why all of this is absolutely deranged? I don’t think I do but I must note that when I call this “crazy” I don’t mean it’s crazy in some amusing or entertaining of “so bad it’s good” kind of way. It’s more like writer Michael McCullers and/or source material author Marla Frazee starting with this bad “what if a baby was a boss” joke and finding the stupidest way to reverse engineer their way into bringing it to life. Some cynics would speculate that this was some sort of capitalist propaganda created to make the titans of industry seem cute but… nah, I think this was just a bad joke that got out of hand that they tried to turn into a real movie by turning it into a really inelegant metaphor (is it even a methaphor?) for early sibling rivalry. And the thing is, there was talent involved in the making of the film. They put $125 million dollars into this and made some slick animation choices and there is a degree of energy on the screen, but it’s all in service of this all-time terrible concept and a bunch of weird awful jokes about infant butts. Oh, and don’t get me started on the film’s truly blasphemous use of The Beatles’ “Blackbird,” half a star off just for that.
* out of Five
Shaun the Sheep: Farmageddon (2020)
This is probably going to end up being a pretty short review, not because there’s anything particularly wrong with this second film in the Shaun the Sheep franchise but just because I don’t really have a whole lot to say about it that I didn’t already say about the first film. The film was made by Aardman a good five years after the apparent success of the original film and four years after what was at the time the last TV episode in the franchise, so it was probably made for an audience that probably had a bit more hunger for more of this sheep’s antics than I did having just seen the first movie a couple weeks ago. This one ups the stakes a bit by having aliens land near the film’s central farm and what is essentially an alien sheep pops out of it and starts hanging out with Shaun, it’s basically a child alien sheep though and the government eventually comes looking for it so… the movie is basically E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial but with farm animals and Claymation. It does still have most of the usual charm you’ve come to expect from Aardman and the Claymation is certainly interesting to watch even if this is hardly their most ambitious project in that regard, but I guess I just didn’t feel that pressing need for more Shaun the Sheep.
*** out of Five
Kung Fu Panda 2 (2011)
Kung Fu Panda sure seemed like a big deal in 2008 and today it kind of feels like the animated franchise that time forgot. Had it not been for the universally beloved Wall-E that first movie almost certainly would have won the Best Animated Feature Oscar. In fact it actually did win Best Animated Feature at the Annie awards, the animation specialty awards show that is known to have a bit of a contrarian streak at times. It wasn’t exactly taken super seriously by critics but it was definitely viewed as the best work Dreamworks had done and signaled a bit of a turnaround for that studio. Hell, even I liked it when I caught up with it a handful of years later for one of my various animated movie retrospectives. But by the time the sequel came out three years later it felt like a lot of people had moved on from it, and by the time the third movie came out in 2016 people had really stopped caring… to the point where I wasn’t entirely sure there even was a third film until I looked it up today. And these days people really don’t seem to care about these movies, they seem to have been memory holed like a lot of Dreamworks’ lesser movies and I think that’s because they live in a sort of middle ground where they aren’t really good enough to stand the test of time like some of Pixar’s better movies but also aren’t stupid enough to feel like relics of the past worth laughing at like Bee Movie or something.
But watching Kung Fu Panda 2 I think the sequels might have also hurt the legacy because this thing, while hardly embarrassing, is kind of weak and lacking in inspiration. It’s pretty obvious that this is the kind of sequel that’s made less because anyone really had good ideas for where to take the story and more because the last movie made enough money so it would be foolish not to keep the IP going. The titular panda voiced had already pretty much completed his natural character arc in the first movie so this sequel mostly just needs to give him and his friends a new adventure to go on while also seeing if they can have him try to uncover some shit about his past that no one was really asking for. The character’s Jack Blackian antics feel more out of place because the panda is no longer supposed to be an underdog and is instead supposed to be this kung fu fighting chosen one and the movie kind of never really finds the balance between making him an action protagonist and making him a buffoon. That said, a decent amount of what made the first film good is still here. The animation still holds up and they do still have a knack for making martial arts set-pieces using these weird animal characters and the film does give you more weird animal characters if that’s what you’re looking for. I can’t hate on this thing too much, but I also would have been fine to have skipped it and I don’t plan on checking out that third movie.
**1/2 out of Five
Shark Tale (2004)
Well, I found a Dreamworks movie that’s worse than the Shrek movies. It’s probably not the only one (Bee Movie sure looks bad) and I’m not on the outside looking in on this opinion. I distinctly remember most people calling bullshit on this movie at the time too and it’s nomination was mostly a function of 2004 being an exceptionally weak year for animation. There were only three nominees that year; this, runaway winner The Incredibles, and Shrek 2 and unless they wanted to dip into the anime well their only other obvious possible nominees were other embarrassing failures like Home on the Range and The Polar Express. Maybe I’m overstating how much this was rejected, this was number one at the box office for three weeks after all, but this is kind of where the critics firmly decided they were team Pixar rather than team Dreamworks and however popular it was at the box office the public did not express any popular love or respect for it like they did for the Shrek movies. And the reason this was rejected is very obvious: Finding Nemo did it first and did it better. There’s been a lot of speculation that Dreamworks’ first big release Antz was made because Jeffrey Katzenberg knew Pixar was working on A Bug’s Life through insider information and ripped off the idea of a CGI bug movie. That’s never been adjudicated in court or anything so I’d normally not accept those mere rumors, but this one sort of confirms a pattern, it’s too much of a coincidence to believe they just happened to have two ripoff Pixar movies in this short of a time. But even if this is a coincidence there was a big difference between this and Antz, namely that Pixar beat them to theaters this time by over a year and unlike the Antz/A Bug’s Life duel of 1998 which was seen as something of a toss-up the quality difference this time was readily apparent.
Thing is, even if this also beat Pixar to theaters I think its inferiority to Finding Nemo would still be apparent, and I say that as someone who’s not even the world’s biggest Finding Nemo fan. Ignore its questionable content and sense of humor the basic visual design here is plainly inferior. Someone at Dreamworks seems to have gotten it in their heads that when the fish in this aren’t actively swimming forward they should sort of “stand” upright like humans and awkwardly tilt their heads forward. Why? It looks soooooo stupid. The story involves a family of sharks who are made to resemble the Italian mafia having to deal with a sibling of theirs who wants to be a vegetarian rather than an aquatic predator. That’s in and of itself stupid of course, sharks are carnivorous and no amount of willpower would allow them to survive on vegetation but it’s hardly the only cartoon to struggle with this issue, The Lion King just kind of waves off the frightening idea of a aristocratic class that literally eats its subjects and I have no idea what the predatory animals in Zootopia are eating but I digress. This vegetarian shark is tasked with eating a weird looking fish voiced lackadaisically by Will Smith who got in trouble with gambling debts and in the process of this botched hit the vegetarian shark’s brother is killed by a coincidental anchor drop, which the Will Smith fish takes credit for to the acclaim of the public while also making him a marked man by the shark mafia.
So, the story kind of resembles The Man Who Shot Liberty Vance, but instead of using that setup to explore legend and mythmaking in the west it uses it to tell a lot of bad parodies of The Godfather that would make no sense to kids. The film actually generated a degree of controversy when it came out with its use of Italian-American accents being viewed as demeaning by such organizations as The Columbus Citizens Foundation, The Order Sons of Italy in America, The Italic Institute of America, The Italian American One Voice Coalition of New Jersey, and probably several other such organizations that apparently exist. I don’t particularly care about that (Italians are plainly just white people now) but these organizations are not wrong that the movie is kind of lazily rooted in shallow stereotypes and is just generally hack work. And man, I’m sad to say that Martin Scorsese is in this thing as the voice of a pufferfish. I was aware he was involved but had assumed it was a momentary cameo, but no, he actually has a decent sized supporting role here and it’s just sad to see this master filmmaker debase himself like that. I can only hope he donated his payment to The Film Foundation or The World Cinema Project or something because while I expect this kind of shit from De Niro, Scorsese should be better than this. Anyway, does this really need more explanation? The movie’s shittiness was obvious from the second the trailer dropped and while I’m glad that good taste kicked in before this could be turned into a franchise but the fact that it got as far as it did is pretty fucking sad.
* out of Five
Despicable Me 2 (2013)
Despicable Me 2 is a film with the unique distinction of being the only sequel to ever be nominated for the Best Animated Feature Oscar when its original had failed to be nominated (that’s excluding examples like Toy Story 3, where its predecessors predate the existence of the category). That means that to prepare for this review I needed to watch the original Despicable Me on my own time, much to the confusion of my Letterboxd followers when I logged it in the September of 2020. Anyway, I’d like to go into some detail about why that movie sucked but the truth of the matter is it wasn’t bad in a terribly interesting or memorable way. In fact, I barely remember it. On my original logging I called it “in one ear and out the other cinema” and boy oh boy was that true. I would have preferred if the rest of the world had forgotten about it as well but instead it made a bunch of money and seems to have remained popular with kids. The thing is, the kids didn’t seem to give a shit about the main character Gru or any of the shit about him adopting three orphans as part of some stupid scheme, all they seemed to care about were these side characters called the Minions. I don’t think I need to explain what these round yellow fuckers are, if you’ve been alive in the last decade you’ve probably had plenty of them shoved down your throat in advertisements and whatnot. I don’t really get the appeal of them and find them and pretty much everything else in this series kind of annoying.
That this sequel got nominated while its predecessor didn’t should not be viewed as an indicator of improvement. There were only three nominees in 2010 when the first movie was eligible while there were five nominees in 2013 when this one was up. Beyond that I can only assume that this got a rosier reception out of its association with the Pharrell Williams song “Happy,” though that song didn’t really take off until it was nominated either so that theory is questionable too. Anyway, this would be yet another sequel that kind of has to grasp at straws to find a new conflict for its main character after having pretty adequately closed out their arc in the first movie. This seems very interested in having their reformed former Bond villain pastiche main character find a wife for some reason and in typical Parent Trap fashion his adopted daughters seem oddly obsessed with this and interested in meddling in his love life. I must say this is a trope I’ve never understood even a little. I didn’t grow up with a single parent but I think I can say with a degree of certainty that if I did the last thing in the world I would have ever wanted to think about is hooking them up with someone. Aside from that shitty nonsensical love story this just has an action plot where he goes up against some sort of weird Latino stereotype villain who’s evil with seemingly no motive. The animation is decent and there are a couple of visual gags here and there that are at least somewhat visually inventive, but I doubt it will leave much more of an impression on me than the first one did.
*1/2 out of Five
Well, I finished it, so what have I learned? Probably nothing. Well, I guess what I learned is that I mostly have good instincts about what to avoid because there were very few surprises here. I thought I’d maybe discover a couple of diamonds in the rough, but aside from some movies like Surf’s Up and Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron being a little better than I expected I would say most of these were movies I would have been find to have kept on skipping. That’s not to say I regret the undertaking. There’s always a degree of satisfaction in accomplishing something you set out to do in and of itself and there were quite a few movies here like The Boss Baby and Shark Tale that I’m happy to be able to trash with more credibility going forward. And also there are some inherent bragging rights to be had for having seen every Best Animated Feature… I mean, the number of people who would actually be impressed by the brag is kind of small but I’m still going to see it as a moral victory.