Pirates of the Caribbean: A Franchise Autopsy

Image Credit: Walt Disney Studios, https://insidethemagic.net/2020/07/ranking-pirates-of-the-caribbean-movies-ne1/

On June 26th 2020, The Hollywood Reporter announced that Margot Robbie was set to star in a new installment of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, a movie that would exist separately from an already announced reboot of the long-standing film series. My reaction to this report seemed to mirror the broader internet consensus: the casting serves as an interesting choice, Robbie a charismatic actress that might create a unique character in a franchise with many memorable ones (and she might get to use her normal Australian voice for once rather than the Harley Quinn/Wolf of Wall Street Brooklyn dialect she’s been using for years), but the production of a new Pirates film seems rather unnecessary.

The franchise began with Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, the critical (and commercial) success of which launched a trilogy of films, the first entry followed by Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End. The continued box office success (despite dwindling appreciation from critics) resulted in a fourth movie, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, and finally a fifth installment, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, the latter of which only existing because the series manages to be lucrative in foreign markets, making almost as much money in China as it did in the United States.

(By the way, that’s why we keep getting Fast and Furious movies long after anyone really asked for them, the eighth film made $1 billion outside of the United States despite a paltry haul domestically).

While Curse of the Black Pearl was a breath of fresh air, a well paced action and adventure story with interesting characters and a fun setting, critics and the internet film intelligentsia increasingly turned against the franchise, praising the action set pieces but lambasting the convoluted plot in Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End before turning their ire on once beloved character Jack Sparrow (er, Captain, Captain Jack Sparrow), his antics and mannerisms predictable rather than spontaneous by films four and five.

The continuation of the Pirates franchise despite dwindling demand for it in the United States spawned numerous “what went wrong” videos, with critics and creators questioning how a franchise made up of solid entries in the past deteriorated into tedium. Some took a film by film approach, arguing that the entries following the original trilogy serve as impostors to the first three movies. Another common argument is that the franchise grew progressively worse when Jack Sparrow became the central character rather than Will Turner. Others criticized the series for making the characters and the world itself less interesting over time (in internet friendly numbered list form), with another critic complaining that the movies “disappeared up the asshole of their own mythology” in films two and three with failed attempts at simplification in On Stranger Tides and Dead Men Tell No Tales.

As someone who loves the original trilogy (for all the flak At World’s End gets, it is still my favorite in the series, but I’m also the person that enjoyed mythology in school so that influences my appreciation for piratey lore) and also writes about movies from time to time, I’ve likewise devoted mental energy toward answering “what went wrong” with Pirates of the Caribbean. And the common criticisms are common for a reason, they contain truths about the franchise. Jack Sparrow did become more predictable and less interesting over time, the plot was way too convoluted in Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End, and movie plots seem recycled rather than compelling and original in On Stranger Tides and Dead Men Tell No Tales (find magic thingy to stop cursed bad guys from running amuck).

But, I find that those analyzing and criticizing the franchise focus to narrowly, looking at the five Pirates films as the only texts to study rather than assessing broader trends in the film industry since 2003. The aforementioned internal problems certainly exist and helped to weaken the franchise over time, but external factors as well contributed to “what went wrong” or “what changed” with Pirates of the Caribbean. And, because of these external factors, I don’t think it’s possible to recapture the energy (“magic” if you will) and goodwill garnered from the original trilogy.

Curse of the Film Landscape

The first Pirates of the Caribbean was a surprise hit for Walt Disney Studios, both critically and commercially. Although then CEO Michael Eisner and other company officials thought that the character and performance of Jack Sparrow simply didn’t work, questioning whether the character was drunk or gay or even claiming that Johnny Depp was ruining the movie, the character was well received, with Depp even earning an Oscar nomination for his first turn as Captain Jack. Critics and fans also lauded the other characters in the film, the world building, pacing, the action sequences, the story itself, and the references to the popular theme park ride the film series is based off of. Moreover, the film went on to make $654.3 million at the box office, a pleasant surprise for the studio that produced other films based on attractions that completely tanked.

So, when a film proves financially successful, especially when it comes as a surprise to the studio, sequels enter production to extend the story (and more importantly the revenue stream). Pirates of the Caribbean became a film franchise, with two sequels greenlit and shot back to back to create a trilogy. But, the question arises, “how do we extend a narrative that was designed to be self-contained?” Pirates had good characters and an interesting world to explore, but crafting a new story posed a challenge, leading writers Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio, producer Jerry Bruckheimer, and director Gore Verbinksi to look to external sources, a decision no doubt influenced by the studio executive demands.

Image Credit: New Line Cinema, https://www.theverge.com/2019/7/3/20681135/jurassic-world-fallen-kingdoms-j-a-bayona-director-amazon-prime-video-lord-of-the-rings-show

While today we live in a world where the Disney controlled Marvel Cinematic Universe is the most popular and stable brand in cinema, the early and mid-2000s were not as kind to the studio. Well out of the Disney Renaissance of the 1990s and reeling from recent flops, Treasure Planet and the aforementioned Haunted Mansion to name a few, Disney was behind the eight ball when it came to films and film franchises. Instead, it was the Lord of the Rings franchise that was both a critical and commercial behemoth at the time, Peter Jackson’s film series praised for respecting its source material and using state of the art technology along with skillful cinematography and production design to create Middle Earth in cinema.

The success of Lord of the Rings as well as the nascent Harry Potter franchise suggested that big, sweeping, epic narratives full of lore and mythology would lead to healthy box office hauls. Thus, to keep the franchise going (and to ensure that the Mouse kept getting his cut), the character based story of Curse of the Black Pearl morphed into an epic on the sea with Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End. Now, I and fans of the franchise largely like these films, and they are superior to Curse of the Black Pearl when it comes to action set pieces and production value. But the plot is more complex and more convoluted, with characters betraying one another and motivations changing from scene to scene in a sprawling story that drags in a way that Curse of the Black Pearl managed to avoid.

In trying to be like Lord of the RingsPirates lost the pacing and character driven plot of the first film, leading to critical ire despite commercial success for both Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End. The subsequent writers and directors responded to this criticism and attempted to recapture the magic of Curse of the Black Pearl, telling a self-contained character driven adventure story in On Stranger Tides. But, by that film, the love of Jack Sparrow and Johnny Depp declined significantly, the result of over exposure within and outside of the Pirates franchise.

Dead Man’s Casting

The biggest complaint levied at the Pirates franchise along with the most common explanation as to why the franchise declined largely is that Jack Sparrow became less interesting and more predictable over time, and this is certainly has its merits. Initially lambasted by the studio, Depp created a unique character beloved by fans and appreciated by critics, with Roger Ebert noting, “There has never been a pirate, or for that matter a human being, like this in any other movie.”

While there had been films about pirates in the past, movies centered on treasure hunting and the freedom of sailing the seas, there had never been a pirate movie quite like Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl nor a pirate quite like Jack Sparrow. It’s an unconventional choice to decide that a character from the eighteenth century should act like Keith Richards, but it is one that worked throughout the original trilogy. Jack Sparrow was always a step ahead of both his allies and adversaries in the first film, and this extends into Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End, with fans getting more catchphrases, more silly antics, more escapes, ultimately more Captain Jack.

However, what made this work particularly well in the first film is that Jack Sparrow was not the central focus but ultimately a fun supporting character for Will Turner and Captain Barbossa to get annoyed at. By the fourth film, most of the characters from the original trilogy were gone, with Jack Sparrow as the sole focus in a quest to find the fabled Fountain of Youth. Jack Sparrow’s ability to always be one step ahead of everyone else a la Bugs Bunny doesn’t work when he is the central rather than supporting character. Moreover, by four films, Jack’s mannerisms and “unpredictability” are completely predictable, lessening the enjoyment and experience of On Stranger Tides and Dead Men Tell No Tales. Rather than a brief sense of excitement when hearing news about a pirates adventure with Jack Sparrow, people of the internet roll their eyes, sigh, and question why the franchise seems to keep going despite declining interest.

But, it can’t just be that critics and fans are sick of a character after four or five movies due to overuse of the same mannerism. After all, Robert Downey Jr. was Iron Man in nine films over the course of ten years (not including a post-credits cameo in Incredible Hulk) with similar mannerisms throughout, yet the majority of the internet did not turn against that character. The characters from Toy Story are beloved after twenty-five years, and Batman is largely the same performance (except when it isn’t) and people on the internet seem to only get mad when the role is cast or when the Batsuit has nipples. So, there’s no hard and fast formula as to when a character is overexposed or no longer interesting, but it certainly did happen with Jack Sparrow.

This, again, is where one needs to look at the external context surrounding the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise rather than solely the texts themselves. Fans might have gotten sick of Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow, but not solely because the character was in an increasing amount of movies. Instead, after the release and success of the first Pirates film, directors and studios were eager to cast Depp in various other eccentric roles, looking to cash in on the mystique that worked for Curse of the Black Pearl.




After the first Pirates movie, Depp donned various “funny looks and funny hats” in Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate FactorySweeney ToddPublic EnemiesAlice in Wonderland its sequel Through the Looking GlassThe Tourist (a movie that was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Comedy despite the fact that the film was not a comedy), Dark ShadowsThe Lone RangerTrancendenceMortdecaiBlack Mass, and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. I’m certainly not going to fault an actor for working and taking opportunities, especially one that built a reputation on good character performances throughout the 1990s. But, Depp’s choices after the Pirates trilogy became increasingly predictable, the actor seemingly taking all “eccentric” and “interesting” roles molded after his performance as Jack Sparrow.

“Johnny Depp in a funny hat” increasingly became a genre in and of itself, one that fans and critics grew tired of. Roles created to be “interesting” were instead looking to profit from Depp’s cachet from the Pirates franchise. Any new entries in the Pirates franchise increasingly feel like more of the same, Depp doing the same material and performance from the first films in the franchise as well as films like Dark Shadows and Lone Ranger. The incarnation of Jack Sparrow from the original trilogy was lighting in a bottle, the magic couldn’t be captured once again. Instead, various “interesting roles” became tedious and Depp’s reputation suffered, both because of his roles after Pirates as well as personal issues outside of filmmaking.

(Note: I’m not trying to make light of abuse allegations made by either Amber Heard or Johnny Depp during and after their marriage. There have been accusations of abuse by both Heard against Depp and Depp against Heard and the case is still in the process of litigation. It is difficult to take sides or know which side is right (or if any side is right) at the time of writing, so leaving it as “personal issues” while we are still in the legal process seems like the best course of action).

On Stranger Times

Despite dwindling domestic interest and critical appreciation for the Pirates franchise, Disney seems hellbent on creating new entries to appease foreign markets. And, just as the studio, writers, and directors took heed of criticism levied at convoluted and complicated plot lines and produced simpler (if predictable and less interesting) stories for On Stranger Tides and Dead Men Tell No Tales, the House of Mouse looks to go in another direction with future Pirates movies, replacing Johnny Depp with Margot Robbie to tell new pirate adventures within the same universe. Disney hopes that a new cast and the promise of something new rather than rehashing old plots (along with nearly a twenty year gap from Curse of the Black Pearl, the twenty year nostalgia cycle proving to be quite profitable recently).

But, the ultimate fact of the matter is that the cinematic landscape has changed dramatically since the first Pirates of the Caribbean film. In 2003, Curse of the Black Pearl was a breath of fresh air compared to other tentpole action films. Rather than super serious, devoid of any sense of fun (or colors other than black), Pirates of the Caribbean was a fully realized, colorful, lived in world with interesting characters swept up in a well-paced and well-crafted story. Curse of the Black Pearl was an antidote to the doldrums of the dark, dreary, and edgy aesthetic that plagued pop culture in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Moreover, Curse of the Black Pearl offered an escapist thrill ride rather than taking itself too seriously, something that clearly many people were searching for and ultimately enjoyed in the years immediately following 9/11. Upon release, Pirates was a different cinematic experience from other summer blockbusters, a unique alchemy that made Curse of the Black Pearl (and to a lesser degree Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End) a beloved series from the 2000s.

However, as we move out of the 2010s and into the 2020s, movies changed in tone and aesthetic. Comic book movies in particular are embracing their colorful art design and original stories rather than looking to distance themselves from them as they did in the past, and the most successful films at the box office in the past few years (the MCU but also movies like Jurassic World (the first one at least), Wonder Woman, Furious 7Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle) are increasingly looking to tell “fun” rather than serious stories. Because of this, the tone, style, and scope of Pirates of the Caribbean feels like just another series rather than something unique, with its setting, lore, and Jack Sparrow as its only point of differentiation. More than simply “franchise fatigue,” Pirates feels like more of the same, both with regard to its recycled plots and when compared to other popular films and franchises today, the series no doubt influencing the cinematic landscape we have today but not doing enough to separate itself from others within it.

At Franchise End?

At the time of writing, the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise has exhausted any interest and goodwill in the domestic market, with Disney increasingly looking to milk it for all it is worth at the foreign box office. Fans and critics have increasingly turned against predictable plots and the same antics from Jack Sparrow, and Pirates of the Caribbean simply isn’t different enough from other films and franchises in the marketplace. The social and cultural context as well as the demands and interests of fans have changed significantly since the release of Curse of the Black Pearl in 2003. Though the studio aims to reboot the franchise with new casting and capitalize on the twenty-year nostalgia cycle, it is impossible to recapture the specific factors that made the original trilogy so memorable and so special in the early 2000s. 

Though the declining haul at the box office and decreasing fan interest seems to spell doom for further entries in the Pirates franchise, prognostications and predictions are solely based on what we know and what has happened. It doesn’t appear that the Pirates franchise has legs, but a well-made film and well-told story could certainly prove me wrong in the future. Good stories with interesting characters make for good movies, which in turn transform one-off films into franchises. The MCU along with recent successful franchises like the John Wick films succeed not because of a grand master plan, but because the individual films are well-made and generate interest for further sequels. Perhaps a new Pirates entry can echo Curse of the Black Pearl and the original trilogy and remember what worked in the past rather yet avoid predictability and becoming overly complicated. After all, films about pirates more generally witnessed ebbs and flows, the pirate genre proving popular in the 1940s and 1950s before declining until the release of the first Pirates of the Caribbean. The specific factors, both within and surrounding the original trilogy and made it so special cannot be recaptured, but an interesting adventure story with well-written characters offers a chance at putting winds in the sails of the Pirates franchise.

In Praise of Michael Bay?!? Revisiting Pain and Gain

(Image Credit: Paramount Pictures)

It was April of 2013 and I had just finished my junior year of college, facing the crossroads between the lackadaisical summer breaks of my previous school years and the impending pressure and responsibilities of potential internships, jobs, future schooling, and adulthood. After the end of the semester, I decided to stick around my off-campus housing for a bit, enjoying everything about my neighborhood and the surrounding area without the worries of class and exams. One afternoon, one of my roommates suggested/demanded that we see the film Pain and Gain, at the time the most recent directorial effort by Michael Bay. Yes, that Michael Bay, one of the most hated directors among critics and the broader internet film intelligentsia. In 2013, Bay was still at the helm of the Transformers franchise, with Pain and Gain being released after the terrible one set in Chicago but before the one with (10 minutes) of dinobots.

(Side note: Transformers: Age of Extinction is really, really, really, like, really bad. The movie has more interest explaining the “Romeo and Juliet laws” to justify the relationship between two young characters than having a coherent plot).

Thus, as a person interested in and keeping up with the broader internet film discourse, I was NOT looking forward to sitting through Pain and Gain. The fact that I was inundated with ads for the film over the previous month (as a male in my early 20s at the time, ads for Pain and Gain were quite common on the TV channels I watched) didn’t help matters much. Pain and Gain looked like a dumb movie about bodybuilders loaded with an excess of the Michael Bay aesthetic.

Nevertheless, I was wrong. I liked Pain and Gain. Actually, I really liked Pain and Gain. It was still a movie about bodybuilders loaded with an excess of Bay-isms, hyperfixation on action scenes and explosions, scantily clad women presented on film through “the male gaze,” and mid-level shots panning upward at the people in similar fashion to a Victoria’s Secret commercial. But, rather than a dumb movie, Pain and Gain was a well-acted and well-made dark comedy about true crimes in mid-1990s Miami.

I recently rewatched the film as part of a marathon of movies featuring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson leading up to the television premiere of Rampage, a brief window of escapism amid a lingering global pandemic along with  racial strife due to systemic racism and continued police brutality in the United States. Not only do I still like the film and think it holds up, but I believe that Pain and Gain as it exists could only have been made by Michael Bay with his particular aesthetic and sensibilities.

This should not be taken as a celebration of all of Michael Bay’s films. ArmageddonPearl Harbor, and the Bay Transformers films are still really bad movies. I never really got into the Bad Boys franchise. His films are still loaded with racist and homophobic characterizations that are uncomfortable to watch. Explosions, action, and special effects alone to not make a good movie. But, in this particular instance, with this particular film, Bay produced a movie that no one else could make.

The movie centers on the real life Sun Gym gang, with members Daniel Lugo, Adrian Doorbal, and Paul Doyle (a composite character based on Carl Weekes, Stevenson Pierre, and Jorge Delgado) played by Mark Wahlberg, the underrated Anthony Mackie (he’s really good in everything he’s in), and the aforementioned Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (he’s actually underrated too, he’s the biggest action star we’ve got and people still overlook that the guy can actually act). The three bodybuilders, frustrated with mounting bills, monotony, sexual impotence in the case of Doorbal, and the sense that they are missing out on “the American Dream,” resolve to kidnap self-made millionaire Victor Kershaw (name changed in the film to protect the survivor) played by Tony Shalhoub and make him sign away his home, his businesses, and all of his assets. The bodybuilders are woefully incompetent in their criminal activity but nevertheless manage to steal Kershaw’s money. They attempt but ultimately fail to kill their mark and tie up loose ends, but the bodybuilders manage to get away with their crimes due to the fact that the Miami police find Kershaw so unbelievable (and wildly unlikeable) that they do not investigate the crime.

The criminals revel in their success, with Doorball buying a new house and marrying his girlfriend, Lugo literally moving into Kershaw’s home in an upper class neighborhood, and Doyle slipping back into cocaine addiction and spending all of his money on shopping excursions with his girlfriend, a Romanian stripper eager for her own taste of the American dream. After a few months, the men have run out of money and decide to run a similar scheme on millionaire phone sex operator Frank Griga. This goes even worse than the first plan, as the criminals end up killing Griga and his girlfriend, and their subsequent attempts to cover up the crime and dispose of the bodies results in an escalating comedy of errors that ultimately leads to their arrest.

The film is about crimes ranging from kidnapping to grisly murder, hardly a funny subject on its face. Yet, the film frames the events and encourages the audience to laugh at the escalating ridiculousness as well as the stupidity and despicable nature of the Sun Gym gang. When Lugo tells the audience through voice-over that “he always grew up wanting to see Paris and France,” expresses his love for self-help infomercial speak, and doesn’t want people to think that a urine-soaked Kershaw is “intercontinental” (rather than incontinent), you recognize that “the brains of the operation” isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed.

As things continue to build and crescendo into the third act, with Griga killed by an errant weight slipping off of a bar or when Doyle attempts to burn off his fingerprints by literally cooking his hands on a grill, you laugh at specifically how uncomfortable and grisly the situation is. When Lugo criticizes Doorbal for buying “a piece of China crap” chainsaw rather than a gas-powered American model in order to dispose of the corpses, you chuckle but are also made uneasy; you probably know someone like this or can imagine someone acting like this in real-life, even within the context of getting rid of a dead body. Simply put, Pain and Gain is an extended episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, quite literally, on steroids.

This is not to say that no one in Hollywood past or present could make a dark comedy. Hell, Martin Scorsese directed and released his own dark comedy about despicable people getting rich just eight months later. However, the specific alchemy of sleazy debauchery that is Pain and Gain could only have been made by Michael Bay. Sure, films like Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Street among others focus on people (men) doing nefarious things to become rich and successful, and these movies are well-regarded by critics and audiences alike and don’t require a lengthy blog post to defend their merits.

But it is the aesthetic style, the specific technical and artistic vision of Michael Bay, is what truly separates Pain and Gain from other films like it. The Sun Gym gang consider themselves shrines to physical human perfection, and Bay’s direction manages to both fetishize their physique while rightly demonizing the men as reprehensible human beings. The “male gaze” is a common theme within Michael Bay’s filmography, usually to objectify women to a young male viewing audience, but in this case it is projected onto the Sun Gym gang, contrasting their obsession with physical perfection with moral bankruptcy through cinematography and the language of film. While Scorsese dark comedies are hyper-stylized films about bad people getting what is coming to them, Pain and Gain leans even harder into excess and bad taste, reserving no ounce of sympathy and humanity for anyone involved.

These aren’t people to feel bad for, look up to, or even think about trying to be like, they are terrible people doing terrible things that you laugh at because you know what’s coming to them and that they deserve it. The grisly, grimy, sleazy ephemora of Pain and Gain highlights how rotten its central characters are, with the over-the top excess of the art direction and cinematography complementing the depiction of crimes ranging from illegal to horrific. Though various Michael Bay-isms have led to numerous films of poor quality, they work together in Pain and Gain to produce a perfect dark comedy.

The Lion King and the Constraints of Realism

(Image Credit: Walt Disney Studios, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt6105098/)

With the outbreak and subsequent crackdowns due to the outbreak of COVID-19, I have finally had time to catch up on some of the numerous movies I didn’t see in 2019. Two of the most notable have been Toy Story 4 (a movie that’s pretty good despite not having a reason to exist) and the remake of The Lion King, two of Disney’s biggest smash hits in a year where the studio grossed a record $10 billion worldwide. While Toy Story 4 was a sequel to an established trilogy, the new Lion King was a live action remake of the 1994 animated classic, adapting and retelling the same story in a new aesthetic as part of Disney’s re-imagining of its extensive library of films

Directed by Jon Favreau, given the green light after the critical and commercial success of the 2016 adaptation of The Jungle Book, the remake of The Lion King echoes that of its cinematic predecessor in that both attempt to render their respective worlds realistically. While both The Lion King and The Jungle Book were originally hand drawn animated features, the former one of the best in the medium and the latter, um, not so much, their adaptations portray the animals and landscape through state of the art CGI, aiming for “what if Planet Earth but a Disney story” rather than cartoons stretched to cinematic length. Both films look stunning, the CGI is absolutely incredible, and the remake of the Jungle Book is arguably an improvement over the 1967 film. However, the 2019 Lion King fails to hold up to the 1994 move, largely because it is constrained rather than improved by its realistic style.

This piece is not simply a defense of the original and a condemnation of the new film, a defensive reflex fueled by the nostalgia blinders of a child born in the early 1990s that has watched the original Lion King more times than any other film. There are quite a few good elements in the remake. It does look very nice, the CGI depicting the world of The Lion King as realistically as possible with contemporary technology. Favreau and the creative team made greater efforts to bring in a diverse cast, bringing in Donald Glover, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, and Chiwetel Ejiofor as Simba, Nala, and Scar respectively. Timon and Pumbaa are as great in this movie as they were in the original (if not even better), with voice actors Seth Rogen and Billy Eichner incorporating meta jokes and updating the humor to appeal to both adults and children in a tasteful manner (Eichner’s Timon is a stand out, the character an even sassier version than the one voiced by Nathan Lane). Despite these positives, however, the commitment to realism works to the detriment of the adaptation, with certain narrative beats restricted by aesthetics.

Circle of Life
Image Credit: Walt Disney Studios, https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x7ey9kr

The remake starts just as as the 1994 version begins, with all of the animals of the Pride Lands gathering to witness the birth of the future king Simba. The new film, in its opening scenes, is almost a shot for shot adaptation of the original, with the CGI rendered animals moving in almost the same way as their 2-D counterparts. Most of the scenes in the new version echo that of the original, appealing to the nostalgia of the older audiences bringing and indoctrinating their children into all things Disney or simply watching a retelling of a beloved classic.

However, “most” and “almost” does not mean a total copy, as there are subtle differences in the new film that work to its disadvantage. The vibrant colors throughout the 1994 movie, the crimson red sunrise to open the film, the color changes and fantastical imagery during “I Just Can’t Wait to be King” (the “be careful what you wish for song“), the increasingly demonic tenor of “Be Prepared” as the song goes from Shakespearean plotting to Hitler rally to hell on earth, are all absent in the new version in the name of realism, resulting in a film that is less pretty than its original incarnation. Realistically presenting the African landscape leads to a film that resembles what we can see and know rather than one we can imagine, appealing to the mind, but not necessarily our sense of wonder.

The realistic style affects how the story unfolds, the most notable example being the wildebeest stampede leading to Mufasa’s death. In the original version, the stampede is a dramatic set piece, a fast-paced scene in which Simba struggles to survive and Mufasa rescues his son before being killed by Scar. The scene, one that traumatized many young adults of my age range, remains memorable and impactful because of its technical greatness, the tension of the moment accentuated by the sound mixing and Hans Zimmer’s score. In the original film, the animators took liberties with the speed and the physical limits of the animals, focusing instead on the tension and the emotions of the scene rather than accuracy. In the remake, a film predicated on realism, the animals only move as fast as they can in real life and only behave as they would in the wild. This works to the detriment of the scene, the emotional crux of the movie, as the pace (and even the music) slow down from those in the original, resulting in a scene with less tension that in the 1994 version.

Finally, the remake’s commitment to realism prevents the characters from properly emoting, expressing how they are feeling at any particular point as they did in the original. Though we project emotions (i.e. when dogs smile or when cats seem to pout) as well as develop our own stories when viewing animals (whether it be our pets or those at the zoo) and recognize when animals are stressed or in peril, they don’t react and emote based on a preset narrative, that’s not how real life works. The characters in the original Lion King were animals rather than anthropomorphic, but expressed emotions as humans do in order to portray the story and illustrate how the animals felt at a given moment (the movie was geared toward children after all, the young audience needed to be able to understand what was going on). Thus, in the original film, the characters smiled when they were happy, furrowed their brows when upset, and, in the case of the wildebeest stampede, very clearly expressed shock and horror at the death of a parent.

Simba (1)
Image Credit: Walt Disney Studios, https://www.gizmodo.co.uk/2016/09/disneys-is-remaking-the-lion-king/

In the remake, rather than expressing emotion like humans, the animals make faces and act like realistic animals, preventing them from emoting as they did in the original. Throughout, the characters deliver lines from the original version and those familiar with the plot know how they are feeling, but the characters do not express the emotion they are feeling in a given scene. When Scar is plotting, his face remains blank, the character reenacting lines but not demonstrating the cunning and evil qualities very clearly expressing in the original. Simba, a character that runs the gamut of emotions in the 1994 film, is a lion cub depicted in realistic CGI, his reaction to the stampede and Mufasa’s death missing the horror and emotional weight. Rather than anguish, the new version simply looks like a cat “mewing,” undermining the emotional crux of the film, the adherence to realism working against the adaptation.

Simba No
Image Credit: Walt Disney Studios, https://youtu.be/jy4UdBcyh3c

The new version of The Lion King isn’t a bad film, even if it isn’t a good or great one like its predecessor. The realistic CGI presents a beloved classic in a new style and for a new audience, allowing people my age to revisit the world of the Lion King while also bringing younger audiences closer to their parents.  The new version looks pretty and realistic, the animals ranging from impossibly cute to ferocious and the CGI state of the art, but this works against the emotional storytelling and making the animal characters relatable, especially for a younger audience. Ultimately, the film represents the difficulties in remaking animated classics as well as the complications involved in medium transfers. This is not to dismiss the remake project entirely (it is making too much money for Disney to say no), but to say that style and realism can be a constraint when retelling a story previously depicted in animation. In the pursuit of telling a story in a new way, The Lion King along with the other Disney remakes bring characters and worlds to “live action” if not necessarily “to life.”

Anachronism and Aristocats: A Case Study

(Image Credit: Walt Disney Studios, https://www.dogalize.com/2018/06/everybody-wants-to-be-a-cat/)

The recent launch of Disney+ has led many people to revisit the entirety of the Disney catalog, ranging from animated classics like Beauty and the Beast to less than stellar hand drawn features like The Jungle Book along with recent Marvel fare and nostalgic trips through Disney Afternoon and Disney Channel programming (and yes, Baby Yoda). One of the many titles available is The Aristocats, a 1970 animated film centering on a female cat named Duchess and her three kittens, Toulouse, Marie, and Berlioz, owned by a wealthy former opera singer, Madame Adelaide Bonfamille.

When Bonfamille reveals that she is leaving her entire inheritance to her cats, her butler, believing that the inheritance was to be his, resolves to get rid of the cats. Duchess and the kittens meet an alley cat named Thomas O’Malley and attempt to return to their mistress and their lavish home. And…that’s it, that’s the story. Oh, and there’s a mouse named Roquefort because France, one memorable jazz song toward the end, a racist caricature that would make Mickey Rooney blush, and likely the most notable exposure of the West African hub Timbuktu for many children.

The film is light on story, moves at a brisk pace, and contains a lot of reused animatics, owing to the ease of copying through xerography animation used by Disney since the early 1960s. It is a movie that is hardly a classic, but ultimately, it’s a serviceable film about cute cats and kittens being cute cats and kittens, one for children to enjoy and later demand toys.

However, two scenes from this film stand out, not because they are particularly bad or particularly good, but because of their odd presence within the narrative. The very beginning  establishes (very prominently) that the movie is set in Paris, 1910, still within the zenith of aristocratic values before the trauma and bloodshed of World War I. Yet, two elements within Aristocats are utterly anachronistic, deviating not only from the temporal setting but the mentalité of the era that they are worthy of discussion.

Abstract? More like, abs-cat…(Image Credit: Walt Disney Studios)

The first moment occurs within the first act of the film devoted to illustrating the lavish lives of the “aristocats” and how they go about their day. As youngest kitten Berlioz practices piano and middle kitten Marie engages in a dramatic struggle with trying to stay in tune, the oldest kitten, Toulouse, works on his painting. The purpose of this scene is to convey a sense of refinement within the daily lives of the aristocats, highlighting art as the pinnacle of proper living.

Yet, Toulouse, a cat in 1910 Paris, does not paint within the style of the era, certainly not borrowing from the impressionist tradition of his namesake, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Instead, he approaches paint and canvas in a manner akin to Jackson Pollack, producing an abstract work of art that would certainly be familiar to the 1970 viewing audience but absolutely at odds with Belle Époque Paris. The abstract forms of art popular after World War II and the surrealist and Dadaist aesthetic tradition that inspired them emerged within a specific context, one that would tonally be at odds with the values of the aristocats.

Dadaism and surrealism began as a response and critique of the ideology and logic driving World War I, artists looking at the destructive capacity of the war and critiquing and lambasting all of the discourses that led to that point. “Civility,” a theme heavily implied in the film (though not in its racial or Social Darwinist context), drove European powers to war and violence, leading Dadaists to redefine and quite literally turn the meaning of art upside down in protest. Surrealist and abstract art, essentially a middle finger to convention and pre-World War I aristocratic values, being readily accepted by the aristocats, especially before the war, is a decision informed by misinformation about history.

Image Credit: Walt Disney Studios

The second of anachronism occurs during the song “Ev’rybody Wants to be a Cat,” quite easily the best scene in the movie due to it’s psychedelic imagery (and being the only memorable part of the film, stereotypes and all). The song and the performance invoke jazz and swing, a dramatic shift from “scales and arpeggios” and the classical fare that would more likely be enjoyed by aristocats. Unlike abstract art, jazz was at least developing by 1910, but it was still largely confined to New Orleans, a fusion of ragtime and blues, European melodies and African percussion patterns, performed by African American musicians like Jelly Roll Morton. Jazz became wildly popular in Europe, the representation of “American music” before rock n’roll of the 1960s, but it was very, very unlikely that anyone in 1910 Paris was familiar with or a fan off American jazz. Moreover, those consisting the aristocracy would be even less likely to widely accept jazz due to the need to maintain “proper civility” and appreciate “true art.” Thus, Duchess and the kittens dancing and enjoying the jazz performance is at odds temporally and with the mentalité of the time.

For those that would argue, “this is a movie for children, one focused on cute cats not concerned with history, it doesn’t have to be historically true,” well, you’re right. The Aristocats never claims to be a documentary of the the period or an accurate encapsulation of the era, it’s light entertainment aimed at children. But, I believe that the anachronism in this film is particularly interesting and revealing, not so much for the narrative of the feature but the broader meta-narrative of Disney.

While The Jungle Book was released in 1967, one year after Walt Disney’s death, it was still a film with significant input from the man in charge. The Aristocats, the next feature released, was the first of a new era, one in which Walt was no longer at the creative helm. The incorporation of anachronistic elements, I argue, are not an attempt to blur history intentionally. Instead, latching on to popular elements of the 1960s and 1970s represents an attempt to chart a new course, to reach and maintain an audience, or as many other outlets would put it, “Disney trying to be cool.” With one man so central to the creative process within the animation studio no longer present, anything produced after is bound to be dramatically different, with some contending that The Aristocats serves as the beginning of “a dark age.” This is too much doom and gloom (many of the golden age Disney films really don’t hold up, and that’s without accounting for the numerous racist elements), but the Disney films of the 1970s and 1980s are certainly different from those that came before. The anachronism of The Aristocats exemplifies the new methods used by the animators and new thinking within the studio, one that certainly differed from “Walt’s vision.”

Genius, Billionaire, Playboy, Movie Franchise?: Reexamining Iron Man (2008)

(Image Credit: Marvel Studios)

Avengers: Endgame is set to premiere in a few days, the twenty-second film in the ever expanding (and fiscally dependable) Marvel Cinematic Universe, promising to shatter box office records along with serving as the culmination of multiple story threads that began with the first phase of the cinematic franchise. After the events of Avengers: Infinity War, in which the mauve menace Thanos snapped half of all existence into dust (spoilers, I guess?), the remaining heroes must rally together to defeat Thanos as well as bring their friends and loved ones back.

The remaining cast includes the original Avengers: Iron Man, Captain America, Thor,  Black Widow, Hawkeye, and the Incredible Hulk along with additional Marvel heroes Ant-Man, Rocket Raccoon, blue android and daughter of Thanos Nebula, and (coming off of her billion dollar smash) Captain Marvel. These heroes will team up, do something with quantum realm, timey-whimey things, and “avenge” the fallen, stopping Thanos’ plan and keeping the MCU chugging along.

The Marvel franchise has been the dominant box office entity since the release of The Avengers in 2012, with other studios looking to co-opt the success of cinematic universe continuity, resulting in, ahem, mixed to terrible results. Lifting popular characters and storylines from a long comic book history along with leaning into continuity and shared worlds has become a profitable enterprise for Disney, the owner of Marvel Studios. Moreover, the Marvel films have offered the most consistent blockbuster entertainment for more than a decade, films guaranteed to be “ok” or “pretty good” at worst and accessible for a diverse audience.

While it is one thing to celebrate the quality of the Marvel films and the success of the franchise as a whole, it is important to remember that their consistency and bankability was not always a given. Before the release of the original Avengers, the moviegoing consensus questioned whether such an ambitious concept would be viable. Would all of these beloved characters mesh with one another in an organic way, each getting a proper amount of screen time and interacting with one another in an entertaining way? While we now see the critical and commercial success of the Marvel films, particularly the Avengers subseries, as inevitable, it was not always the case.

Ultimately, potential for a sprawling, cinematic universe owed to the goodwill built from the first Iron Man film (as well as the post-credits scene introducing Nick Fury and something called the “Avengers Initiative”). Though Captain America: The First Avenger is well made and well regarded, it along with the rest of the Phase One Marvel films (Thor and The Incredible Hulk) are largely jogging place, setting up characters before the big team up in 2012. Their narratives can only go so far, introducing characters we are supposed to care about but still make them work within a subsequent team up film.

Unlike the other Phase One films, Iron Man was made as a movie first rather than a cog in a cinematic machine. It centered on the now beloved Tony Stark, a former weapons manufacturer that survives capture in the desert, constructing an arc reactor to power a metal suit, dubbed “Iron Man” (despite the fact that the suit was made from various alloys rather than iron). He learns what it means to be a hero, manages to destroy weapons caches in the Middle East, and prevents the arc reactor technology from falling into villainous hands.

The film enjoyed great critical success and made good money, but was not nearly as financially lucrative as the successive films in the MCU. Moreover, the film was a significant risk, featuring an actor with significant issues with addiction in the past starring as a comic book character less well-known than the ubiquitous Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man. The character of Tony Stark was significantly different from many of the comic book heroes that made their way to the movie screen. Rather than a teenager adjusting to superpowers or an alien learning what it means to be human, Stark was first and foremost a man, a man that had achieved great success but had to reckon with the consequences of war profiteering and the resulting violence and human suffering.

In 2008, well within the cinematic landscape of the 2000s dominated by fantasy franchises like Harry PotterLord of the Rings, and Pirates of the Caribbean along with the supposed “death” of comic book movies with the release of Spider-Man 3 (2007), Iron Man served as something new and different, a breath of fresh air that revived interest in the comic book genre (along with the subsequently released Dark Knight), resuscitated Robert Downey Jr.’s career, and promised something potentially grandiose with the Avengers Initiative.

The original Iron Man is fundamentally a character piece, following the transformation of an egotistic “genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist” to a hero looking to redefine his legacy and protect those he put in harm’s way. It may be the first film in the MCU, but it was first and foremost a movie about a singular man in a metal suit, a movie with modest but not outsized expectations. The hype for the original Avengers largely owed to the goodwill built from this original film, as the succeeding films (The Incredible HulkIron Man 2Captain AmericaThor) had their moments and ranged from average to good but are hardly as memorable as the first Iron Man. Though the MCU has been on a run of steady quality throughout Phase Three, with films like Captain America: Civil WarThor: RagnarokGuardians of the Galaxy 2, and Black Panther achieving massive critical and commercial success (the latter of which nominated for and well deserving of Best Picture), this was not always a given within the franchise. When assessing the merits of the MCU, it is important to avoid determinism and view the entire experiment (and it is still an unprecedented experiment) as inevitable. The quality of one fairly risky film very different from what came before it marked the beginning of the dominating MCU that we have today, something far from a given at its outset.

Style vs. Story: A Thought Exercise

(All films and images are the property of their respective studios)

(Featured Image Credit: New York Post; Paramount Pictures)

Recently, I finally sat down and watched the 1961 film Breakfast at Tiffany’s, a story originally by Truman Capote (yes, that guy) turned into a romantic comedy featuring an iconic Audrey Hepburn performance. Hepburn plays Holly Golightly, a New York socialite and “American geisha” who meets and grows attached to writer Paul Varjak, somewhat of a self-insertion character for the author. Paul witnesses Holly’s lavish lifestyle, learns about her past, explores the city of New York with her, and eventually falls in love. After rejecting him in favor of marrying other men for money, the film ends with Holly putting on a Cracker Jack ring engraved at the eponymous Tiffany & Co. jewelry store and running back to Paul to profess her love, simultaneously collecting her cat named…”Cat” to begin their new life together.

After viewing the film, I couldn’t help but feel slightly disappointed. Breakfast at Tiffany’s has its comedic moments, great production design, and a cast admirably performing their roles (Mickey Rooney’s racist caricature notwithstanding), the film buoyed by Hepburn’s charm and grace. But, the narrative itself is nothing spectacular, a traditional romantic comedy that would likely be panned by critics if it were released today.

Despite the fact that romantic comedies (rom-coms) are often dismissed as derivative, cliché, or nothing more than escapism, Breakfast at Tiffany’s is regarded as a classic film, with Hepburn’s Holly Golightly the most memorable performance of her career (sorry Roman Holiday and My Fair Lady). The mention of “Audrey Hepburn” immediately conjures the image that preceded this piece: the actress as Holly with the tiara, necklace, black dress, and the long cigarette holder to the side. Many people likely have this image on a poster as testament to their love of the actress or for classic cinema (many of these people likely not seeing the actual movie). The image of Hepburn as Holly is iconic, a representation of style, elegance, and elite sociability, the lasting legacy of a film that otherwise lacks much to differentiate it from others in the romantic comedy genre.

Ultimately, it is a very distinct sense of style that separates Breakfast at Tiffany’s from other films and made it as memorable as it is today. Though an engaging story is the driving force for any film, movies are fundamentally a visual medium. Thus, the aesthetics of filmmaking, the production design, costumes, cinematography, and musical choices give every film their own character and help bring the story to life in a way that the script alone cannot. The technical aspects of a film can help to make up for a weak screenplay or they can help elevate the narrative, adding unique elements to tell a story in a new way or simply imprinting the filmmaker’s sense of style into the movie.

The costumes, music, and art design throughout Breakfast at Tiffany’s help the film stand out and are the reasons that it is still a memorable work of cinema regardless of its conventional plot. In Enchantment: The Life of Audrey Hepburn, author Donald Spoto deems the image of Holly with her oversized cigarette holder one of the most iconic images of American cinema, while Hepburn’s “little black dress” was determined to be the greatest outfit worn by a female on-screen. The stylistic elements of Breakfast at Tiffany’s transcended its narrative, cementing Hepburn’s status as a fashion icon and the character of Holly as the embodiment of style and glamour, neglecting the fact that Holly is considered “a fake” within the film due to being “a lady of the evening.” Style and iconography help to make a film memorable, and in the case of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, can even redefine the film within the popular consciousness.

Image Credit: Summit Entertainment, Warner Bros.

The 2014 film John Wick is another example of style and design elevating a film to produce one of the most memorable action movies of the past decade. John Wick, for those that have not seen it (if you have not, go see John Wick now), is a simple film based on its plot alone. The main character is a former assassin attacked by Russian gangsters who destroy his car and kill his new puppy, spurring John to come out of retirement and wreak havoc on those that wronged him.

Based on the plot alone, John Wick isn’t memorable; it is a revenge thriller and, according to the filmmakers themselves, an attempt to make “the ultimate 90s action movie.” But, the hyper-stylized elements make for a unique visual experience. Unlike the “shaky cam” to make the viewer feel “in the action” popularized by the Bourne series, John Wick features many wide angles and clear focus on the action without cuts. The nightclub scene, one of the best sequences in cinema in the past few years, stands out because of the attention given to color scheme, stunt work, and the effective use of music, leading Ignatiy Vishnevetsky of The A.V. Club to call the sequence “a very loud and bloody dance piece.” Production design and action choreography give John Wick its own sense of style in the same manner as the aesthetic elements of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. John Wick represented a breath of fresh air within the action movie genre and subsequent films looked to co-opt the stylistic elements from a film without a sophisticated plot.

In 2004, Christopher Booker released The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, a book that outlines what Booker considers to be the most common narratives within film and literature. Though Booker denies climate change and is maybe not someone to be taken entirely seriously, his argument that there are only seven basic plots is something to consider, regardless of its oversimplification. Probably the biggest complaint within film criticism is that films often lack originality, featuring formulaic or cliché ridden plots. It is true that movies often have similar storylines and often rely on conventional narratives and structure. Style and aesthetics represent one way to make up for or elevate the story, the effort involved in explicit production and technical choices differentiating a good or great film from an average or poor one. Both Breakfast at Tiffany’s and John Wick are popular films within their genres despite the fact that their narratives are conventional. John Wick’s suit and his killing spree of Russian gangsters clad in red shirts and Holly’s black dress and cigarette holder are the most memorable elements from their respective films, style superseding story as the lasting impact for both John Wick and Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

Why Didn’t This Work: Rogue One A Star Wars Story

(Image Credit: Walt Disney Studios)

*Disclaimer: Because of the omnipresence of the Star Wars franchise, I have previously workshopped the ideas in this piece in conversations with various friends. Though the  opinions in this article represent my true feelings about Rogue One and ideas certainly never emerge in a vacuum, thoughts from others certainly influenced how I viewed and interpreted the film and I wanted to credit that here. Additionally, Jenny Nicholson’s review and analysis deals with similar themes and goes into more depth regarding the problems with the film, and likewise influenced (and when I first watched the movie, confirmed) my feelings toward Rogue One. Nevertheless, as part of a (potential) series examining why certain movies with good ideas and potential just “don’t work,” I feel this piece offers some insight and originality into the mechanics of storytelling.*

In December 2016, Disney released Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, the newest installment in the Star Wars franchise to that point. With the financial success of Force Awakens and the sheer brand power of the series, the studio looked to instantaneously capitalize on Star Wars mania by releasing a new film one year after the previous installment.

But, unlike the previously released films, Rogue One offered something new, in that it offered something old. Rather than a unique story building off of its predecessor, Rogue One focused on events after the much derided prequel trilogy but before the events of A New Hope, explaining how the Rebel Alliance acquired the plans for the Galactic Empire’s ultimate weapon, the Death Star. This “midquel” provided Star Wars fans with information to answer unsolved questions as well as an opportunity to tell a new story and experiment with the traditional formula and storytelling.

Rogue One follows Jyn Erso and her ragtag cohorts as they learn about the Death Star and attempt to steal its design plans and relay them to the Rebel Alliance to prevent mass destruction across the galaxy. They are challenged by Orson Krennic and the Imperial Army and eventually get caught up in a major land and space battle on the planet Scarif, making the ultimate sacrifice in order to deliver “a new hope” to the rebels

If you have not seen the film, the names of the characters and the planet are likely unfamiliar to you, constructed to sound equally familiar and foreign in order to depict people and societies in a galaxy far, far away. If you have seen the film, however, the names of the characters and the planet Scarif are STILL likely unfamiliar to you.

Did you remember that Felicity Jones’ character in Rogue One was named Jyn Erso? Or did you just call her “Felicity Jones” or “other Rey?” I literally had to look up the planet where the main battle, the climax of the film, took place and cross-reference it with various Star Wars wikis to double check my information.

Rogue One made over one billion dollars at the global box office and received fairly good reviews upon release, but it is ultimately a film that just doesn’t work. Unlike that other prequel film I wrote aboutRogue One isn’t simply a collection of references attempting to pass itself off as a story or an appendix of unnecessary information on screen. The film is an attempt to do something interesting with Star Wars property and experiment with story concepts, dealing with covert operations and focusing on “the other guys” involved in warfare rather than generals or space samurai. It offers a good premise, how the rebels got the Death Star plans, and has a solid narrative the successfully builds to the events of the original Star Wars, standing up to evil and making the ultimate sacrifice for the rebellion, dying in the fire the superweapon they were trying to stop, demonstrating the power of the Death Star and the resolve of the Empire.

Rogue One is composed of good storytelling pieces and ideas but ultimately does not come together because of the main characters and their lack of development. The narrative arc of the film wants the audience to sympathize with the main characters and feel an emotional gut punch when they are destroyed by the Death Star’s laser cannon. This pathos never comes because the characters are underwritten, particularly appalling for a Star Wars film. The Star Wars films that worked the best, the original trilogy and Force Awakens, are character driven stories, intentionally borrowing from Joseph Campbell’s “hero’s journey” narrative structure. Rogue One fails to develop its characters in the same way, rushing from planet to planet and plot point to plot point in order to finally get to the action spectacle of the third act.

A perfectly illustrative example of this: a friend of mine recently let me know that Disney was beginning production on a new Star Wars show for its forthcoming streaming service. This new series would focus on the adventures and exploits of the male protagonist from Rogue One. In response, I asked for the name of this supposedly central character that would headline the upcoming series, of which I got no answer. Cassian Andor was the name of the main male character, played by Diego Luna, but even if you did see Rogue One you likely had to look that one up just as I had to look up Scarif.

This is not simply an issue of faulty memory, it is difficult to remember the names of the characters in Rogue One because they are not written in a way to truly care about them. Mentioning the original trilogy immediately invokes Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Darth Vader, etc. Rey, Finn, and Poe were the highlights of both Force Awakens and Last Jedi. Hell, even the prequel trilogy brings characters to mind first and foremost, regardless of whether those characters were good or bad.

But Rogue One? Actors come to mind, Felicity Jones, Forest Whitaker, maybe Donnie Yen, along with the space battle and the ending scene with Darth Vader, but not the characters you are supposed to care about. The characters aren’t written with any personal or internal conflict to allow for development or a character arc throughout the film (a sense of “want” versus “need”), and the main characters are fundamentally devoid of any personality other than a dispassionate sense of duty. This makes it difficult if not impossible to relate to or sympathize with the characters experiencing peril and putting their lives on the line and makes their sacrifice ultimately meaningless, nullifying the intended story arc.

Gareth Edwards served as the director for Rogue One after previously directing the 2014 version of Godzilla. You know, the Godzilla film with a great action scene action scene at the end but too much focus on underwritten and uninteresting characters. This is the very same problem that plagues Rogue One, a film with a great deal of potential to tell a different kind of Star Wars story along with filling in details from previous films regardless of its role in brand management for Disney. Yet, the film’s poorly written, bland characters disrupt its narrative arc, a missed opportunity to do something innovative or interesting by a film that just doesn’t work.

Why Didn’t This Work?: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

(Image Credit: Warner Bros.)

Three days ago, Warner Bros. released the final trailer for Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, the upcoming sequel to the 2016 film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. An extension of the Harry Potter franchise, re-dubbed J.K Rowling’s Wizarding World, these films follow the adventures of magizoologist and textbook author Newt Scamander in 1920s New York City. The first film in the prequel series focused on Scamander’s attempts to recollect his creatures while dodging the anti-magical New Salem Philanthropic Society as well arrest from the Magical Congress of the United States of America, believing Scamander to be working with the notorious Gellert Grindelwald, the preeminent dark wizard of the Potterverse before the rise of Lord Voldemort.

The new trailer checks all of the boxes to excite Potter fans, hitting familiar musical cues, showing the castle and grounds of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and the first appearance of future school headmaster Albus Dumbledore as a young man, touching on but not explicitly dealing with his sexual attraction to the dark wizard Grindelwald. Upon watching the trailer, I had the same reaction I had to the first Fantastic Beasts film.

“Well, it looks pretty at least, but man am I bored.”

This is not simply an excuse to pick on a franchise that I don’t like. Like many people, I am a big fan of the Harry Potter series, reading all of the books (some of them twice) as well as watching all of the movies to the the point of quoting them verbatim. Despite the importance of Rowling’s literary and cinematic work for my worldview growing up, I can’t help but feel disappointed with the Fantastic Beasts series so far, dreading the upcoming sequel more than anticipating it.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them isn’t without its strong points. As I said before, the film certainly looks nice, with the production and art design doing a wonderful job depicting 1920s New York City. Katherine Waterston, Alison Sudol, and Dan Fogler all do well in their supporting roles, with Sudol and Fogler having great chemistry as an unlikely couple. Colin Farrell makes a good antagonist as Percival Graves, later revealed to be Grindelwald in disguise, and would have been a more interesting and less problematic choice for the role than scumbag Johnny Depp.

But, films are not simply judged by their technical qualities, it is the story that matters most when it comes to assessing the quality of a movie. It is in the narrative itself that Fantastic Beasts falls short of the lofty standards set by the Harry Potter books and films. The filmmaker choice, structure of the story, and the main character Newt Scamander derail the potential of this prequel series, the original Fantastic Beasts a shell of the characters and stories it tries to invoke.

The Man in Charge

Director David Yates directed the first Fantastic Beasts film along with the upcoming sequel, becoming the go-to director for J.K. Rowling after helming the last four movies in the Potter franchise (Order of the Phoenix, Half Blood Prince, Deathly Hallows Part One and Two). Though all four of the Potter flicks directed by Yates were critical and commercial successes, “the magic” of the series came from previous directors rather than any inspired vision from Yates. The worldbuilding, setting up the characters, the familiar musical score (John Williams is a genius), and the almost tedious accuracy to the written material all occurred in the first two films directed by Christopher Columbus. The shift toward a darker, more adult tone came from subsequent directors Alfonso Cuaron and Mike Newell. Yates took over the director’s chair for half of the series, but by then the style and tone were set, leaving Yates little to do other than put the last three books on the screen.

One thing Yates excelled at, for better and worse, was trimming the books to fit to a standard run time, with the exception of Deathly Hallows being split into two films because of corporate greed to tell the entirety of the story. Yates streamlined the narrative and captured the essence of the last three books, particularly useful for Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince where most of the subplots were insufferable. In the Fantastic Beasts series, Yates appears to be doing the same thing, aiming for a condensed narrative to prevent an excessive run time. Though referencing a textbook from the Harry Potter universe and written by Rowling, Fantastic Beasts is an original story tangentially based on outside material. For full immersion into the new magical universe, the film (particularly the first in a series) needs to set up the world and its “rules.” The American magical body and New Salem society represent attempts to do this, but worldbuilding is shortchanged for the Grindelwald plot. Production design and art direction provide atmosphere and great visuals but not a clear understanding of this new magical setting. Yates’ preference for sleek narrative over engaging in a new world prevents Fantastic Beasts from reaching the standard of its predecessor

References Do Not Equal a Story

The film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a reference to a Hogwarts textbook within the Harry Potter universe, read by students of Care for Magical Creatures and released to us muggles along with Quidditch Through the Ages as supplemental material for obsessive fans (myself included). Grindelwald’s relationship and rivalry with Albus Dumbledore were subplots in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and a brief reference to Dumbledore in the film occurs specifically so fans can “ooh” and “ah” and make connections to the original Potter story. As a part of a prequel series, like many other iterations, the film often makes references to the material it was born out of to establish the importance of the events despite the fact that the outcome is already known.

Though connections need to be made, Fantastic Beasts falls into the trap of making references for the fans at the expense of its own narrative. With the failure to fully engage with worldbuilding, the movie hopes that callbacks to Potter material will satisfy fans, “getting” the obscurities being part of the fun. Because Dumbledore and Grindelwald are important for future events in the Harry Potter storyline, they are focal points in the series, receiving significant attention in the new marketing push and acting as “the real story” in a film titled “fantastic beasts.” Rather than a new story on the world of magic, Fantastic Beasts often seems like the Harry Potter appendices on-screen. Though nostalgia and shared continuity are ever more marketable, fitting Fantastic Beasts into the canon of Harry Potter limits the storytelling potential and leads to references for references sake, like that other time it worked so well.

Newt Scamander and the Failure to Capture Nostalgia

Fans of Fantastic Beasts may argue that this film works because it reminds you of watching or reading Harry Potter, transporting you to a world of magic and wonder where anything is possible. Indeed this is what the original Harry Potter series did, transported “you” to a magical world, a place where your uniqueness and special talents were appreciated and cultivated rather than being “different.” Someone who knows a lot more about books than I do mentioned that main characters in young adult series are often written as empty vessels to act as a surrogate for the reader, with Harry being “boring” compared to the more interesting supporting characters he reacts off of. Harry is a character for readers to project themselves , the reader or moviegoer experiencing a year at Hogwarts, playing Quidditch, and immersing in the magic.

Instead of a proxy for the viewer to latch onto, Fantastic Beasts centers around Newt Scamander, a known figure within the Potter universe with his own personality. This is not to simply criticize Scamander for his lack of charisma, as this seems to be part of the point of his character as someone who has difficulty interacting with people but is at home among his creatures (much of the internet suggests Scamander is on the autism spectrum). Scamander has his own mannerisms and is already an experienced wizard and an expert on magical creatures; the audience does not get to learn and develop with the character in the same manner as Harry. If Fogler’s muggle character were the focal point of the narrative and his being blindsided by the existence of magic the central plot before moving to Grindelwald, the film would be more compelling and properly invoke the feelings of nostalgia it attempts to benefit from. Instead, Fantastic Beasts opts for tangential connections to a beloved story and characters, failing to conjure a new and unique story while also ignoring the template the worked in the past.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them represents yet another attempt to commercialize nostalgia as well as cinematic continuity in the same manner as the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The film doesn’t make sense without familiarity with the Harry Potter franchise nor does it offer anything interesting to say about the wizarding world, preferring to capitalize on superficial callbacks and references. Producing something with the quality and cultural resonance of the Harry Potter franchise, something that speaks to and offers lessons for children as well as adults is certainly a difficult task, but Fantastic Beasts is definitely the wrong way to go about doing so. Instead of recapturing the magic, the sense of wonder for fans and the commercial success for the studio, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a film that just doesn’t work, a movie with great potential and an opportunity to go in interesting directions that fails to do so.

Interstellar: When a Good Movie Goes Bad

(Image Credit: Paramount Pictures, Warner Bros.)

Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar arrived in theaters in November 2014, a science fiction epic by the critically acclaimed director of Memento and the Dark Knight trilogy. The film stars Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, and Michael Caine and focuses on a journey through time and space to save humanity from extinction due to a worldwide outbreak of blight destroying crops and depleting the planet’s oxygen. To save the world, McConaughey leads a NASA mission through a wormhole to another galaxy, looking for a suitable planet to be the next home for people.

Interstellar received mostly positive reviews upon its release, with A.O. Scott of the New York Times declaring the film full of visual dazzle and thematic ambition, “a sweeping, futuristic drama driven by grief, dread, and regret.” Other critics deemed the film “a unique and mesmerizing experience” and “a cosmic adventure story with a touch of the surreal and dreamlike.” It eventually received the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects and made $677 million worldwide, the film serving as both a critical and commercial success and cementing Nolan as one of the great filmmakers of the twenty-first century and endearing him further to his rabid fan base.

There are a lot of things I like about Interstellar. It is a breathtaking film to watch, with impressive imagination going into designing the “interstellar” worlds. Nolan experimented further with 70mm, with several scenes in Interstellar filmed with Imax cameras, before eventually deciding to use the format for an entire film. While some criticize the music of Hans Zimmer for being overly bombastic, I believe it works in this film, helping to convey a sense of the grandiose beyond our imagination. Like DunkirkInterstellar is a great film when it comes to technical composition, with cinematography, music, production design, and visual effects coalescing into a film that is truly a visual experience in the same manner as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, still one of the seminal works in the science fiction genre.

Though impressive as a technical achievement, movies are judged based on their narratives and performances along with their production. It is in the storytelling that Interstellar falls short of being a great film. Far from being completely ridden with clichés or being incomprehensible, Interstellar has an engaging storyline that completely falls apart at a very specific point in the film. Before revealing the precise moment Interstellar derails, there are two aspects frequently cited as complaints against the film that do not work against the narrative.

Time Dilation

One of the critiques levied at Christopher Nolan, whether in jest or not, is that many of his films “mess with time,” featuring nonlinear structure or cross-cutting different stories to let the audience experience the same chaos the characters are feeling or to catch the movie viewer off guard. MementoBatman BeginsInception, and Dunkirk all employ some element of nonlinear storytelling, a motif in Nolan’s filmmaking in the same manner as banter dialogue at a table in Tarantino films or general terribleness in Raja Gosnell films.

Interstellar features a rapid progression in time, but grounds it in the concept of “time dilation” in physics. When McConaughey and the team arrive on the first potential planet, they note that the gravity is significantly greater than on Earth, warping time to such a degree that one hour spent on the planet would equal seven years on Earth, making completing the mission quickly of utmost importance. Things go awry, and the delays cause twenty-one years to pass on Earth. Even if the viewer does not have a background in physics, this does not derail the movie, it is simply a plot device to make the situation more dire. Moreover, it allows McConaughey’s daughter to age into adulthood and become more useful in solving the gravity equation that has stumped Caine’s character for years. Though involving hard scientific concepts, the time dilation simply advances the action and adds greater consequence to the actions of the characters.

Scientific Jargon

Interstellar relies on scientific realism, specifically the ideas of theoretical physicist Kip Thorne, to set the narrative in motion, opting for a science fiction movie grounded in realityas opposed to the futuristic technology and fantasy elements used throughout the genre. Concepts like gravitational waves, wormholes, and black hole cosmology owe to Thorne’s work, and Thorne himself laid out guidelines before consulting on the film:

First, that nothing would violate established physical laws. Second, that all the wild speculations, and there certainly are some here, would spring from science and not from the fertile mind of a screenwriter.

Thorne, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and Michio Kaku were very pleased with the film’s adherence to scientific realism, grounding itself in science rather than fantasy. But, to adhere to this format, there are many instances throughout the film where the plot stops so the characters can explain the science to the audience, showing that Nolan and the film’s crew indeed “did their homework.” Again, this is a lot of hard science, but like “messing with time,” it does not detract from the movie. The use of science gives the film a personality much different from many other science fiction films; the fact that the people of Earth have few options due to our limited knowledge of physics makes the conflict more critical than if we could simply travel at the speed of light to another galaxy. Moreover, like the time dilation, the audience doesn’t have to know the equations and theories behind the science, just that the characters are in a grim situation and have limited options to save humanity. Scientific realism gives Interstellar style and personality much different from films like the Star Trek, Star Wars, or Alien series, with abstract science highlighted by technical mastery to produce a visual masterpiece.

And, then it all falls apart

Though well made from a technical standpoint, with a lot of thought and care devoted to the visuals, cinematography, and science, Interstellar completely falls apart in its third act, resulting in a film that is simply “good” even though it had the potential to be great. After completing a “Heart of Darkness but in space” arc in its second act, McConaughey and Hathaway are stranded in a barely functional space station hurtling toward a black hole. Hathaway resolves to go to the final potential planet carrying fertilized human eggs, “Plan B,” while McConaughey launches into the black hole Gargantua, allowing the space station to move in the opposite direction based on Newton’s third law of motion. Rather than being ripped apart atom by atom due to the gravitational pull of the black hole, McConaughey enters a tesseract, a five dimensional space that allows him to move through time as a physical dimension, in order to reconnect with his daughter and relay information from the black hole and complete the gravitational equation to bring all of Earth’s people through the wormhole into the new galaxy.

The scene in the black hole fundamentally derails the movie, undermining the previous elements of scientific realism and relying on “the power of love” to resolve the central conflict of the film. McConaughey’s actions in the black hole represent a shift from established to more theoretical and speculative physics, with humans from the future able to perceive five dimensions supposedly responsible for creating the tesseract. Furthermore, McConaughey can supposedly communicate with his daughter because of his love for her, as “love is able to transcend time and space.” Because we are able to love people despite the distance as well as loving people who died, it is love that allows McConaughey to connect with his daughter despite being in another galaxy. Though mentioned briefly, this is not a theme that carries throughout the entire film. In a movie so reliant on realism and scientific relations, resolving the conflict of the film through emotional connection is a jarring shift that deviates from the previously established themes and atmosphere. As movie critic Bob Chipman stated,

Interstellar actually still wants to be about humanity, human beings, families, emotional connections, and, well, feelings. Which means, its actual thematic underpinnings could not be less suited to Christopher Nolan.

Though the director behind many beloved movies, Nolan is not known for emotions being at the core of any of his films, with style, imagination, and technical wizardry superseding heart. This is not necessarily a bad thing, after all many of Nolan’s movies are still very good , and not every work needs to focus on an emotional core. However, to suddenly rely on emotions to solve the crisis of humanity breaks from the rest of the film, likely a relic from the original draft when Steven Spielberg was set to direct. The “power of love” as the savior of humanity is certainly noble in conception, but contradicts the rest of Interstellar, resulting in a movie that ultimately doesn’t know what it wants to be. Certainly a technical achievement, an experience worth watching for the imagination and design, Interstellar’s narrative shortcomings prevent it from being a great film despite having the potential to be one.