I am a slow learner. This lesson took me 23 years.
I went to a matinee to save money, since my wife is 53 and is therefore ineligible for the coveted “Seniors Discount,” a form of price discrimination that I thoroughly approve. At matinees, there are children. There are also mothers who bring infants along with their potty-trained children. So, you get some extraneous noise, since these mothers are not about to take their squalling infants out of the theater, having paid $11+ to get in. (I can actually remember a theater that had a glass-enclosed room at the rear for mothers with infants. That was a long time ago.)
But matinees have a good side: you get to hear the responses of children, which is a good thing at a children’s movie. It’s part of the total experience.
You also get to hear the responses of their parents, at least in comedies, which “Finding Nemo” surely is.
And so, in the interest of making a scientifically valid survey, not just saving $2.50 on my youthful companion’s ticket, I went to the matinee. There, I learned two lessons. The first is this: if a movie gets everyone laughing, it’s going to make a bundle. The second lesson I shall discuss a bit later.
The great thing about a Pixar movie is that there is an introductory cartoon at no extra charge. Here, the hot-shots on their way up the artistic ladder get to show their stuff.
The short with “Monsters, Inc.” was a delightful one about birds on a wire. The one that introduces “Finding Nemo” is about a snowman caught in one of those snow-ball gadgets that you shake and snow falls. He is being lured by a girl in a bikini to come over and get something going. He is stuck behind the glass. The short is about how he deals with his problem.
There are more laughs in a 3-minute Pixar short than there are in a prime time TV sit-com. For a month. Also unlike the sit-coms, the snowman was heterosexual.
The theme in “Finding Nemo” is simple: a father fish who has spent his life in fear must go on a long journey to save his son. He has many adventures. Some are life-threatening.
The voice of the fish, Marlin, who is a clown fish, is Albert Brooks, a selection more obvious than inspired. Brooks has spent his entire career playing fearful, neurotic nebbishes, from the dead guy in “Defending Your Life” to Debbie Reynolds’ emotionally harried son in “Mother.” His most memorable career scene is in “Broadcast News,” as the news correspondent who gets a shot as network news anchorman in a Sunday night trial.
Note: Brooks is a Jewish comedian who really did have to change his name. He was born Albert Einstein. As an actor, he could not use the other celebrity’s name, even though the other fellow was not in the Screen Actors Guild. In any case, the reviews would have confused everyone. “In this laugh riot, Albert Einstein plays a fearful, neurotic. . . .”
Marlin is accompanied by a female fish who suffers from short-term memory loss. This is an animated version of the old “madcap comedy” of the 1930’s. The female gets to be a ditz here because she is memory-impaired.
Nobody checked with me first, but if the folks at Pixar had asked me if I was willing pay good money to see a blatantly sexist attack on someone who, had she been human, would have been covered by the American With Disabilities Act, I would have bought a ticket right there. If necessary to complete production, I would have made a donation.
When the movie was scary, the audience was dead silent. When it was sad, the audience was silent. And when it was funny, the adults howled. This is the sign of a blockbuster.
The female fish does whale communications imitations. I don’t know why this was funny, but it was hysterical. Everyone laughed.
The scene at the sharks’ Fishaholics Anonymous meeting was also funny. The kids of course did not get the joke. The adults in the audience did. There is no known addiction for which someone won’t devise a 12-step program.
One of the villains is a pre-teen girl. She acts like a product of a tax-funded elementary school. The kid right behind me said it best: “Someone should kill her.” This was an extreme opinion, no doubt, but it’s the thought that counts.
WHY IT WORKS
The animation is spectacular. Maybe you remember the first truly great animation effect in a cartoon: the first scene in “Pinocchio,” where the heat from the coals in the fireplace creates heat waves in the air. That took a lot of skill, and it lasted only seconds. This movie maintains similar realism all the way through. Water is water; air is air.
The dialogue is very good. The characters are varied, each with specific human traits.
The audience is instantly pulled into a fantasy world of animals, where we can emote just as if we were watching people. Disney has been doing this for two generations. It has worked repeatedly. Pixar has extended the same creative ability. Adults in attendance are turned into children, who can easily imagine fairy tales as real when they are small. The human proclivity to do this throughout life needs only gifted animators to produce this effect.
I am a connoisseur of movie credits. You must stay until the very end if you want to see the most creative credits I can ever remember seeing.
THE MOMENT OF TRUTH
The theater showed previews of coming attractions. This was a matinee for kids. The previews reflected this target market.
I am usually unmoved by previews, but the first one was a work of inspiration. It was for a new Loonie Toons movie. They’re back: Bugs, Daffy, Yosemite Sam, and Steve Martin is thrown in at no extra cost. I’m going, of course.
A 3-D movie is coming, with cardboard glasses. Here it is again: using a weird technology to get us to pay money for an otherwise mediocre movie. Will it work with me? You bet it will! From “Bwana Devil” in 1952 to the demise of the technology’s popularity in “Revenge of the Creature” (1955), I loved having arrows shot into my face at close range, or spears about to penetrate my skull. I always go to the 3-D movies at Epcot. Let me assure you, 2-D technology would not have lured me into a showing of “Captain EO,” starring Michael Jackson. But 3-D did.
The forthcoming movie is basically “Tron.” A kid must enter the digital realm of video games to save his sister. In that realm are gigantic killer machines, all shaped like Jack La Lanne. One of them is an animation composite with Sylvester Stallone’s face. That’s the evil machine. Not bad! Then comes the capper: the good machine is animation plus the face of . . . you cannot hope to beat this . . . Ricardo Montalban. You read it here first. I will pay my Senior Discount to see this movie just on the outside possibility, however remote, that at some point, the giant killer machine will reach down, pick up an electronic weapon with a handle encased in a dark, non-conductive material, stroke it and say, “Notice the fine Corinthian leather.”
My wife leaned over and said after the previews, “Why do I want to go to these movies, when I rarely want to see one after the previews at an adults’ movie”?
That was my moment of truth. I had been thinking the same thing.
PIXAR: “G” FOR GENIUS
In 1966, Hollywood’s old system of industry self-censorship broke down — it was voluntary censorship, imposed by pressures from the Roman Catholic Church and some Protestant churches. The system was abandoned when the industry replaced it with ratings: G, M (later switched to GP, then to PG), R, and X. It took Hollywood less than a year to discover that G-rated movies were perceived by the public as kids movies. Adults stayed away. To get an audience of adults not accompanied by children, you had to be awarded at least an M.
But how? There were two ways: profanity or violence. Either would do. One cuss word, and the sought-after M was guaranteed, just as PG is today. This is why one prohibited profane word is put into the mouth of the sub-teen child story listener in “The Princess Bride,” one of the truly great child-adult movies of all time. (When the movie’s hero speaks of ferocious man-eating RUS — rodents of unusual size — he should have had in mind Hollywood producers.)
This is why, except for Disney or Pixar or for Disney/Pixar, a G-rated movie is so rare. In 1980, there was one, also a kids-adults movie: “The Black Stallion,” a tour de force of cinematography. It had no weak links. (Well, only one: Terri Garr, who was one of the weakest links in Hollywood history.) It had only one well-known actor, Mickey Rooney — not exactly a box-office draw in 1980. The folk music celebrity, Hoyt Axton, whose career never quite took off, also had a small role. It remains a classic.
Two decades later, Richard Farnsworth starred in “The Straight Story,” an adult movie about a man too old to have a driver’s license, who wants to drive hundreds of miles to visit his brother, from whom he has long been estranged. He goes on his lawn mower. But it was a Disney movie. Therefore, I don’t count it as a true G-rated film.
Pixar is breaking the mold. Its movies are so good that adults are willing to pay to see them on the movies’ own merits. Adults don’t have to find a child to take to the theater in order to justify their presence. “Toy Story” and “Toy Story II” proved this.
You can go to a Pixar movie sight-unseen. You will get your money’s worth.
MY MOMENT OF TRUTH
Years ago, I heard Bill Cosby say why he never used off-color stories or innuendo. It’s too easy to get laughs this way, he said, but it debases comedy. The last four decades have proven him correct. Even very funny men, such as Eddie Murphy and Robin Williams, when on-stage cannot resist foul language. Murphy and Mike Myers spoiled what would have been a flawless “Shrek” with needless scatology.
Cosby had it pegged: to make great comedy, your material has to be funny. One test of great comedy is the absence of potty-mouth. Pixar is proving the same thing with respect to animated comedies.
In an era that has been plagued with decades of needlessly violent scenes, and unfunny, potty-mouth comics, script writers have lost the magic touch. Once in a while, a “Chariots of Fire” or “Places in the Heart” or “Gettysburg” blind-sides Hollywood, but Hollywood doesn’t respond in the only way that matters: “Go, and do thou likewise.” Hollywood itself is gone.
It is not that great talents can’t do it today. Myers, Murphy, and Williams can do it. De Niro, Pacino, and Duvall can do it. Has anyone been as good in both comedy and drama as Sally Fields? Their versatility in front of a camera is enormous — far greater than the big-money stars of the golden age of movies. (I count Paul Newman, a man originally of the ‘fifties, as a “modern,” not an “ancient” — and his wife the same.)
Here is the problem: the scripts are rotten. I don’t mean devoid of creativity. I mean rotten. This inherent moral rottenness mirrors a morally corrupt industry. With the deaths of the old moguls, one by one, men who were not ready to offend the viewers’ sense of moral propriety, the post-1960 era of producers, directors, and script writers have been all too ready to offend.
Hollywood went on the offensive against civility in the 1960’s. This is what has undermined the movies. There is a scene in Neil Simon’s movie, “Butterflies Are Free,” where one of my all-time favorite actresses, Eileen Heckert, plays the author of children’s novels. She gets into an argument with her blind son. They have just returned from a play that featured a lot of violence. He says, “Those things are all part of life.” Heckert replies, “So is diarrhea, but I don’t classify it as entertainment.”
Years ago, I read an insightful one-liner by one of the Epperson sisters, either Ann Landers or Abigail Van Buren. I think it was Ann Landers. She commented on a particular actress’s wardrobe at a gala event. “It showed everything except good taste.” That could serve as an epitaph for the last three decades of movies.
But not for Pixar.
What we need is “high-Flying Films,” which would make available as rentals the in-fight versions of movies, stripped of their nudity and with dubbed-in propriety. Even if parents had to pay more to rent them, there would be a market for them. But Hollywood won’t release these cleaned-up versions.
Someday, we may find on-line movies downloaded from prime-time network TV, also cleaned up, offered on the Web through shared files. Hollywood has no workable strategy for dealing with this form of decentralized copyright infringement. This development would constitute the revenge of the righteous — stolen goods, according to Hollywood, but in a digital world devoid of enforceable contracts. It couldn’t happen to a more deserving bunch of RUS’s.