Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Too many spirits, not enough Christmas

Wanting to get into the Christmas spirit we rented ‘A Christmas Carol’. An animated adaptation of the classic book. Having seen Scrooge flying through the air, sliding down bannisters and lots of pretty colours and whimsical music in the trailer we settled in for some holiday cheese. Oh, dear God, were we not expecting what the next hour and a half would bring. This movie is dark; REALLY dark. Broken-jawed ghosts shackled in chains doomed to walk the Earth for all eternity dark. Struggling families with dying, crippled children dark. Being chased by the shadow of Death and his screaming shadow horses dark. The scenes that didn’t result in horrified recoiling were so lathered in Charles Dickens' olde English that it took all my attention just to decipher what the characters were talking about. Sure, there are a few scenes with pretty colours and whimsical music, but these mostly come at the end, after you’ve already been subjected to an hour of panicked screams, horrifying visuals and insights into the miserable lives of the Victorian-era working class.

I’m not having a go at the story. It’s a story of self-reflection, second chances and all that. The movie probably captured the mood and message of the book perfectly. I didn’t feel it was a particularly good movie in many ways (motion capture animation kind of weirds me out, I blame the uncanny valley, and I found the whole 'ghost of Christmas present' scene to be visually confusing). What struck me most about this is that this movie was marketed at children. It was marketed as a delightful holiday romp. If they hadn’t intended it for children, maybe the trailer should have included the scene where the shadow of Death (ghost of Christmas future) dangles Scrooge over his own grave while he pleads for his life.

There’s a certain ignorance from the studios that causes the mis-marketting of these movies. Anything that doesn’t feature live actors seems to be automatically assumed to be for children. It’s like giving a piña colada to a child because it looks like fruit juice. This phenomenon still dogs The Simpsons for some people. Those people are all the more moronic for it, but I have heard comments like ‘I don’t feel like watching cartoons’. 'Cartoons' they say! Heaven forbid they should ever buy their niece or nephew a birthday present from a Japanese video store ('oh look, this one has a girl in a school uniform holding some sort of microphone, it must be similar to High School Musical'). It also affected Fantastic Mr. Fox, one of my favourite movies and one of the funniest movies of the past few years. The jovial DVD cover image of the characters riding a sidecar was reminiscent of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and in no way did the movie justice. It’s like studios pay people to make movies, watch a 30 second highlights reel and devise a marketing strategy. But there’s more than just ignorance at play. There’s a certain level of irresponsibility that goes along with it. Insisting a movie is for children when it’s not simply because you can’t figure out a way of marketing animated films to adults is almost a form of child abuse. Saying A Christmas Carol is for children because it’s animated is the same as saying Event Horizon is for children because it has a spaceship in it. I wonder how many parents have sat their kids down to watch A Christmas Carol while they were doing something in another room, probably wrapping presents I suppose, only to come back and find them rocking gently in a corner muttering something about Tiny Tim.

I don't think it’s a new phenomenon either. Have you actually seen Dumbo? He gets wasted and starts hallucinating in a scene that would make Pink Floyd shift uncomfortably in their seats. Granted, the rest of the movie is pretty child-friendly, but that scene is a tenth of the whole movie. A lot of the animated films of the 40s and 50s were similar. I can’t say whether they were marketed towards kids at the time, or whether kids at the time routinely got hammered and hallucinated, but they're definitely marketed as nothing but kids movies now.

So, this is a plea to studios and the general public alike. The use of animation in movies and television does not automatically pigeon-hole them as perfect for children. Sometimes it’s not a case of being aimed at kids but still entertaining for adults (a la Shrek, Nemo, How to Train a Dragon etc…). Sometimes they are simply meant for adults, and should require a pre-viewing before subjecting little Bobby to a lifetime of therapy. A movie should be judged on its own merit, not assigned an audience based on how the poster is going to look, especially now that animation has become so versatile. Once the public acknowledges that, the studios might be willing to accept it too and we’ll see more movies like Fantastic Mr Fox doing well at the box office because they’re being marketed at the right audience. That means more movies like Fantastic Mr Fox being made, and that is definitely not a bad thing. We also might be able to start watching movies like A Christmas Carol with the proper expectations and not sit through an hour of dark, dark soul-searching, all the while waiting for the cutesy squirrel character to come bounding onto the screen and lighten the mood.

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