My 2012 Movies in Retrospect, #15-8

In part one of our three-part miniseries, I reminisced about my least favorite theatrical experiences of 2012, works that other viewers may have liked a lot more than I did. Part two, then, is a veritable middle-ground parade — movies that weren’t a waste of my time, some even eligible for eventual addition to my library, but were a few steps removed from instant-classic status according to my recondite guidelines.

The countdown advances:

Jeremy Renner, The Bourne Legacy15. The Bourne Legacy. The way my mental math works out, this section of my list contains this year’s zestiest popcorn flicks — action yarns that propelled me along despite nagging storytelling flaws. Jeremy Renner’s two-hour overseas vacation video neatly fits that slot. Though the extended chases pale before the emotional stakes and the intricate cat-and-mouse games of the second and third Bourne chapters, Renner is fun to cheer on anyway as a plainspoken everyman upgraded to an outnumbered battle machine. In that sense it’s the spy-genre equivalent of a Rocky movie, albeit without a satisfying Ivan Drago analogue.

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Questioning My Reality after Preferring “Madagascar 3” to “Brave”

After seeing Brave and Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted within a week of each other, I was surprised to conclude that this is the second year in a row in which I’ve liked a DreamWorks CG-animated film more than a same-year Pixar release. Last year’s narrow victory of Kung Fu Panda 2 over Cars 2 was…well, a paltry competition, but still.

For the most part, Brave was still very good for what it was. I could appreciate the uneasy conflict between a mother and daughter who fail to see eye-to-eye, but who eventually learn to accept each other’s differences through a series of intense situations. However, swap their gender and you find yourself with the same uneasy conflict last seen in How to Train Your Dragon. Whereas the latter was more epic in scope, Brave by comparison was a more intimate struggle whose own four-legged antagonist was a bit smaller. Both were also set in long-ago Scotland, had characters with limbs amputated by beasts, and beefed up their supporting cast with a healthy dose of Craig Ferguson. I didn’t want to keep comparing the two so unfairly, especially since Dragon is presently my favorite DreamWorks CG film, but my mind wouldn’t stop.

Madagascar 3, on the other hand, benefited tremendously from how forgettable I found the first two. I remember the main and supporting characters, and a few flourishes from the original that are referenced in this one for effective callback resonance, but not my actual overall opinions of them. It was a pleasure hearing Ben Stiller and Chris Rock riffing to their heart’s content for a general audience. I was practically giddy from overdosing on the manic wit that propels the film forward at breakneck speed. I’m enamored of the moral of the story, that nostalgia can prevent us from seeing how confining our former boundaries were until we confront them and realize the power of moving on to wider stages. I also enjoyed turns from incoming performers such as Bryan Cranston (a Siberian tiger with a tragic story), Martin Short (a fawning, barely talented sealion), Academy Award Winner Frances McDormand (an unstoppable French animal control specialist on a vendetta), and X-Men 3‘s Juggernaut as a miniature circus dog with a ‘tude. This may also feature the best performance by a mute circus bear in cinema history. I entered the theater expecting no effect on my apathy; I exited with a smile on my face and the very few lyrics to “Afro Circus” stuck on Repeat in my head.

I’m having a very hard time reconciling these two opinions. In pondering my blasphemous imaginings of a world where Pixar is no longer the automatic king of everything, I wondered if any statistical comparisons have been drawn between the two. As luck would have it, such comparisons have been done and overdone. I decided to compile figures anyway for my own amusement, chronologically for all CG releases from each of the two companies — not of American box office grosses, but of ratings on the world-famous Tomatometer™.

Those results to date:

1995: No Dreamworks CG department to speak of; 100% for Toy Story, the grand pioneer of the medium.

1996-1997: No entrants. Each studio lay dormant, making plans and revving up their engines.

1998: 95% for Antz; 92% for A Bug’s Life. This flawed comparison is a prime example of how the Tomatometer fresh/rotten binary system lacks nuance. I didn’t hate Antz, but I’d be surprised if anyone favors or even remembers it to this day. I’m also mystified as to why Pixar hasn’t allowed an encore yet for Flik and friends. Were their merchandise sales really that anemic?

1999: No Dreamworks CG releases; a rightful 100% for Toy Story 2.

2000: No entrants. Remember when each studio used to craft one film at a time, no matter how long it took? Pixar has obviously expanded their staff and resources to sufficient capacity to maintain a steady pace of one new film per year as productions overlap. Meanwhile at DreamWorks, their WikiPedia page lists an alleged, ambitious overkill slate of twenty-two projects in various stages between ideation and completion. That either speaks to their success, foreshadows an animation glut in our future, or includes direct-to-DVD fodder to be distributed by DreamWorks but created by other, smaller animation houses.

2001: 89% for Shrek; 95% for Monsters Inc. I enjoyed the cleverness and performances in Shrek up until the exact moment where the plot pivoted because of a Three’s Company-style stupid misunderstanding because of ill-timed eavesdropping. Those are an automatic fail in my book. While that meant a forfeit in favor of Pixar, I thought some of Billy Crystal’s ad-libs weren’t exactly among his best. Given the choice, I’d rather watch clips of his past Oscar-hosting gigs.

2002: the last mutual skip year. Going forward, the mission statement for both studios was to crank out new movies every year or die trying.

2003: Still no new Dreamworks CG releases; 98% for Finding Nemo, the greatest Ellen DeGeneres film of all time.

2004: 89% for Shrek 2, which I thought was the best of the series; 36% for Shark Tale, which seemed like a case of casting famous faces first, then writing a script around them later. DreamWorks thankfully took notes from Pixar’s methodology and has relied on this poor creative formula a lot less than they used to. Meanwhile, The Incredibles, my all-time favorite Pixar film sans Woody or Buzz, impressed with 97%.

2005: 55% for the first Madagascar, whatever it was like. I do remember it looking crudely drawn. Cars was originally scheduled this year but delayed to 2006 for any number of rumored reasons, from quality control to internecine corporate shenanigans.

2006: 74% for Over the Hedge, shrewder and funnier than I expected in its barbed consumer-culture satire. 74% for Cars, which I thought was just fine. I suspect some negative reactions were Mater’s fault. He didn’t bother me. I know people here in Indiana not too different from him.

2007: 41% for Shrek the Third (no argument here); 51% for Bee Movie, proof that not everyone loved Seinfeld as much as some entertainment magazines did; and 96% for Ratatouille, Pixar’s first attempt at something besides an epic adventure, and a blessedly successful one at that.

2008: 88% for Kung Fu Panda, which I tried to tell everyone around me was seriously awesome (especially in super-sized all-powerful IMAX), but no one would listen to me because of either Jack Black or disdain for kung-fu flicks. Their loss. The 64% for Madagasacar 2: Something Something Animals improved on its predecessor in ways I no longer recall. 96% for WALL-E, which I really liked but didn’t fall head-over-heels in love with, as some of my peers did. Can’t really put my finger on why. Maybe it’s a subconscious thing about environmental lectures.

2009: 72% for Monsters vs. Aliens, which was quite a nifty League of Extraordinary B-Movie Creatures; 98% for Up, which made me bawl before the end of the first half-hour, but knocked itself down from an A+ to a mere A because of doggie biplanes. No one steals Snoopy’s shtick and gets away with it, not even Pixar.

2010: 98% for How to Train Your Dragon (thank you, critics, for validating me); 58% for Shrek Forever After (which I avoided after hating the third one); 73% for Megamind (not a fan of Will Ferrell movies, but was pretty happy with this despite sad reliance on AC/DC); and naturally 99% for Toy Story 3, weakest of the trilogy but hardly a weak film.

2011: 81% for Kung Fu Panda 2, okay but not nearly as seriously awesome as the first; 83% for Puss in Boots, which I also avoided because of Shrek the Third (my loss, perhaps); and 38% for Cars 2, certifiably the Worst Pixar Film of All Time. If you think of it as three back-to-back episodes of Cars: the TV Series, it’s really not so disappointing in those terms. If this had been released direct-to-DVD, it might have attained the same kind of regard that Disney fans hold for The Lion King 1½. Again I blame the Mater-haters.

2012: As of this evening, 76% apiece for Madagascar 3 and for Brave. It’s a tie!

On average, the DreamWorks track record has improved in the years since its Shark Tale nadir. Pixar isn’t exactly churning out third-rate filler just to pad the Disney release schedule, but no longer seems bulletproof, either. I look forward to future works from both, as long as none of them is Flik vs. Antz, which I would view as a sign of creative bankruptcy, unless Flik wins.

Additional notes:

1. List does not include Aardman productions released through DreamWorks, as much as I recommend the majority of them.

2. List excludes non-Pixar Disney CG fare because it is presumed inferior due to lack of Pixar authorship, with the exception of Tangled. The jury can’t wait to deliberate on Wreck-It Ralph.

3. List obviously excludes productions from other well-known studios such as Blue Sky and Robert Zemeckis’ ImageMovers because my free time for late-night writing is not unlimited. Their inclusion would also distract from the whole two-sided rap-rivalry vibe of the competition.

4. I lament that the list excludes traditional animated films, just as movie executives do nowadays. Recent works in this medium have been flawed in ways that could not necessarily be blamed on said medium (e.g. mediocre stories; unfunny jokes; reliance on star power over creativity); and yet, when those flaws hurt them at the box office, the medium was blamed and practically scuttled as a whole in America. This, in my mind, is an even greater shame than Shark Tale.

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