The Unreasonable Movie Project (Vol. 10): The Prequel to the Remake of a Parody/Homage of a Classic


The major complaint of movies these days is that no one is coming up with any original ideas. I do not dispute the disturbing number of sequels and prequels and sequels to the prequels, but anyone who thinks this is a 21st Century problem is romanticizing the past. Ever since there have been movies, people have been stealing bits of stories, parts of stories, or entire stories. This was of course preceded by people stealing ideas for books, preceded by people stealing ideas for stories told around the campfire.

I don't even know you can call it stealing, because some believe only seven basic story-types exist anyway. If this is true, you have to steal because there are no new ideas. Recycle one of seven, or put a few together in a mash-up, mess with the linear time structure, and call it new. That's all you can do. The seven are:

  1. Overcoming the Monster: Hero or heroine destroys monster (personal nemesis, personal demons, actual demons...) to restore order.
  2. Rags to Riches: Hero or heroine with undeniable talent triumphs over humble (or crappy-through-no-fault-of-their-own) beginnings.
  3. The Quest: Hero or heroine embarks on a journey (with sidekicks) to overcome evil and bring back stuff (and chicks, or dudes).
  4. Voyage and Return: Kinda like The Quest, except the journey wasn't a choice, so it's a journey BACK for hero and heroine, and perhaps there's no loot. Or chicks.
  5. Rebirth: Things begin badly for the hero or heroine, but through this and that and what have you, second chances happen.
  6. Comedy: In the Shakespearian sense, involves confusion and misadventures, perhaps caused by (possibly flawed) hero or herione, but things work out. 
  7. Tragedy: In the Shakesperian sense (or any other sense), things don't work out.

This theory makes sense to me. Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan can layer stories on top of one another, chop up their time sequences a million different ways, mix in any modern twists, but the basic plots remain. That said, I have trouble identifying which of the seven, or combination of the seven, encompasses Pulp Fiction...I don't know if anyone has figured it out.

This weekend I saw Frankenweenie with the kids, and The Hobbit, two movies that cannot claim to be "original" in the young-hotshot-wrote-a-story-and-then-scraped-together-funding-and-then-managed-to-make-something-that-won-the-Caméra-d'Or-at-Cannes sense of the word. Not even close.

The 95-minute, animated Frankenweenie (2012), by Tim Burton, is a remake of Frankenweenie (1984), a 30-minute, live-action short...by Tim Burton. The 1984 version was a parody and an homage to the 1931 version of Frankenstein. I can't decide whether to award or deduct points to a man who rips himself off. The original is oddly loaded with stars (Daniel Stern, Shelley Duvall, the kid from The NeverEnding Story...), but the rumor is that Disney fired Burton afterward for wasting company resources on something that would be too scary for kids. His next project would be Pee-wee's Big Adventure, which is completely awesome, definitely my favorite of his movies.

Frankenweenie is up for Best Animated Feature at the Oscars, along with Brave, ParaNorman, Wreck-It Ralph, and The Pirates! Band of Misfits. I have now seen all five, and I am surprised to say that I may have enjoyed Frankenweenie more than any of them. I've tended to dismiss Tim Burton in the past few years because he's so very...Tim Burton, but the story was funny, and not too scary for the kids (although the trailer scared the pants off them, and they did not want to see this for months). It's also very stylish - you can see the influence of the original Frankenstein. I liked it a lot, and gave it an $8.00.

Wreck-It Ralph just won Best Animated Film at the Producers Guild Awards, and Brave won the Golden Globe, so any of them could win the Oscar. ParaNorman may be the most original and best written of the five (I bet whoever made it is a big Tim Burton fan), but it was also the scariest and the most mature. The only disappointment for me was Ardman Animations' The Pirates!, which was a big let down compared with Chicken Run and their Wallace & Gromit work. It just wasn't as fun or as funny. Perhaps it was Al Roker's fault.

And even though it got no award-love, animation fans should also see Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted. The Penguins in this series have got to be the funniest animated characters created in the last 10 years.

In terms of being "original," The Hobbit has an entirely different issue. It's not a remake, but another chapter in the longest movie ever made. Let me start by saying that I love The Lord of the Rings. I own the Director's Cut box set of all three, but they are not distinct movies, they are one 12-hour-long movie. That's not a judgement, it just is what it is. With The Hobbit, which is the first of three new movies, Peter Jackson has now created his own personal Star Wars. The Fellowship of the Ring is now Episode IV, and The Hobbit is Episode I.

But even George Lucas was making separate movies. Jackson hasn't changed a thing. It's the same cinematography, same musical score, same characters, same imaginary world (albeit 60 years earlier), and same author of the original material. If you didn't like the first 12 hours of this movie, you will probably not like the second 12 hours either, which is fine. If you are a big fan of The Lord of the Rings, you will get more of the same. It's good, but it has forfeited the element of surprise. And it'll test your endurance. Can you imagine the Hobbit/Lord movie marathons of the future? 24 hours of movie, with short breaks, in a theater. That's a two-day ordeal. Viewers will have to bring sleeping bags and camp overnight in the lobby.

The question I really wanted answered while I watched was "how are they going to get three 160-minute movies out of that little book?" The Lord of the Rings trilogy is a thick, dense affair with lots of details from which to pluck scenes and dialogue for a movie or three. The Hobbit is one book, and much less dense in style than its successors. At times, I had the suspicion that Jackson was using Tolkien's exact words and action on the screen, not at all edited and reduced like most screenplays do to their source material. I'd like to go back and read the 'riddle contest' scene between Bilbo and Gollum in the book - I bet it sucks those passages dry.

Regardless, I enjoy this series, so I enjoyed this portion as well. It's a $7.50 movie. This weekend did not strike a blow for wildly original film-making, but I had a good time with it. At the very least, it allowed me to take a break from serious French films that pull the emotional football out of the way just before I kick it.

Next post: The Master, which may or may not be about Scientology, finally has appeared in a theater in Minneapolis, so I have to strike while the iron is hot. Barrett Oliver, the kid from The Neverending Story (above), totally disappeared from the public sphere at age 16 despite a busy acting career, supposedly because of Scientology. If that's true, why has Tom Cruise never disappeared?

Jay Kelly blogs at The Head Fake.