a tale of two movies
March 26th, 2012
WARNING: THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS.
This weekend something unprecedented happened, and I’m not talking about the fact that a movie with a teen female heroine earned a record-smashing $155 million dollars at the box office, though that did indeed happen. No, I went to two movies in a weekend. Since I have had kids, this Just Does Not Happen.
The first movie was The Hunger Games. I’ve been reading some of the reviews of it, some rapturous, some mildly positive with a bunch of stuff about lost opportunities, very few negative. I dunno. I am a pretty harsh critic in general but I LOVED the movie. I personally thought it captured all the nuance and ambiguity of the book and Jennifer Lawrence was terrific. OMG, the quiet scene right before she enters the arena was spectacular. I found the violence to be the exact right amount. I mean, I know it had to be off-screen to get a PG-13 rating but by doing it this way, I found it chilling, and felt exactly what I think Suzanne Collins wanted us to feel: total gross ambiguity at every death. Because you’re relieved that Katniss is okay. But embedded in that relief is some sort of gladness that it’s another child killed in this absolutely absurd contest. Cognitive dissonance much? You can smile at Katniss’s post-Cinna-makeover media triumph but then how different are you than the decadent ghoulish residents of Capitol, for whom all this killing is, to quote Jon Stewart, “horrotainment”?
I left the theater feeling drained, and I stayed that way for days. I cried several times, at one point openly bawling. It takes a lot to make me cry at movies, people. Now maybe I bring the source material in with me, maybe that deepens it and so I know all the nuance that goes on between the pages. But I thought that nuance was right there, playing out on Jennifer Lawrence’s face as she fake-smiled upon being crowned the victor. Show don’t tell is the first rule of writing. It also makes for the strongest acting. The Hunger Games was a visceral experience.
Now, I saw the movie at 10:30 on a Friday morning and the theater was pretty empty and most other filmgoers were sedate adults like me. So there was no cheering when one of the mean tributes gets offed. Or booing at President Snow. But nevertheless, I felt that the filmmakers, in making the film as they did, they trusted their audience. To get it. To get at the multiple layers, of enjoying something like this (or watching a war on TV like it’s a movie) while at the same time understanding that enjoying it is part of the problem. I loved the fact that the love triangle was played down, that Katniss’s ambivalence for Peeta was there, that she was a figure of integrity, not a sexualized hottie with a bow and arrow.
The movie rocked. And I’m so so proud that it represents kidlit.
Okay, on to the second movie. The Lorax. Another kidlit movie. Obviously, I’m not the target audience. But that is not why I hated this movie with a passion as bright as the Truffala trees. This is a movie that didn’t trust its audience. It pandered to it. A dopey, soapy environmental message that if we all plant a tree, everything will be OK. I keep comparing it to the brilliantly subversive Wall-E, which charted similar ground of human greed and environmental degradation and the hope of one little plant, and it’s weird because ostensibly they are about the same thing. But I left Wall-E both amazed (they made this? For kids?) and depressed (yep, we’re heading for that, and I just threw my giant popcorn tub in the garbage where it’ll go to landfill) and amazed again (the film was fantastic). I left The Lorax needing a shower.
For one, the motivating factor, why Ted (named after Theodore Geisel, Dr. Seuss, I assume; I wonder what he’d think of the honor) wants to find a tree is to impress a girl. The girl wants to see a tree. Which begged the question: Why wouldn’t SHE go on the adventure to find it? And then, after finding out what went wrong with the trees (we chopped them down, now we have to pay for bottled air because no trees=no photosynthesis and the greedy air manufactures would like to keep it that way) there’s some cute little adventuring and then everyone changes their minds and a Truffala tree is planted and it’s all good.
Maybe if The Lorax hadn’t merchandised to a sick amount (green cars, green detergent, the Lorax would approve. Dr. Seuss, I daresay, would not), I wouldn’t have minded. Maybe if the girl character, who was the one who CARED ABOUT TREES, had gone looking for one, I wouldn’t have minded (apparently, if I want to see that movie, I have to wait for Brave). Maybe if the reason for finding a tree hadn’t been a kiss from the girl. Maybe if Ted had undergone some sort of transformation, maybe if the movie hadn’t ended with some feel-good you-can-make-a-difference quote, but statistics about the number of trees cut down per minute in Brazilian rain forests and what kids can do to make a difference, maybe then I wouldn’t be so angry. But I am.
Not just because the movie sucked, but because the filmmakers didn’t trust their audience. That is the amazing thing to me about Wall-E and The Hunger Games. In both cases, filmmakers trusted their audiences to get the nuance. To understand moral ambiguity. To be in the uncomfortable position of consuming media and attacking consumerism and media. To understand the gray area and be entertained. The Hunger Games (and Wall-E) entertained me (and Wall-E my small children). And they made me think. And they made me feel. Which is the bar we should set for films, for all ages.
I will stop now. Perhaps it’s good that I only get to two movies in a weekend once a presidency.