The Theory of Chaos

Sunday, October 22, 2006

MOVIE REVIEW - Open Season

Full review behind the jump

Open Season

: Jill Culton and Roger Allers, with co-director Anthony Stacchi
: Screen story by Jill Culton and Anthony Stacchi, screenplay by Steve Bencich, Ron J. Friedman, Nat Maudlin, based on an original story by Steve Moore and John Carls
: Michelle Murdocca
Featuring the vocal talents of
: Martin Lawrence, Ashton Kutcher, Gary Sinise, Debra Messing, Billy Connolly, Jon Favreau, Gordon Tootoosis

Here’s something new – an animated story about creatures living in the wilderness that doesn’t even bother trying to make the wilderness look appealing. Although Sony Pictures Animation, newcomers at the digital trough, demonstrate impressive rendering power in
Open Season (I especially like how soft and plush the animal fur looks), the mountainous forest outside the fictional small town of Timberline is an unforgivably under-designed place. Only it’s so aggressively bright and antic that you might not even notice just how bland it is, and how unpleasant the undertones of its story are.

The movie spends almost no time even looking for majestic vistas, much less appreciating them – remember how in
Cars you believed that the animators had gone out into the heartland, fallen in love with these places, and determined to put them on screen for us to love too? I might be wrong (it’s happened before) but it feels like the closest the makers of Open Season came to a forest was gazing out their office window at a tree on Culver Boulevard.

And after they’ve scribbled in the environment, they populate it with childish and mean-spirited critters and show it to be little more than a place where nasty violence occurs and there’s no toilets. Small wonder that comfortably-domesticated grizzly Boog (Martin Lawrence) takes one look at the place and votes to return to his TV and processed food. And we in the audience are left with a family comedy ostensibly pitched at children, but which at its heart (unconvincingly tacked-on ending message notwithstanding) is about the shallow worries of fat suburbanites who hate and fear the outdoors.

Perhaps we’ve just achieved talking animal critical mass since every studio in town decided they wanted a piece of Pixar’s action. The mere thought of cataloguing the foibles and celebrity voices of another set of cute mammals banding together to stick it to the man produces a deep sigh in me, I’ll admit. But that’s my problem, not yours, and you’re not here to hear about my problems.

Let’s start with Boog’s problems. Well, really, as far as he can tell, he doesn’t have any. He was adopted by spunky animal wrangler Beth (Debra Messing) and lives in her garage, watching Wheel of Fortune and making cute to get cookies. He performs in a show for children and gets to chill through life. The humans all seem worried that he doesn’t belong in their world and will need to leave someday; I didn’t see the trouble, since he acts less like a bear and more like a relative who overstays his invitation to “crash for awhile”.

The behavior thing keeps hanging me up, since the animals spend a lot of time walking on their hind legs and using tools. In fact, when threatened by hunters, instead of fighting back the natural way they immediately start appropriating lethal objects like chainsaws and propane tanks. And since the hunters are broadly depicted as nothing more than a band of trigger-and-truck-happy yahoos who deserve whatever comeuppance they get, you begin to question who’s really the victim in this relationship.

But the only character who cares to notice when, say, a deer is walking down the main thoroughfare of town drinking coffee from a to-go cup, is the psychotic hunter Shaw (Gary Sinise), who sees a conspiracy afoot in the animal kingdom. He’s kind of right – too bad he’s such a heel. I do like the complicated relationship he has with his rifle, though, he’s the one celebrity-voiced character where the performer seems to have done any work creating an alternate persona to play.

He’s been mad ever since Boog helped one get away from him, the hyperactive deer Elliot (Ashton Kutcher). Elliot’s a little too runty and unfocused for his own herd, and he sort of likes the creature comforts (ho ho) of the human world. But, as his brain moves too quickly to consider consequences, he gets the two of them in enough trouble that Beth finally takes Boog out to live among his fellow quadrupeds. She reasons that, since he’s above the falls, he’ll be safe when hunting season begins – the movie is unconcerned about the creatures living below the falls, we never even see them.

There are flourishes that I appreciate – the movie is just right in how it constantly refreshes but never comments on a goofy running gag about rabbits used for purposes beyond their design. And one little critter honestly did capture my heart, a lonely porcupine voiced by non-celebrity Matthew Taylor. Compare what personality he’s able to create with essentially one word of dialogue against Jon Favreau, who plays blue-collar beaver Reilly and was presumably cast because of the millions of 4-7 year-olds who can’t get enough of the voice of Jon Favreau. He’s not bad, but what could a real voice pro have done?

Every film genre goes through a kind of wax and wane at the multiplex, Hollywood’s mentality is that if you like a slice of pie, then you’ll love being forcefed five whole pies at gunpoint. Saccharine computer-animated kids’ movies and grisly torture-filled horrorshows are the “it” genres right now, and there’s a glut of Jesus movies lining up for their shot. I don’t know what that says about America’s state of mind, but I don’t know what else to say about Open Season, either. It doesn’t have high aspirations, and other than describing a couple more cute jokes, or grumping about more of its less-charming tendencies (really, did we need the poop?), I suppose I’ve had my say about it. On my next camping trip, I’ll breathe deep, take a healthy look around, and appreciate the things this movie didn’t bother to share with us.


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