On chameleons, gnomes and the Pixar Continuum

My family and I saw a pair of animated movies in the last few weeks that we rather enjoyed, but for entirely different reasons. And their difference got me thinking about what is really the Sweet Spot for a family movie: That place where kids and parents are entertained, enriched and engaged, and no one feels talked down to or force-marched to keep up.

The first subject was “Gnomeo and Juliet,” which had quite possibly the most humorless trailer a cartoon movie could muster. (Proof: One character tells a mushroom-shaped fellow, with the broadest possible delivery, “You look like a fun guy!” Uncle, I cry.)  When I realized how much recycled Elton John music was waiting within, my skip-o-meter had dipped past AVOID all the way to RENOUNCE. But a President’s Day holiday (concealed in plain sight on our calendar) pounced on us from out of nowhere, and my desperate plan to keep the masses entertained came to this: the only animated movie in theaters. Apparently, every other parent in Chicagoland had the same idea, and so we sat lickably close to the giant screen. Strap in for 90 minutes of misery, I thought.

To my surprise, the flick wasn’t bad. “Gnomeo” had my kids laughing from the get-go. In Shakespearean fashion, the movie opens with a prologue from a helium-voiced gnome: “The story you about to see has been told before. A lot.” For some reason this made my children laugh. The speech, coupled with de rigeur slapstick, warmed us up on all of our various levels of expectation. Could the Sweet Spot lie ahead?

Not quite, but respectably close. “Gnomeo” proceeds with a very light hand, going for the easy comedy of cutesy-poo lawn ornaments behaving unspeakably one moment and adorably the next. It squeezes plenty of juice from the low-hanging fruit of dialog humor, most notably a Latin-talking flamingo who brings a  “Puss In Boots” vaudeville to the proceedings. If you put a gaggle of writers in a room and asked, “What are some funny things you’d like to see lawn ornaments do?” you’d get a reasonably amusing collection of gags very much like this movie. Nothing aiming too high, with most of the punchlines landing below the belt — that is to say, upon the shortest of the crowd.

So with the interests of its LCD fulfilled, “Gnomeo” kept us highfalutin adults (or me, at least) engaged by reminding us that the source material really is, you may recall, a tragedy. Echoing the original play, hot-tempered Tybalt gravely wounds rival Mercutio (renamed Benny here for some reason; an unfinished “… and the Jets” reference, perhaps?). Romeo responds rashly to avenge his clan, which ends up in Tybalt’s death (!) and Gnomeo’s apparent fatal smashing. I almost began to wonder if this light flick had the cojones to go all the way with its homage to the original.

It didn’t, of course. But where I enjoyed “Gnomeo” the most was when it faced its namesake directly and decoupled itself from a tragic trajectory. Gnomeo ends up having a heart-to-heart with another inanimate statue, a Shakespeare in a public park, where Will insists that Gnomeo’s familiar story is destined for doom. Gnomeo vows to break tradition. Shakespeare laughingly dismisses his optimism. Clever stuff, and a smarter way to diverge from the story’s foundation than simply by ignoring it.

Sometimes the best movie-going experiences come from expecting the worst, and not finding it. Unlike most heartless critics, I enjoyed enjoying this movie with my kids.

Which brings us, a few weeks later, to another ninja-like holiday, “Casimir Pulaski Day,” which Chicago-area school children celebrate by wondering who Casimir Pulaski was. In honor of this Polish hero of the Revolutionary War, we took in more cinema distraction: “Rango.”

As John Cleese might say, “and now for something completely different.” This dusty spaghetti Western is practically masochistic in its insistence to take the hardest route possible.  The characters are ugly. The theme is dark. The plot is convoluted. The visuals of drought and desperation are downright uncomfortable. What humor there is feels as dry as the desert, and as distant as the setting sun. And “Rango” makes regular use of spirit-quest hallucinations and what them folks with book-larnin’ call “magical realism.” Case in point: the talking roadkill.

Cuddly it ain’t.

“Rango” isn’t an easy movie to love. It’s as if director Gore Verbinski walked into his producer’s office with a presentation enumerating the standard gags, pratfalls, crotch jokes and too-cute sidekicks expected of a modern animated film, then closed by saying, “And I promise not to give you any of that.”

As a card-carrying Cynical Hipster, this means I should be gaga for “Rango.” And after a fashion, I am. I think I’ve established that I enjoy movies that make daring choices, and vow to do something I’ve never seen before. “Rango” is a shoe-in for my Missouri Hall of Fame, an honor for movies that respond to the challenge: Show Me Something.

But “Rango” is as scaly and prickly as its desert-dwelling characters, to the point of becoming off-putting. It walks a line I can’t quite define, meandering between “The Apple Dumpling Gang” and “Unforgiven.” The results feel as murky as a bottle of sassafras. Like it’s daring me not to like it.

So was it wrong to take such dares? No. Though critics are a little mixed on “Rango,” I will always support entertainment that pokes holes in genre. But I wish it had been closer to that Sweet Spot in what I am now calling the Pixar Continuum. Consider for a moment, Pixar’s masterpiece, “Up.” This is a movie that:

* featured an 80-year-old misanthrope as central protagonist

* gave us miscarriage, a lonely widower, and unfilled dreams in the first 10 minutes

* fantasized about dropping children from great heights, and

* pitted its heroes against talking dogs, blimps, biplanes and yet another cranky senior citizen.

“Up” was stuffed to the gills with surprising choices, some of them pretty dark. On a continuum between fluff and heft, it lands far, far from the bearable lightness of “Gnomeo,” while peering down the line at the distant and dolorous “Rango.” It seems almost as if “Rango” hurled itself from a catapult in Candyland, hoping to touch down near “Up,” but overshooting by a fur piece.

Pixar knows that sweet spot. Not only did they stick the landing with “Up,” but they’ve gotten some Kerri Strug finishes from surprising fare like “Ratatouille,” “Finding Nemo,” and “Wall-E.” These are movies that make original, unusual choices, steer clear of cliche and take chances that might alienate the audience. Though I feel like “Wall-E” landed closer to “Rango” on the overshot-the-mark end of the continuum, you can see the confidant Pixar hallmark nonetheless. Pixar makes movies with a vision, and no amount of comparison to The Way Things Have Always Been stopped them from machete-hacking new paths in storytelling for kids.

My kids sure didn’t laugh during “Rango.” They all gave it favorable marks afterward (ages 6, 8 and 10), but the real test will be if they request to see it again when the DVD comes out. If we give it a second viewing, I’m going to bring a tall glass of cool, cool water and see if it dissolves my crusty heart.

Though perhaps a whiskey in a dirty glass is what I really need.

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