Rejection Week: A goodbye to my greeting cards

Welcome to Rejection Week, an examination of just a few things I have created that have been rejected, denied, passed over and outright dissed. My list of misses is much longer than my list of hits, and sometimes I think there’s more value in reflecting on what didn’t work rather than what did.

Also, there’s a completely self-serving aspect, too: Many of the things I’ve created I really liked, and if no one will ever see them, then they die little deaths on my shelf. So yes, I will only be sharing things that I am at least a little proud of.

We open with a series of greeting cards I made in 2009 as part of Hallmark’s regular open contests for amateurs. Though I didn’t necessarily expect Hallmark to use my art, I worked as hard as I could to make some of these look pretty. I believe my style could only be lumped generously in what is called “naive art,” which is a pretentious way of saying “doodler.” As I recall, I did the first two for a basic birthday challenge, and then another series as a sort of “what can you do” sampler aimed directly at Shoebox.

In each case, I got a confirmation e-mail that my submissions had been received. And that was all.

What I learned

I learned that coming up with pithy, bawdy, zippy jokes for a greeting card is not the same as cracking jokes in the back of an office meeting or civics classroom. I was unemployed when attempting these, and I think it would have been easier if I had been surrounded at the time by my usual cadre of funny co-workers. Just being around smarties and smart alecks raises the game of creative types. I’m especially susceptible; retorts and repartee are an elixir for inspiration. (Which seems self-evident on the Shoebox blog; that sounds like a supportively goofy office for generating regular ha-ha.) I could have used that boost when staring at the drawing board for these.

Follow ‘Em All!
(Rejection Week Day One)
Rejection Week Day Two
Rejection Week Day Three
Rejection Week Day Four
Rejection Week Day Five

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Three-Word Review of ‘Cars 2’

Lasseter’s blind spot.

Captions don't count: The original “Cars” inspired my very first Three-Word Review, as I believed I could sum up its entirety to a co-worker by saying, “Beautiful but boring.” And here we are at the sequel, which is even more beautiful and – through explosions, spy gadgets and incessant jeopardy – somehow even more boring. “Cars 2” delivers cartloads of James Bond blah-bah and stand-by-your-friends gabbity gab, and somewhere near the end I’m waving my hand in the universal “speed it up” signal, because I’m tired of driving down this highway on a flat tire. Just end it already! What director John Lasseter thought was an exciting, twisty romp is actually unintelligible and self-indulgent and sadly, strangely weak. And it stings to say it, because this is Pixar we’re talking about, and they should know better. Lasseter, more than anyone, knows story. As a producer and director and creative leader at Pixar since Day One, he has overseen some of the most powerful movies, animated or otherwise, ever created. Under his hand, Pixar has become synonymous with top quality storytelling. So what happened here? Reportedly, the “Cars” concept is Lasseter’s baby, a personal project bubbled up from his primal love of rolling vehicles. That childlike infatuation must block all sense and sensibility when making judgment calls about his talking-car dream. He indulged his whims, damn the torpedoes – those torpedoes being “original story” and “meaningful character” and “coherent plot,” all of which hit home and sank this leaky ship. But take heart: The teaser trailer for next summer’s Pixar outing, a Scottish fairy tale called “Brave,” came out this week, and in 60 seconds hope returns that Pixar never really lost its way. It can be excused an off year every couple of decades.




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Three-Word Review of ‘Kung Fu Panda 2’


Stronger than bamboo.

Captions don’t count: KFP2 treads boldly into territory that usually belongs only to Pixar. This soulful film swings confidently between heft and lightness, humor and pathos, which until now has been only Pixar’s playground. I’ve blogged here before about how the original KFP out-Pixar’ed Pixar that year and sent Wall-E to the rust bin of history. I’ve also been clear that I didn’t care about this sequel, because the original did its job so well … and since when has a sequel to a children’s franchise been anything other than a mediocre cash-grab anyway? Since KFP2, that’s when. Featuring fewer kung fu kicks, but more meaning, this movie also deals in one of my favorite themes: Self-determination and the notion that destiny is not in charge of you – YOU are. Panda Po comes into his own as a fully fleshed out personality, a magic combination of self-confidence and self-deprecation, of gravitas and goofiness. This is not just a great sequel, it’s a great movie.

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Stealing a little thunder: How I’d inject some extra electricity into ‘Thor’

“Thor” seems to be enjoying a sort of hotness, seemingly embraced by the geek community at large, which is notoriously harsh to those who mishandle beloved properties. A Facebook friend of mine recently announced, “Thor was actually pretty good. Don’t act like you’re all above it.”

I’m not above it. I swear. I am, however, confident in saying that while this is a very fun movie, it is not a very good movie.

It’s not that I can’t enjoy a good popcorn film. I’ve been pretty clear that I can support the poppiest of popcorn movies without being snobbish about it. The kink in my craw comes when I actually start to get my expectations up. When I get an inkling that something might be uncommonly good – either thanks to a distinctive trailer, good nerd-of-mouth buzz, or a perfectly paired actor or director – that’s when I want a story to rise to the occasion. Come on nerd culture: We can expect our media to be a cut above.

So it was with “Thor.” I never cared about the character (as a comics superhero, at least), and had written off this movie the instant I heard it was greenlit. But then Kenneth Branagh took the director spot — that is, Kenneth “Once more unto the breach” Branagh — and I thought, “Oh. I see. Marvel wants this movie to be good, not just some slam-bang cash-in. They have expectations.

Certain of my expectations were met by this movie: When a god of thunder hits things with his big, fat hammer, there should be big, fat explodey on the screen. On this, Branagh delivers. The boomboom scenes look pretty; very pretty indeed. My favorite scene is one that rests lightly (relative to the rest of the movie) on computer graphics: A cannon-faced automaton is destroying a little Arizona town, while a cast of Asgardian heroes has a dickens of a time containing it. It’s got all the visual surprises and dead-sexy ultraviolence a superhero movie should have.

But in this story of Norse gods, the devil is in the details, and the details of character development must have been left on the editing room floor. The whole point of this “origin story” for Thor is that the cocky god-thug must learn humility and a genuine affection for the human race before he can truly be a hero. After what appears to be a single day in the Arizona desert, he ends his vacation on Earth with an inexplicable, unconvincing commitment to heroism and humans. Natalie Portman plants a kiss on Thor as he departs our world, and in no way do you believe that these two share a meaningful relationship beyond lusty desire (hers) and bemused curiosity (his). After all, Thor’s had centuries to snog hearty Asgardian dames like the lovely and talented Sif (Jaimie Alexander) … so after 24 hours with a slightly scattered, flustered and, uh, breakable Earth girl, he’s got real Capital-L Love and a hankering for humanity?

That’s not change we can believe in.

What I’d have whispered in Branagh’s ear as he sat down with his storyboards: Thor needs to have an ironclad reason to don his Team Earth shirt, and it needs to come from Natalie Portman directly. She needs to wow him with some behavior or act that is distinctly human. This happens all the time in science fiction, where supposedly superior beings encounter Earthlings and find something quaint and endearing about us, causing them to find us endlessly fascinating. Think of, say, Q from Star Trek (an omnipotent being who couldn’t stop the comparatively prosaic compulsion to stick his nose in Capt. Picard’s business), and Dr. Who (who at tense moments often interjects his enthusiasm for human spirit, gumption, adventurosity and the like).

So in the middle third of this movie, we needed to see Thor try to solve a problem in his Asgardian way, and Natalie Portman needed to show him – with the confidence of a woman worthy of a god – a better way. She needed to to appeal to his head and heart, not just to his other godly bits.

She could use her smarts. She is an astro-meteoro-cosmo-something-or-other scientist, after all, though most of the movie she acts like a headless chicken with a schoolgirl crush. Perhaps she could solve a problem with forethought, caution and wit, which would be the exact opposite of Thor’s quite literal smash-mouth solution to problems.

She could use her heart. Since Thor has been cast out for cruelty, she could model some behavior that proves to this superior being that he’s actually inferior in ways he’s yet to learn. Perhaps she exhibits forgiveness of someone (maybe Thor himself), giving the god a peek into how mere mortals must solve conflict without using hammers. Thor’s strained relationship with his brother Loki is central to this movie. So have him learn the power of forgiveness from an Earthling!

She could use her muscles. Though by muscles, I really mean bravery. This thin little woman could find herself in a perilous situation where she must show godlike courage without godlike power to back it up. This demonstrates to Thor the audacity and pluck that even we frail mortals can muster when our hearts are at stake. It’s one thing for an impervious deity to smash through an enemy’s skull, but what does it take for a human to do the same for the sake of another?

One of the most convincing “change of heart” moments I’ve ever seen on film comes from “Ice Age.” Yes, the 2002 cartoon from 20th Century Fox. It’s a brilliant movie all around, and if anyone wants to give me grief about it, I’ll see you outside by the bike racks after school. One reason this movie is so solid: One of the main buddies in this buddy flick is a deadly sabertooth who is secretly plotting to lead his companions into the maw of a sabertooth pack ambush. Hello, that’s an unusual theme for a “kid” movie! Over the course of the story, this cat must be given a cause to betray his pack and side with the heroes, and the moment comes, convincingly, at the end of the second act. The woolly mammoth nearly dies saving the cat from a lava-filled death trap, and the cat asks, “Why did you risk your life for me?” The mammoth replies, “It’s what you do in a herd.” When the cat realizes this new herd cares more for him than his original pack, he has a believable, rewarding, satisfying change of heart.

Thor needed to have a good reason to believe his new herd of Earthlings are worth getting hammered over. I don’t believe he did, and now I have to relegate another high-potential geek movie into the “popcorn flick” category, rather than hailing it as truly one of the immortals.


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Game Night in America: Are you ready for some boardgame?

We fill the long slog of winter nights with games whenever we can. Those damn nights are so dark so early, and even when the light comes back, this is still Chicago, and that means winter lasts until … well, let me put my head out the door. Yep, until about now.

But games, man, games. We love ’em in this house. They’re fun, they warm the brain, and they give me something to do with kids that doesn’t automatically end in me throttling, yelling or banning desserts from all involved. (Those things might still happen, but games have the potential to delay Daddy’s snap.)

Last Christmas, Santa did his usual augmenting of the game closet, and we’ve had great new games in heavy rotation ever since. Here’s how we spent many a night this past winter, with our clothing-optional game nights before the roaring fire:

To be fair, they put their shirts back on after the resin-rich fatwood burned off. I mean, that stuff is the kindling from HELL.

If you’re at all interested in sharing moments of strategy, tactics, dumb luck and sick laughter with your family (preferably with the preponderance of your clothing on), consider this hit parade:

Pizza Box Football

The official BoardGameGeek entry on this dicefest game says that it’s suited for kids 12 and up, and many reviewers insisted only older kids would enjoy it. But they never met my 8-year-old son. When he daydreams, it’s of all-star baseball match-ups, buzzer-beating jump shots and Hail Mary passes into the end zone.

Pizza Box can intimidate, with pages and pages of laminated charts, and a bag full of dice in many colors and sizes. But once you crack the system, it flows. By the end of our second game, we already memorized some common dice results, and the game blazed by. The defense decides what kind of play it thinks the opponent will choose (run, short pass, or long pass), and chooses one of three colored dice in secret to reflect how it will line up. The offense announces which of those three it will run. Then dice are revealed and rolled. Charts are consulted. Plays unfold.

The charts! They could probably paper a bathroom wall with their pages of contingencies, cross-references and special cases. If I roll poorly on my long pass, I might get a result of “QB Pressure.” Quick, check the QB Pressure chart! Another roll, and you might save the day with a scrambling completion … or just get your sorry ass sacked. Whatever happens, move the down marker and march the peg on the “time clock” another tick closer to the end of the game. Hope you can hold the ball (or wrest it back) with smart decisions and hot dice.

It’s not for everyone, all this rolling and chart-consulting. But my little Butkus and I get a lot of energy from the back and forth slugfest that really does capture the feel of a pigskin brawl. In our second game, with the final “seconds” ticking away on the time track, and the ball on the 13, my son needed a touchdown to win the game. I lined up for the pass, and he surprised me with a run. A bushel load of dice rolled across the table. When all the modifiers were applied and the charts had spoken, he gained 12 yards on the final play of the game. I had stopped him at the 1.

How great is that? We still talk about that game, and how he came back in the rematch to stomp me like a narc at a biker rally. Pizza Box Football is probably a bit dry and abstract to most, but to the sports nut it’s the next best thing to Monday morning quarterbacking.

Enchanted Forest

Usually memory games are a big zippo for me. Who has fun matching pairs of butterflies and hot dogs? But Enchanted Forest makes it fun by adding really nifty plastic trees and wooden pawns that are fun to manipulate. This is the kind of game that my daughter will remember in 30 years, and get all nostalgic and go on eBay and pay too much for it.

This is a simple game. Roll the dice, get to a tree, peek under it, and try to remember the fairy tale image underneath. Meanwhile, there’s a stack of cards over at the king’s castle, and the topmost card informs you which image you’re looking for. Once you peek under the correct tree, you must race over to the castle and declare which tree hides the matching image. There’s some gamesmanship afoot (“Uh-oh, Daddy’s heading for the castle! That last tree he peeked under must be the one!”), and an interesting roll-and-move variant that lets you choose to move backward or forward in any combination of the two dice. Just enough analysis to give little minds something to noodle, and it plays mercifully fast for my waterlogged memory.

Summoner Wars

This smart card game has been in solid rotation since last summer, but Santa saw fit to drop a couple of new decks in Oldest Boy’s stocking. At Christmas, who doesn’t want to find undead hordes lurking by the chimney with care?

The new decks are killer great fun, and they only further my opinion that Summoner Wars is one of the best two-player cards games since Fifty-Two Pickup. Combine miniatures games with “Magic: The Gathering” and throw in the essence of chess, and you’ve got 30 minutes of tense dueling on a table top. What’s so refreshing about this game is that you can get a couple of decks for cheap and enjoy it just fine; and if you want to add some variety, you can stir in a new deck every so often for another 10 bucks. Decks are complete — unlike most collectible card games, there is no “blind buy” or hunt to find a rare amid the common cards  — so the allure of collectibility and customization are there without the expense.

The only problem with this game is that since Christmas morning, I’ve gone 0-8 against the boy. In fact, I played the first 7 games with one of the new decks (a pack of healing humans called “Vanguards”) vowing that I would win with them once before trying a different deck. Then he said, “Dad, I’m gonna play the Vanguards against the army of your choice, and I’m gonna win.” The little snot was right.

This will sting less if Summoner Wars sparks his career as a brilliant military tactician.


Cool and abstract, this set-matching card game came highly recommended from my gaming adviser, BoardGameGeek. Santa thought my daughter would really dig a rainbow-colored pastime — but it was kind of underwhelming to discover that the cards come in an odd palette that included gravel gray, pressboard brown and spray-tan orange. With a stoic chameleon blending into the textured “art school photography class” backgrounds on the cards, “cuddly” and “fun” aren’t words I’d use for this aesthetic.

Gameplay is clever, however. Players draw cards from a deck and lay them down in the set of their choice; over a round everybody will have to claim one of these sets. The idea is to specialize in three colors, while collecting as few extra colors as possible. (These will count against you in the final scoring.) Players have nice, compact little decisions to make about where to put each colored card they draw; they try to put it in sets that either serve themselves, or frustrate their opponents. It isn’t flashy, but with simple mechanics that run just deep enough, this one has been a quiet success.


Totally ridiculous and chance-driven, this basically brainless game (yuk yuk — see what I did there?) is still a hoot with the right crowd. And with two boys aged 8 and 11, I always have the right crowd. In Zombies!!!, you’re a guy in a zombie-infested town, and you’ve got to bash your way to the helicopter, one undead obstacle at a time. You’ve got nothing but the bullets in your pocket and the 4s or higher on your six-sided die. It doesn’t get much deeper than that. (Well, maybe it does. Do you dare raid the zombie-filled hardware store to play the coveted “chainsaw” card? If you care about theme, yes, you do.)

Not for every family, as some of the card artwork is pretty gruesome. I just hope my children will tell their therapists some day what an awesome dad I was for screwing them up with fun games like this.

Heroscape: D&D style

My continued admiration for this miniatures wargame continues with this most recent set, a D&D-themed group of sharp-looking trolls, drow elves and shiny sword-bearing heroes. The game has a nice stand-alone feature that replicates the feel of walking through a D&D “dungeon crawl,” but as always, Heroscape is at its most fun when you mix the armies of different sets. If you’ve ever wanted to see Hulk and Spider-Man team up to take down a gnarly black dragon, then Heroscape is your game. The rules are simple enough for my boys to play, but deep enough to warrant some meaningful decision-making each turn.

Lost Pyramid

Note the addition of water glasses to hold down the egdes of the board. It just didn't want to lie flat. A small complaint.

I almost ignored this box at Toys R Us, because it was all alone on a bottom shelf — like a wallflower at a school dance, this game was begging to be treated like a loner. Plus the box artwork was miserably fuzzy. Who produces a boxed board without high-res art?

But the deeply discounted price tag – $7! – made a tempting temptation.

That crazy low price works both ways: Like seeing the box alone on the bottom shelf, a next-to-valueless price seems to project a low self esteem that’s hard to get cozy with. But there was something kind of interesting about the photo of the game board, and heck it was only $7 …

So imagine my surprise when we finally cracked open the game board, and it unfurled like a Robert Sabuda pop-up book. Look at that photo up there — that’s the game board right out of the box. That’s so cool.

The game play is interesting enough that I felt super bad about dismissing this box before I got to know it. It’s a move-around-the-board game, normally a pretty boring concept, but it twists the usual roll-and-move mechanic. Instead of rolling dice, players use cards that have multiple uses – for example, some cards bear both a stated movement value, or instructions for disabling a trap. It’s your choice how you want to use it.

Players must deduce the locations of all the pharaoh’s treasure while avoiding the mummy chasing after them. As they move, they face blocked paths or sliding hallways that can be moved in their favor – or against their enemies – by playing the right card.

Which proves that even though good games can comes in big, beautiful boxes, sometimes the awkward girl in head-wrapping orthodontics and taped up glasses is worth asking to dance.


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Three-Word Review of ‘Hop’

Misses the basket.

Captions don’t count: I don’t like spending time badmouthing movies I didn’t care for because a.) making a good movie is ridiculously hard and b.) tearing down a mediocre movie is ridiculously easy. It’s enough to say that “Hop” – though a hit with my kids – is not funny enough for me to sit through it again. James Marsden does his honest best to yuk it up with a CG rabbit, but nobody says or does a thing that I found worth expending energy to laugh about. It didn’t have to be this way; I think there’s a good movie in “Hop” that never found its way out of the rabbit hole. Here’s some constructive criticism for the moment, in 20 years, when some studio opts to do the remake. ITEM THE FIRST: The Bunny Logic is unsound. Why do some characters freak out when they see the bunny while others do not? In a universe where the Easter Bunny actually delivers baskets and hides eggs unbidden, it would be an accepted fact that he exists. No one should be surprised by a magic bunny, because *someone* put all that stuff under the hedgerows every Easter. ITEM THE SECOND: Further internal logic problems: A major segment in the film involves the bunny following Marsden into a job interview and ruining it for him, because Marsden is so preoccupied with keeping the rabbit under wraps. Why does he care if the bunny is seen -- especially when he spends the rest of the movie toting the rabbit around in public? Broken logic, disconnected viewer. ITEM THE THIRD: The prologue narration gives away (and spoils) the most interesting premise of the whole film: That the bumbling human protagonist ends up as the new Easter Bunny. That’s actually an interesting twist that would have been far more fun to discover in the finale. Far, far, far more fun. I would have been surprised. Pleasantly. ITEM THE FOURTH AND FINAL: In a story about following your dreams, the main character learns he must suck it up and accept the predestination he was trying to escape. The entire story revolves around this runaway bunny rebelling against his father’s plans for him, and following his dreams as a drummer. In the end he discovers that an artist’s life is too impractical, and that he must accept the role as chief bureaucrat in a candy delivery firm (albeit in a co-chief capacity). That’s probably realistic life advice, but it’s a downer as a film for impressionable kiddies. BONUS ITEM THE FIFTH AND TRULY FINAL: I have finally reached Hispanic Ha-Ha Saturation Limit. Like Puss in Boots in “Shrek” and Featherstone the Flamingo in “Gnomeo & Juliet,” a wacky Spanish-accented character provides the requisite Amusing Dialect Humor in "Hop." This character is one of a googleplex of baby chicks in the movie, but he is the only one who speaks with this accent. Why? Perhaps it was the only way the filmmakers could figure to render the unfunny dialog slightly more laugh-worthy. Ai caramba, el hassenfeffer.

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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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