Well that didn’t take long at all.

Last week, I opened my column with the news that Christopher Noland’s “Tenet” was being delayed again, and no new release date set by the film’s distributor Warner Bros.

What I failed to mention last week was Warner Bros. also stated “Tenet” wouldn’t receive a traditional global day-and-date release. Meaning the film wasn’t going to be released on the same day around the world.

On Monday, Warner Bros. went into further detail, announcing “Tenet” would debut internationally on August 26 in 70 overseas territories including Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Korea, Russia and the United Kingdom.

A week later, they plan to release “Tenet” in select U.S. cities over Labor Day weekend.

Which cities exactly is anyone’s guess at this point. Though with the way things are currently going with the pandemic, I wouldn’t be surprised if “Tenet’s” U.S. release date changes once again.

At least Regal is staying positive. With the new release date for “Tenet,” the major theater chain has already announced they plan on reopening their theaters a couple weeks beforehand on August 21.

And who knows. Maybe by the end of next month we’ll have turned everything around, and we’ll start seeing a downward trend in the infection rate of COVID-19. It’s hard to be optimistic right now though.

Luckily, in the meantime, we still have new movies releasing to stream in the comfort of our own homes. And as usual I watched two of them this weekend.

The first of which is an animated film starring John Krasinski as a man who ends up with a magical box of animal crackers which transform him into a variety of different creatures. And the second is a horror/thriller, which just so happens to be the directorial debut of actor Dave Franco.

So without any further ado, let’s get to the reviews.

***

Animal Crackers

First up is “Animal Crackers.”

Owen Huntington’s (John Krasinski) life is one continuous loop of monotony. A loop that keeps him from seeing his wife Zoe (Emily Blunt), or his three year old daughter MacKenzie. Then, one day, Owen discovers a long lost uncle passed away, and left his circus to Owen.

But what should have been a blessing soon unfolds into a curse. The circus is broke, the animals are all gone, and most of the performers are well past their prime. It’s a disaster. But then something magical happens. Owen discovers his uncle’s secret. A box of Animal Crackers that gives the bearer the ability to become any animal in the box.

This is one of those films where the story of all the movie’s production and distribution issues is far more interesting than the story contained inside the film itself.

What started as an idea for a children’s graphic novel back in 2010 for the film’s writer/director/producer Scott Christian Sava, turned into a short film which was shopped around to various studios in the hopes of creating a feature length film.

According to an article from the Tennessean back in 2014, Sava received distribution offers from “every major studio” including Warner Bros., Disney, DreamWorks and Sony, and even had the interest of infamous Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, who made an offer to outright buy the entire rights of the film.

In hindsight, Sava’s decision to say “no” to Weinstein was clearly the correct one. Instead, the first-time filmmaker managed to convince a pair of Chinese investors to fund the project.

But of course, the story of “Animal Crackers” and its woes doesn’t end there.

Sava’s film ended up going millions of dollars over budget, likely partially due to the film’s shockingly star studded voice cast, including John Krasinski, Emily Blunt, Danny DeVito, Ian McKellen, Gilbert Gottfried, and Sylvester Stallone to name a few.

Forced to beg for cash from a series of investors to pay his actors, finish the movie, and give his Chinese investors some return on their investment, Sava says he was “extorted and abused by a series of Hollywood big-shots who knew that he had no money and exploited his weakness.”

One such potential backer, Darby Financial Products, sued Sava after he didn’t pay a $100,000 breakup fee after a $6 million deal fell apart. Though they settled, this further complicated Sava’s efforts to get his film distributed.

In the end, Sava turned to a seafood magnate by the name of Rodger May, who agreed to loan the filmmaker $5 million to complete his movie.

But then Sava’s distribution deal fell apart and he had to pay more than $400,000 to get his movie back. Which meant not only was he unable to pay back Rodger May, but he actually had to ask May for an additional $500,000 to cover the cost of the botched distribution deal.

May agreed, provided the filmmakers didn’t cut his brief voice cameo in the movie as “the perverted man in the fruit stand offering a peach.” I swear I’m not making this up.

Years passed, and the film languished without a distribution deal due to its “bad reputation” for shifting release dates, until eventually the movie’s investor Rodger May took matters into his own hands and sued Sava for the rights to the film.

Eventually, after much back and forth, which you can read in detail in Variety’s article titled “‘Animal Crackers’ Netflix Debut Caps a Harrowing Legal Ordeal,” May took full control of the film and completed a deal with Netflix on his own, which is where this movie finally released last weekend.

Naturally, the issue of “Animal Crackers” and its distribution deals didn’t end by landing on Netflix.

Arclight Films, the company which was originally working to sell the film, has since sent threatening letters to Netflix, claiming that the deal with Netflix violated its agreement. 

What will come of this latest legal kerfuffle is currently unknown, but on Friday a judge did deny Arclight’s request for a restraining order, allowing the release of “Animal Crackers” to go forward.

In the meantime though, after 10 long years this poor movie finally made it out of distribution hell. The real question now though, was it all worth it?

After all the trouble this movie went through to be seen by general audiences, is this ill-fated film actually worth watching?

This is where I wish I could come in and say “Yes!”

I wanted to like this movie.

I really liked the premise. The idea of a guy eating animal crackers to transform into different kinds of animals seemed like a cute idea.

It’s a little reminiscent of another animated feature from 20 years ago by Disney, titled “The Emperor’s New Groove.” Especially that film’s finale where the Emperor begins downing potion after potion, changing him into every animal imaginable, all in the hopes of becoming a human again.

Sadly, this film doesn’t even come close to living up to even the most modest of expectations.

This movie has a serious problem. One that ultimately comes down to its sloppily written screenplay.

But to be clear, the pieces for a well structured story are all present. It just has them arranged in an odd and unappealing way. Like a human sculpture with a pair of legs sprouting out of its neck. Or a portrait with the subject’s head inexplicitly upside down.

And what’s even more frustrating to me, is someone involved with the film clearly knows how this kind of story should have been told. Because that’s exactly how they present the film in their own synopsis. The one that I trimmed down and put at the beginning of this review.

The film doesn’t open with an introduction to Owen working at a deadend, life consuming job as you might expect.

Instead, the film begins in the past, with the two brothers who ran the circus, Bob Huntington (James Arnold Taylor) and Horatio Huntington (Ian McKellen), and their falling out over a woman named Talia (Tara Strong).

There’s nothing wrong with this of course. This little bit of backstory is good for showing how the circus was in its prime, and it establishes the movie’s main villain Horatio.

But then, it just keeps going.

Next, the film shows Owen happily in the audience, with the film’s narrator, voiced by Danny DeVito, outright stating that Owen practically grew up on the front row.

Owen meets Zoe, his future wife, at the circus. He even proposes to her right in the middle of the big-top.

So why on earth would Owen ever leave the place he loves? Why leave his family, his friends, and the place he spent his entire childhood for a dead end soul crushing job he hates?

Because Zoe’s Dad, voiced by Wallace Shawn, asks him to work at his dog biscuit factory. That’s it. That’s the only reason.

It doesn’t make sense.

If Owen had grown out of the circus, and had instead wanted to focus on “grown-up” things, it’d be one thing. Or if Owen left the circus as a child, only to rediscover the magic of the circus after his uncle leaves it to him, that would have made sense too.

But that’s not what happens. The film introduces us to Owen, a circus loving young boy, and the second action we see him take as an adult, right after proposing to Zoe, is something wildly out of character for him.

And the oddities don’t end there.

The reveal that Owen and Zoe are the new owners of the circus doesn’t happen until 45 minutes into the film, an event that should be the inciting incident for Owen’s character, the event that changes his life and makes the audience invested in his story. 

Instead, he continues to try to work for his father-in-law at the dog biscuit factory. And this is all well after he discovers the magical animal crackers.

It’s like everything is out of order in this movie.

I’m no screenwriter, but even I can see a better way to tell this story.

If I were writing this, I would start the film off with Owen as a kid in the circus. But then something traumatic leads to him leaving his once home for the relatively boring city or suburban life.

Cut to him as an adult, working his tail off to support a family, which includes a wife, and an animal loving little girl.

It doesn’t have to be a job he hates, but it should be one that keeps him away from his family, because part of the appeal of the circus is that he gets to spend more time with his wife and daughter.

In the actual movie, Owen and Zoe work in the same building and see each other all the time. That’s wonderful for them, but if you want your story to be about bringing a family together, you should probably start with them being more apart.

Then we can keep going and have Owen’s uncle pass away. This is when Owen should get the news that he’s the new owner of the circus, not 20 minutes after the funeral as it is in the actual film. You can introduce the evil brother, Horatio, here as well.

Of course Owen refuses, citing that he needs to be a responsible adult and can’t be involved in silly things like running a circus.

This right here, is where you bring in the hook.

Back at home Owen eats one of his uncle’s animal crackers, unaware of their magical properties, and is suddenly transformed into an animal. Preferably something terrifying, like a grizzly bear or something fun like that.

Comedy ensues. Owen’s wife freaks out, at least until he’s able to prove who he is. And of course his daughter, who loves animals, loses her mind at the possibility of her dad permanently being a giant teddy bear.

Owen freaks out too of course. He worries he’ll be an animal forever. So as soon as he can, he has his wife drive him back to the circus, with their daughter in tow, and then you can have Danny DeVito explain everything. Maybe even eventually have a flashback with the two brothers and their falling out.

Owen, now with a better grasp of what the circus actually is, decides to try and run the circus and save it from going broke, or being taken over by his evil uncle, or both. His decision is made easy after seeing his daughter’s eyes light up at the prospect of her daddy turning into animals all the time.

This is how a story like this should begin. It’s a starting place that sets up the main character, establishes who they are, and sets them off on a journey into something unknown and likely life changing.

It’s a classic story structure. Used so often in film and literature, it even has a name. “The Hero’s Journey.” You can see this same template used everywhere. From “Star Wars,” to “Harry Potter,” to basically every Disney film from the 90s.

But it’s used over and over again because it works.

You’re making a children’s movie. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel to stand out.

In an interview with IndieWire, Scott Christian Sava, the film’s lead writer and director is quoted saying, “And Tony [Bancroft], coming from Disney, made some good points about Owen going on a hero’s journey. (...) I had never heard of a hero’s journey. He was always explaining this was a normal way of doing things. And I’d say: ‘I don’t want to do a normal way of doing things.’”

I could understand never hearing of the hero’s journey, but when someone like Tony Bancroft, a man with numerous credits in the animation industry, and your co-director, tells you how basic story structure works, maybe you should listen to them.

What’s even more bizarre to me, is all the elements for a proper story are here. It’s all just randomly rearranged for no particular reason, except that the film’s creator didn’t want to do things the normal way.

But not only is the story structure here poor, there’s also a huge amount of time devoted to things that are irrelevant to the overall narrative.

Elements like Owen’s coworkers, including an eager scientist named Binkley (Raven-Symoné) and a company bully named Brock (Patrick Warburton), could have easily been removed, or at least had their roles significantly reduced.

I don’t have any major issues with the characters or the actors who portray them. They just aren’t necessary for this story, and there’s no reason they should have gotten as much screen time as they did. Especially when it’s at the expense of the main character and his family.

Then there’s the elephant in the room. Not a literal elephant as you might expect in a movie called “Animal Crackers,” but something I wish I could avoid talking about. But I can’t.

I’m sorry Ian McKellen. I love you as an actor, and as a great human being in general. But your songs in this movie were outright terrible.

That’s right. This movie has original songs. Not too many though. In fact, the only two which really stand out are both sung by the film’s main villain, voiced by none other than Sir Ian McKellen.

And both of them are just awful. It’s like Ian isn’t singing in time with the music. Heck, I’m half convinced he didn’t have any kind of music to sing along to at all, and it was all added in post production.

Then there’s a little matter of a duet. One with both Ian McKellen, and of all people, Gilbert Gottfried.

For the love of everything good in this world, why on earth would you make Gilbert Gottfried sing?

I like Gottfried as an actor just fine. He has a fun voice. But the man should never, ever sing. We all learned this over 25 years ago with Disney’s direct-to-VHS sequel of “Aladdin,” 1994’s “The Return of Jafar.”

He was terrible at singing then, and he’s terrible now.

Whose hairbrained idea was it to have Gottfried sing?

Oh wait. Here’s that same IndieWire interview again with the film’s writer and director, Scott Christian Sava. “It was creative bliss coming up with ideas. (...) Ian’s monologue is long and a bit tedious. What can we do? What if he broke out into song? And within weeks, he’s doing a duet with Gilbert Gottfried.”

Thanks Scott, I hate it.

Look, I’m not here to rain on the filmmaker’s parade. From what I can glean from interviews and Sava’s own Twitter account, working on this film was a dream come true for him. At least until the distribution issues and lawsuits happened.

And I don’t dislike everything about the movie.

The voice cast here is top notch, the animation is solid, and as I said before, I really like the concept.

Plus there’s a montage in the middle of the film set to Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” that I loved. The sequence was fun, flashy and it fit the song perfectly. There’s nothing I didn’t enjoy about that one moment, beyond that it eventually came to an end.

I also envy Sava’s opportunity to meet so many creative and talented individuals.

After all, how often does someone so new to the film industry end up working with the likes of well established actors like Ian McKellen, Danny DeVito, and Sylvester Stallone?

If you have a chance, I highly recommend taking a look at a 16-part Twitter thread from July 22 about Sava’s experience making “Animal Crackers.” 

Each post includes a detailed drawing from Sava’s sketchbook telling a little bit of his story, each of which I think is a work of art on its own.

The man is clearly a very talented artist, and I’m happy he was able to make this film he put so much of himself into.

I just wish I could have enjoyed it more.

“Animal Crackers” is rated TV-Y7 and is available to stream on Netflix.

***

The Rental

The other film this week is “The Rental.”

Two couples (Alison Brie, Dan Stevens, Jeremy Allen White, and Sheila Vand) on an oceanside getaway grow suspicious that the host of their seemingly perfect rental house may be spying on them.

Before long, what should have been a celebratory weekend trip turns into something far more sinister, as well-kept secrets are exposed and the four old friends come to see each other in a whole new light.

I’m not even sure what to say about this movie.

The entire reason I felt compelled to watch it was because it’s the first feature length film written and directed by Dave Franco.

Dave’s a solid actor, though it seems he’s spent most of his life living in the shadow of his more well known brother, James Franco.

I mostly like what I’ve seen from him though. I was intrigued when I saw he was making a movie of his own, and a horror movie no less. I just knew I had to check it out.

Turns out, “The Rental,” is fine. I guess? I don’t know.

It starts out standard enough.

We have our two couples. Charlie (Dan Stevens) and Michelle (Alison Brie) plus Josh (Jeremy Allen White) and Mina (Sheila Vand).

Charlie and Josh are brothers, while Charlie and Mina are close business partners. The whole setup makes for a natural source of conflict, especially as the film progresses.

There’s some solid relationship drama here. Nothing mind blowing, but it’s compelling enough to keep you wondering what will happen next.

But for better or worse, if you’re looking for anything remotely resembling horror, you’ll have to stick around until the film’s final 20 minutes.

Sadly though, I wouldn’t categorize the ending to this movie as anywhere close to being satisfying.

The film spends most of its short 89 minute runtime building up the internal conflict between our four main characters. Well, them and the creepy, racist manager for the property they’re staying on, played by Toby Huss.

And what happens in the end? Well I have to get into explicit spoilers for that. So stop reading now if you plan on watching this movie. Just know that I have trouble giving this film even the most half-hearted of recommendations.

Now with that out of the way, I have to say the ending here feels very out of place.

Out of nowhere, the film turns into a slasher, and the guy who’s been spying on these two couples, goes on a murder spree, killing all four of them unceremoniously.

This masked killer apparently has a thing for recording unsuspecting people for a little bit, then murdering them suddenly. During the film’s credits, they show the killer doing the same thing to multiple unrelated people.

There’s no connection between the people he murders. He just enjoys killing I guess.

There’s not even something thematically connecting the people he kills. No pattern to his premeditated murders. The man just likes watching people and then killing them.

After all this conflict between our four main characters, it seems like such a waste narratively to have their deaths be unrelated.

If I were making a movie like this, which I definitely never should, I wouldn’t have had the “killer” appear at the end at all.

Just make him a creepy guy who enjoys messing with people, and uses his recordings to drive his guests crazy to the point of killing each other.

That kind of killer sounds much more interesting to me.

But instead we have this. A film with a decent setup, solid performances, but a lackluster ending.

I wish I could have liked Dave Franco’s filmmaking debut better. I really do. Sadly, I have difficulty recommending this film to even the most desperate horror movie junkie.

“The Rental” is rated R and is available to rent on video-on-demand for $5.99-$7.99.

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