Friday, January 4, 2013

Animated Sequels Kung Fu Panda 2, Madagascar 3 and Ice Age 4

In clearing my head from Novembers DOC NYC I decided to wade into something completely different, some recent animated sequels. Watching Kung Fu Panda 2 and Madagascar 3 I began to realize that the as high as good as the films are (surprisingly) they really should look to hanging up the franchises until some good idea comes along.

I know the whole question of sequels is always a thorny one. Do you want to just keep flogging the dead donkeys or do you really want to extend the story because you have a good story. Hollywood just wants the cash, never mind they are killing the franchises.

The granddaddy of these are the Land Before Time series which spawned at least 13 features (most direct to home video) , a TV series and assorted other related programs. For the most part the series died after the second film unless you’re under six, but they kept making enough money that they kept going. I’ve heard rumors of a possible restart though I suspect there maybe another film in the offing.

The king of the recent animated series has been Shrek. They’ve cranked out four features, a spin off film, and several shorts before deciding that it’s starting to be diminishing returns. Personally I kind of thought they were done after the second one, but at the same time three and four do have some amusing moments.

The current vampire series needing a stake through its heart is the Ice Age series. Yea, Scrat is great, but pretty much after the first film they didn’t need to do another one. The last film, which was hauled out of the Hollywood cess pit earlier this year, really concerns the children of the series main characters. Its a poorly animated film lacking much of the detailed animation that went before. For my money the only reason it exists is to pass the torch to a new set of voice actors in the hope of continuing a series with nowhere to go- literally. I mean think about it the three previous films concerned the heroes trying to get somewhere, this fourth one has them settling down with kids as the continents drift. The series story finally has been hit with deadly inertia that robs it of any fun what so ever (though the series was dead with the third one in my book).

Kung Fu Panda 2 came out last year and for the most part it’s pretty good. A tad too frenetic when compared to the first film, it’s still solid entertainment about how are pasts affect our future. The story has an evil peacock played by Gary Oldman trying to take over China via guns and the destruction of kung fu. Oldman’s character killed Po’s parents because it was foretold a black and white animal would spell his doom. Oldman’s moves to make more guns sets him at odds with Po who has to face his lost parents only to discover who his real father is.

The film works as well as it does because the characters are still well written and because the film doesn’t abandon the themes and philosophy that made the first film so strong. We feel for the characters and we care about what happens and when Po figures out who his real dad is we get all teary since it was clear from the start who his dad is.

If the film has one weakness it’s that it shifts the focus off of the characters toward several big action set pieces, yea they are spectacular and masterpieces of animated art, the problem is that the film kind of stops while Po and his band get chased around and fight. Its not fatal, it just makes the film a half step or so behind the classic first film.

The one troubling thing that makes me fear for the franchises future is the foreshadowing of a sequel with the implication that Po’s biological father is still alive in a secret panda village. Did we need to see this? Not really, especially since  it under cuts the lesson about who our parents are. It also assures us of a sequel, which we really don’t need.

The third Madagascar film nicely closes out the series (at least I hope it does). The story has the lost zoo animals going to Monte Carlo in order to get their hands on the penguins who have been too long at the casino. Through circumstances they end up joining a circus. Everyone ends up chased by a crazed animal control officer whose idea of controlling the animals is to shoot them and put their heads on her walls.

Like the second Kung Fu Panda film the film gives itself over to large scale set pieces at the expense of some of the plot, but by the time it ends the film has effectively closed out the series nicely. One hopes that they don’t continue things

I don’t really expect the Madagascar producers to give up and end it here, but I would have more respect for them if they did.

The question of sequels, or rather the dangers of sequels to successful films is of course always present. People are now conditioned to expect them, so much so that Joss Whedon was incredulous when he was asked by a fan about a sequel to Cabin in the Woods, a film that can’t have a sequel. “Didn’t you see the film?” he snapped back. He had, but was so trained to expect a sequel that the fan expected one even where there couldn't be one..

The danger of sequels is even more a threat where animated films are concerned. For some reason Hollywood is always thinking of the next film even before the first film is released. Look at any films marketing material and you’ll see it talks about franchises for series that haven’t even started. I guess everyone sees the money that can be made for the tie in products and they want to pounce.

To me movies are stories not commercials, and cartoons shouldn't  really be just an excuse to sell crap to kids. We don’t need that. And Hollywood doesn’t really need it either since with very rare exceptions the sequels are always a case of diminishing returns. I mean look at the films I’ve talked about above, all of the series got weaker as they went on.

The exception to the rule seems to have been the Pixar Toy Story films which in the opinion of many people (not me) got better with each film. Sadly even they have gone sequel crazy with Cars 2, Monsters University (a Monsters Inc sequel), and a second Finding Nemo either out or in the works. Do we need them? No, but the studio wants the cash.

I don’t mind sequels if the films are good, but rarely are they on any level (Star Wars 1-3 anyone? How about Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull?) Its time to end the cash grab. Its time to end the sequels made for the hell of it.

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