Two years ago I created my first “Top Five Most Overrated” list, partly because I needed a fun way to kick off this blog, but mostly to prove to myself that I didn’t necessarily just ride the wave of popular opinion and love whatever the critics told me to love. Though this feature forces me to relive the most painful moviegoing disappointments each year, it’s also a reminder of the kind of insight that comes from focusing on what I don’t like about certain things – be it in movies, music, politics, the actions of others, etc.
Talk about what makes you frustrated, irritated, upset. Hopefully you won’t sound too pompous or whiney and maybe someone, somewhere will agree with you. Anyway, here’s my annual clickbait, my tired diatribe of the year, a celebration of the failures that few seemed to notice.
As always, my list is in chronological order of when these movies released.
The Spongebob Movie: Sponge Out of Water (February 6th)
Here’s a rant I’ve been holding in for over a decade. Following the release of The Spongebob Squarepants Movie in 2004, creator/mastermind Stephen Hillenberg abandoned his absorbent invention, one of the most successful and brilliant cartoons of all time, for different waters. Paul Tibbitt (who I don’t want to villainize, but will now proceed to villainize) replaced Hillenberg as head of the show and, under Nickelodeon’s consent, proceeded to mutilate one of the best things that’s ever happened to the network. Putting The Simpsons’ gradual degeneration to shame, Tibbitt’s lazy and insufferable post-2004 Spongebob is a completely different entity than Hillenberg’s sharp, timeless one. The main character is no longer wise yet naive, but an annoying, high-pitched village idiot. The clever, imaginative plotlines have since been replaced with whatever incomplete sentences the writers probably pick out of a hat the morning a script is due.
Few, other than overly nostalgic now-twenty year olds, have noticed that a massive change in quality occurred and Spongebob is now a hazardous, virtually unwatchable television show. I was positive that sooner or later the general public would catch on to the fact that Spongebob’s porous, zombified corpse is no longer suitable or even safe for our youth. That’s why I was happy to see the release of another large-scale major motion picture, The Spongebob Movie: Sponge out of Water, directed by Bikini Bottom’s very own angel of death, Paul Tibbett. Finally, critics would have a chance to loudly bash this once-great franchise into the ground. To my horror, those same critics lauded this godawful cash-in simply for being random and weird – a ‘my first stoner movie’, if you will.
It’s not. It’s an offensively bad movie for kids or for stoners, and it exhibits all the worst aspects of modern Spongebob: grating characters, tons of filler and non-jokes told in a goofy voice, as though that’ll solve the problem. Critics apparently think kids still love Spongebob (do they really?), so they’ve decided not to burst this dirty bubble and give Tibbett a free pass. I even read a few reviews that said it was in keeping with the spirit of the show, statements which come from critics who have definitely never watched the original show for more than five minutes. When I saw it had managed to take in a gigantic $55 million opening weekend haul, I realized that we all get the Spongebob we deserve. Drop on the deck and flop like a fish, indeed.
While We’re Young (March 27th)
How Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young has a higher critics’ rating on RottenTomatoes than his vastly superior second 2015 film, Mistress America, is beyond me. I’ll admit that While We’re Young has a more accessible premise, one which holds room for infinite humor and thematic depth. A middle-aged couple played by Ben Stiller (a renowned documentarian) and Naomi Watts (a, uh, woman) enters a shared midlife crisis after befriending a hipster millennial couple played by Kylo Ren and Cosette. How could chaos not ensue? In truth, this is one of the director’s funnier movies, and marks his transition away from cynical and meandering art movies toward a sleeker mainstream sensibility.
But Baumbach still can’t help himself and tries to add profundity to the proceedings, and his attempt to mount a stubbornly ambitious exploration of generational difference is where the movie goes off the rails. With much of the runtime consumed with slapstick gags revolving around an Ayahuasca ceremony and hip hop dance classes, the depth that was once the highlight of any Baumbach script takes a huge hit. Ben Stiller is supposed to represent the entire mindset of middle-age, but really he’s just another neurotic, narcissistic Baumbach stand-in. The younger characters are also made to represent their entire generation, but they’re only a shallow and sometimes warped caricature of hipster culture, only accurate in a fleeting, observational sense.
Critics apparently found it easier than I did to ignore the script’s sweepingly fallacious conclusions dressed up as obvious truths. It’s almost like Baumbach intentionally made this movie funnier than his usual fare in order to divert attention away from his obviously erroneous position. There’s no way he really, truly believes that every millennial would be willing to lie to get ahead by any means, but his script posits this as though it were a well-known principle of the universe. Between all the well-timed gags, we watch as the director grapples with a deluded, self-centered view of reality. By the film’s stilted finale, it looks more like floundering than grappling. It’s fine to make a comedy that leans more on jokes than poignancy, but it’s intensely frustrating that While We’re Young‘s fundamentally rich premise falls prey to a fundamentally flawed approach.
Ant-Man (July 17th)
A troubling glimpse at what happens when a studio becomes too complacent in its own sure-fire success, Ant-Man fooled everyone into thinking that if something looks like a Marvel movie and sounds like a Marvel movie, it must be a good time. Though it is the real deal (did you see all those AvengersTM references, consumers?), Ant-Man feels like an imposter, a cobbled together series of familiar elements fine-tuned by the Disney committee to disguise the lowest expectations as the highest bar. I’m perplexed by the warm reception this movie received, as it makes a laundry list of blatant mistakes that most average theater goer could have picked up on, but chose not to.
When you cast a comedy juggernaught as your lead, the last thing you want to do is make him the movie’s straight man. But that’s exactly the decision they made, turning Paul Rudd into a generic, melodramatic hero instead of allowing him to utilize his distinctive persona like Robert Downey Jr and Chris Pratt did. Maybe the larger issue is that the film just isn’t shot or edited well. The comedic timing is off-kilter in just about every moment. The dramatic moments also feel stilted, due to the general ineptitude of director Peyton Reed, who was surely either the fourth or fifth choice for the project (at the very least, we all know he wasn’t the first). There’s not a genuine moment of emotion in this thing, but boy is it painful to see Reed try.
Next we have Corey Stoll, in theory the perfect choice for an evil villain role, playing an unintentionally-satirical take on how generic and boring Marvel bad guys can be. Really, there’s nothing else to say about him. He’s menacing and bald. But the worst move is the introduction of a massive plot fissure that not only destroys the logic of this film, but possibly of the entire Marvel universe. I’m talking about these high-tech frisbee weapons Ant-Man is given, allowing him to grow or shrink anything he throws them at (including living things, seen when an ant balloons to the size of a large dog). Though we’re told early on that living matter is impossible to shrink or grow without having a special suit, these discs disregard that logic entirely. Can’t the Avengers just throw a shrinking disc at every villain and then step on them? Though I’m usually not a stickler for plot holes in movies like this, I can’t wait to see how Marvel ignores the issue entirely.
Turbo Kid (August 28th)
Nostalgia was the name of the game in 2015, with the best Hollywood movies knowing how to deliver unabashed fan service with care and transparency. Mad Max: Fury Road, Jurassic World, Creed and Star Wars: The Force Awakens demonstrated that pandering isn’t so bad if you apply enough class and self-awareness. We all want to experience the things we used to love, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Unless you’re Turbo Kid. Of course, it may not be fair to compare a super low-budget Canadian/New Zealand indie production to massive-budget Hollywood remakes of beloved franchises, but if the movie you’re trying to make relies so heavily on recreating a specific vibe of a past era, you better either have the funds or the ingenuity to make it authentic.
Turbo Kid has neither. It’s world is sparsely dressed and blandly shot. The actors, especially Munro Chambers as the eponymous Kid, aren’t bad enough to be hilariously eye-rolling in a Hard Ticket to Hawaii sort of way, but aren’t good enough to capture the gung-ho ’80s spirit that the lead actors weren’t even alive to experience first-hand. There’s also a misguided overemphasis on aesthetic elements like gory special effects and blasts of synth music, when the filmmakers should have focused first and foremost on capturing the earnest sense of adventure and imaginative world building that these kinds of movies were known for. This is a surface level emulation of ’80s retro, uninterested in locating the old emotional core that intimately tied audiences to the true classics (something that J.J. Abrams Star Wars did manage to do).
Maybe it’s my fault for expecting this movie to aim a little higher than simply recalling certain tropes in such a blunt way. Or maybe it’s just proof that nostalgia pandering works, regardless of how good the final product is. If anything, Turbo Kid’s failings make it easier to appreciate the extra mile directors like Abrams, Treverrow and Coogler are willing to go to rediscover and harness the core triggers of nostalgia, not just the sights and sounds.
The Good Dinosaur (November 25th)
In my opinion, The Good Dinosaur is the worst movie Pixar has ever made. If you’re thinking “what about Cars 2“, what about Cars 2? For all its familiar plotting, bizarre messages and obvious purpose as a merchandising tool, Cars 2 still feels like a legitimate Pixar movie: colorful, energetic, well-voiced and most importantly, dense and inventive in its cars-as-people premise, as creepy as that may be. With The Good Dinosaur, the Triceratops in the room is that the world-building choices simply don’t make much sense.
In the world of Finding Nemo, a main character struggles with short term memory loss, because she’s a fish and that’s a characteristic of certain fish. That’s logical. In the world of Monsters Inc, monsters get their energy from children’s screams. That’s straight up genius. In The Good Dinosaur, meanwhile, Apatosauruses are farmers and T-Rexes are cowboys. What, why? For all the excuses the filmmakers may make, the logic in this movie stretches credibility. Most importantly, it’s glaringly obvious that the film didn’t have to be about dinosaurs at all. It could have been about a cowardly young human boy, or a cowardly young cat, or a cowardly young toaster. Why dinosaurs? Probably to sell dinosaur toys, because “symbolic representations of human emotions” aren’t exactly well-suited for toy catalogues.
But the flawed concept isn’t where it ends, as there are a ton of dire issues in execution. The plot is a mishmash of elements stolen needlessly from masterful Disney classics (The Lion King and The Jungle Book being the most prominent). The emotional center of the movie is an unsuccessful How To Train Your Dragon knock-off, except the dragon in those movies actually has a personality whereas the human boy in this movie is basically Donnie from The Wild Thornberrys, and has nothing going on upstairs. The fantastic score and some impressive photo-realistic environments are unfortunately ruined by the decision to inhabit them with clashing, cartoonish character designs. Finish it off by adding the most annoying, shrill protagonist of the year, a handful of pointless genre influences, and a manipulative, abrupt climax, and you’ve got Pixar’s first uncontested failure. What the critics saw in this thing is truly mystifying.