I was up for the gig writing the screenplay for Where the Wild Things Are a million years ago, when the project was at Universal. I had mixed feelings about taking on the project, because the book is so slim, and so primal, so, well, "wild," that I knew no studio would spend $100 million doing it properly. Where the Wild Things Are should be weird, intense, edgy and deeply personal, the exact opposite of what i knew a studio wanted out of a four-quadrant hit.
The whole family went recently to Legoland. Everyone had a wonderful time. Kit (6) discovered the thrill and terror of roller-coasters, a thrill and terror Sam (8) is not quite ready for, in spite of being 18 months older than Kit. Kit rode with me on The Dragon six times, and Coaster-Saurus once with her mother.
Last night, I read Roller Coaster by Marla Frazee to the kids, which they both enjoyed quite a bit, and the following conversation ensued.
Sam (7) and I were watching the groundbreaking series Planet Earth the other day, the "Shallow Seas" episode. To give a little shape to its eye-popping array of fabulous images of animals doing things, "Shallow Seas" incorporates a little tiny "plot:" a mother humpback whale gives birth to a calf at the Equator, then hangs out with it for five months while it gets big, then swims with it to the North Pole, where the seas are rich with whatever humpback whales eat. In this arduous five-month period, the mother humpback eats nothing.
Anyway, Sam and I are watching "Shallow Seas," and they tell us about the mother humpback and her devotion to her calf, and then they tell us about coral reefs and sea-snakes and brittle stars and a whole bunch of other critters, and then they come back to the mother humpback and her calf and "check in" with them, as they’re heading north on their long trek.
And Sam says: "Wait. Did they follow this humpback and her calf all the way from the Equator to the North Pole? Why would they do that? Wouldn’t it make more sense to shoot one humpback and calf at the Equator, then go to the North Pole and find another humpback and calf that just kind of looks like the first one? I mean, it’s not like anybody could tell the difference."
Already a producer.
(Sam, 7, has been keen on Jurassic Park ever since he saw a fleeting image from it in a video store at age 3. He has now seen all three movies several times and owns the soundtrack, the themes of which he can be heard to sing incessantly around the house. His interest in Indiana Jones is more recent — he first saw Raiders of the Lost Ark less than a year ago –– but is no less strong. The first name in filmmaking he learned was George Lucas, but the second was Steven Spielberg, and it is Spielberg who has had the much greater impact, as we will see.)
SAM. Is there going to be a Jurassic Park IV?
DAD. I don’t know. They’ve been planning one for a long time, but I don’t know if they’ll ever make it.
SAM. What do you think it will be about?
DAD. Well, I actually know something about that.
DAD. Yeah. I’ve heard — now mind you, this is only what I’ve heard — that in Jurassic Park IV, a the government breeds raptors to carry out commando raids.
DAD. That’s what I’ve heard.
SAM. Could they do that?
DAD. Um, sure, I guess. Velociraptors are pack hunters, they must be about as smart as dogs, you could probably train them if you started from birth.
SAM. What if — oh! — What if they train velociraptors to be commandos, and then send them back in time to fight the Nazis?
DAD. Well dude, that sounds like the greatest idea in the history of movies.
SAM. (really rolling now) And, how come there haven’t been any water dinosaurs in the Jurassic Park movies?
DAD. I don’t know, they should really —
SAM. Because, it could be like, the opening of the movie, there could be the island, right, and there’s a T-Rex walking on the shore, and he’s hunting somebody, right? And he’s just about to strike and suddenly a Megalodon jumps out of the water and grabs the T-Rex off the beach and drags it into the water!
SAM. A giant shark jumps out of the water, grabs the T-Rex, comes completely out of the water and then splashes back down into it! How many times do you think people have seen that in a movie?
DAD. Most people? Probably never.
SAM. Do you think it’s too much to have the Megalodon and the Nazis in the same movie, or should we save one of them for Jurassic Park V?
I took my kids Sam (7) and Kit (5) to see The Clone Wars. I’ve been reading so much invective directed against this movie, I honestly didn’t know what to expect. Online voices are torn: some people seem to hate it, some people seem to merely dislike it, some people feel it is a monstrous act of betrayal. My favorite, a hysterical non-review by “Moriarty” at Ain’t-It-Cool-News, is so full of hurt and anger that it goes so far as to insist that the reviewer will never write about Star Wars ever again — You hear him? Never! Take that, George Lucas! Moriarty shuts the Iron Door.
I went in fully braced for an atrocity, a soul-scorching, childish, grating, dead-end cinematic nightmare.
Sorry haters — it’s actually not bad. It’s actually pretty good.
Well, I think neither is true. The movies — the six movies — are what they are. The Clone Wars isn’t pretending to be Episode II & 1/2, it’s its own thing. It makes that clear right off the bat: the music is different, the introduction is spoken instead of written, and the characters have been dramatically re-designed. This is all intentional, and the result, while less grand, less “important,” is more colloquial and human-scaled. (I’m a little baffled by the fans who think the Genndy Tartakovsky Clone Wars shorts are somehow “better” than Episodes I-III — they strike me as very much Genndy Tartakovsky shorts — jaw-dropping fights, no plot, and The Clone Wars kicks their ass around the block.)
The older fans think that Episodes I-III are bad enough, but The Clone Wars is just gratuitous salt in the wound. Well, I don’t know how to break it to those folks, but Sam has seen all six movies many times, and his favorite is Revenge of the Sith, followed by Attack of the Clones, followed by followed by Return of the Jedi. A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back don’t even make the list. Sam talks about Anakin Skywalker all the time, the battle on Mustafar and the slaughter of the Sandpeople and the fight in the droid factory and the arena on Geonosis. He reads Clone Wars Adventures and counts the animated shorts as canon. That is Star Wars to my 7-year-old, and The Clone Wars was an absolute feast for him, all Anakin and droid battles and crashing spaceships and well-staged, bloodless carnage. He watched The Clone Wars with a look on his face like he was worried that he was never going to remember all the cool stuff he was seeing. Both he and Kit loved the battle droids and their charming stupidity, they both loved Stinky the Hutt and felt genuine concern for his health. (Sam even checked with me afterwards to make sure if he had an accurate understanding of the “ticking clock” concept: he said “When Anakin had the Huttlet, and it was getting sicker and sicker, didn’t that make it more dramatic, because you didn’t know if they were going to make it back to Tatooine in time to save him?”) They’re too young to get the joke of a Hutt who sounds like Truman Capote (both of them thought Ziro the Hutt was a female, but they cheerfully went along with it when they found out he was not). I’ve read reviews by people disgusted by the idea of a stereotypical gay Hutt, or disgusted at the idea of a stereotypical black Hutt, or a stereotypical “Mammy” Hutt, all of which only proves to me that the joke went over these folks’ heads.
And both my kids love Asoka, the girl Jedi who acts as Anakin’s protege and foil. And you know what? I love her too — she’s a great character, the teenage girl who seems to be the only person in the galaxy who doesn’t seem that impressed with Anakin Skywalker. She gets a lot of screen time, she’s a girl of action, she’s smart and funny and she doesn’t take shit from anyone, much less Anakin. (Okay, she’s stuck holding the baby for a stretch, but credit where credit is due — she’s a huge improvement over the whining, helpless Padme of Sith.)
I’m also really impressed with the look of the thing. Sure, it looks cheap — we’re not talking about Wall-E here — we’re not even talking about Kung-Fu Panda, but the animators have taken the limitations of their budget and turned it into an asset. They do exactly what animators on a budget should do, they lean into their limitations, they make the characters look like they’ve been carved out of wood and then painted with some kind of sticky, quick-drying paint, which makes them both strongly stylized and minutely detailed. Take, for example, the lipstick on Asajj Ventress — she’s got these cruel black lips, but in close-ups we can actually see that her lipstick isn’t applied evenly: it gets caught in the creases of her mouth and, here and there, doesn’t actually make it out to the edges of her lips. Similarly, Asoka’s face paint looks like it’s been applied in layers over a period of time — she’s got streaks and splotches here and there, and in other places her salmon-colored skin shows through.
If there is a complaint to be made, it’s that, for a feature film, there’s a lot of plot but nothing of consequence. Nobody important dies, there are no dramatic reveals or reversals, we don’t find out that Anakin is really a woman or that his father is really a B’omarr Monk. Essentially, it’s a lot of busywork, a bunch of “plot,” at the end of which everyone goes back to doing what they were doing when the movie started. And, as the movie is mostly plot, let me hasten to add that the plot is well-executed, well-paced, and fun to watch.
What The Clone Wars resembles is a pilot for a TV show, which it is, which is bad news for your feature-film dollar. But what it also resembles is my son’s home-made Star Wars movies, where he lines up the characters and then just lets them have at each other, with titanic battles and shifting alliances and dramatic duels and last-minute rescues and jaws-of-defeat victories. The older fans are outraged that Star Wars keeps getting diminished, but to my eyes The Clone Wars really is a new beginning, a redefinition for a different medium.
INT. SCREENING ROOM — NIGHT
SAM (7) and DAD watch Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom for the fourth or fifth time together. In the movie, late in Act I, Indy and Bald Village Priest converse. BVP tells Indy that Shiva has sent him to recover the village’s magic rock. Indy corrects him, saying that nobody “sent” him, his plane crashed.
Sam, alarmed, sits up.
Sam grabs the remote and reverses the movie for a minute. He plays the scene back, then freezes the playback.
SAM. Who’s “Shiva?”
DAD. Shiva? Shiva is the Indian guy’s god.
SAM. He said Shiva “sent” him.
SAM. Why did he say that?
DAD. Well that’s what he thinks.
SAM. Why does he think that?
DAD. Well, he’s a priest, Shiva’s his god, he was praying to Shiva to send help and Indy fell out of the sky. So the Indian guy thinks —
SAM. But did he?
DAD. Did who what?
SAM. Did Shiva send him?
DAD. Did Shiva send Indy? To find the Sankara Stone?
SAM. Did Shiva send him?
DAD. Well, that’s what the Indian guy —
SAM. But did he?
DAD. Well, what do you think?
SAM. I’m asking you. Did Shiva send Indy?
DAD. Well, that’s a good question, and that’s kind of what the movie’s about. Indy goes to Pankot to get the rock, right? But he doesn’t really believe the legends, he just thinks it’s superstition. He doesn’t think Shiva is real or anything, he’s in it for the “fortune and glory.” And he goes through the whole movie that way. But then, remember, at the end, when he’s hanging from the bridge with Mola Ram, it looks like he’s going to lose and then he says “You betrayed Shiva!” And he says the magic words and the rocks catch on fire and fall out of the backpack. So you could say that it isn’t until Indy believes that Shiva is real and the rocks are really magic that he’s able to beat Mola Ram.
SAM. So Shiva did send him.
DAD. Well, sure, if you want to look at it —
SAM. Did he? It soundslike he did.
DAD. Well, maybe he did.
SAM. So, did Shiva make those guys jump out of the plane, and make the plane crash, and the whole thing in Shanghai, with the gangsters and the nightclub and the dance number and the car chase? Did Shiva make all that happen?
DAD. Well, you know what they say dude, gods work in mysterious ways.
Booie, the littlest and, frankly, weediest of our latest mantis army, died quietly in the night a few days ago. In accordance with mantis tradition, his body was devoured by crickets.
In what’s becoming an Alcott family tradition, the death of the weakest mantis is a signal that the others’ days are numbered, and the survivors should be released into the wild, where they might mate and create another mantis army to menace the insects of tomorrow. The liberation ceremony for Ceiling and Snacks was held this morning on our front porch.
Pick me up! Pick me up! shouts Ceiling from the depths of the carrier she shares with Giant Black African Millipede.
Snacks, out in the open air, taking his first look at the big, wide world, where, theoretically anyway, there are many insects for him to devour.
Meanwhile Ceiling, getting a whiff of the liberty that is the divine right of all mantids, tries to climb the sheer plexiglass walls of her enclosure.
“What is this strange thing I’m perched upon?” asks Snacks — his first encounter with Nature. Shortly after this photo was taken, Kit (5) asked if she could try to pick him up one last time, or “do you think he’s wild already?”
Out of her enclosure and a little spooked by the wide open spaces, Ceiling goes into a defensive “put up your dukes” pose. Note the super-aggressive “scorpion tail.”
The crickets did not miss out — predator and prey each gained their freedom on this day.
Ceiling, still asking for trouble, crouches on Sam’s hand and, like Sean Penn, dares the photographer to approach — for a fist full of knuckles.
Once on a leaf, Ceiling visibly relaxes. “I could get used to this,” says the enormous, voracious, meat-eating predator. Crickets of Santa Monica. YOU ARE DOOMED.
Dad took Sam (7) and Kit (5) to see Space Chimps. In terms of artistic achievement, Dad found the movie placed a little south of Kagemusha, but acknowledges that it is most likely not intended for an audience of cranky, middle-aged screenwriters. However, the movie did get one genuine laugh out of him, and if you were one of the handful of people in the movie theater with us, you might have witnessed this scene:
Two chimps in a rocket ship. (all dialogue paraphrased)
CHIMP 1. Let’s face it, I’m not a real astronaut.
CHIMP 2. Are you wearing an aluminum suit?
CHIMP 1. Yes, but…
CHIMP 2. Are you inside a space ship?
CHIMP 1. Well, yes…
CHIMP 2. Are you in space?
CHIMP 1. Yes, but I…
CHIMP 2. Are you David Bowie?
CHIMP 1. Nnnooo…
CHIMP 2. Then you’re an astronaut!
SAM. (noting Dad’s laugh) What does that even mean?
DAD. (beat — how to put?) David Bowie is a singer. He had a famous song about being an astronaut. So it’s a joke about that.
SAM. (beat, then, trying it out) “Are you David Bowie?” (laugh)
(Dad did not go on to explain that the real reason for his laugh is that there is another, slightly funnier aspect to the line for him, which is that Chimp 2 is voiced by Patrick Warburton, who also voices the character Brock Samson on the TV series The Venture Bros, a show which also prominently features David Bowie as a character. One step at a time for teaching Sam showbiz in-jokes.)
At the top, of course, is the name of the protagonist. Directly below that is the row of “false grails” that Indy has ignored. Finally, at the bottom, we see Indy with the true grail. We know it’s Indy because of his hat. Indy, as we can see, is very happy to have chosen the true grail. Perhaps drinking from the true grail will get him to re-grow his lower body.
Now that Hillary Clinton has reminded us that there’s still time to assassinate Barack Obama before the convention, I feel it is incumbent upon me to present a corrective to ugliness and despair, Little Birdy, the newest volume by my daughter Kit (5). Take note, Caldecott committee.