New Beasts, Same Beats
Gather around, students. The two species we are going to discuss this week are the commercial film and the sequel. We’ll be looking at the two as individuals, and what happens when one succeeds as one but not the other.
First, the commercial film. Peculiar thing about this species. Nobody likes them but most people. Even now, critical consensus (as measured at Rotten Tomatoes) has it that four out of the five top grossing movies in America are rotten. Yet, clearly, someone sees them. It’s not the success of commercial movies that some of us resent, it’s the choices made to get them there: senseless plots, action scenes over emotional impact or character development, explosions over logic. And don’t get me started on the dialogue. Critics often complain that such-and-such a film is “an insult to the intelligence,” and what we’re talking about, of course, is when someone along the way, be it the writer, director, or studio, decides that the audience can’t cope with subtlety or worse they can’t tell the difference. And unfortunately we, as an audience, prove their point when we make Star Wars: Episode 1 The Phantom Menace a top grosser.
But this is not to say that “makes money” inherently goes hand-in-hand with “is evil.” Every so often a Cast Away or an X-Men comes along and gets right what so many get wrong, thus renewing your faith in “the Hollywood movie.” And I am not so cynical not today, anyway to believe that many people consciously try to make a bad movie.
The above preamble in aid of introducing the fact that the Eddie Murphy-starring remake of Dr. Dolittle, which grossed $290.2 million worldwide, was in my view an example of a good commercial film. It had not only the edge of a Disney movie the plot can be summed up as cute, funny animals meet cute, funny man but also the strengths of a good Disney movie, which is to say the animals were awfully cute and funny, and the whole thing just worked. By the way, as a sidebar, I’m going to tell you something no critic should ever tell his or her readers. Most reviews can be summed up with “It worked for me,” or “It didn’t work for me.” Most of the rest is just plate spinning, explaining why we think something worked or didn’t work for us, on the theory that you will find some value in the explanation, whether you agree with us or not.
So. Anyway. Where was I? Oh yes, commercial movies. Like I was saying, there’s nothing wrong with them when they work. They’re a distinctly American part of the art form and eight times out of ten, we still do them better than anybody else.
Okay. So, having established that the last Dolittle film was a successful commercial film, we come to its baby, the sequel Dr. Dolittle 2. Screenwriter and author William Goldman said: “Sequels are whores’ movies.” Made not because someone had a story to tell you or a character to introduce to you or anything to say to you, but because an earlier story made money. And they would like to make more money. So sequels are made up of the elements of the parent film that were a hit the first time around, in greater and often coarser quantities.
Dr. Dolittle 2 is a successful member of its species. The trouble is, the sequel is a far less noble beast. Many of the beats (and beasts) from the first film are here too, but despite being written by Larry Levinson, one of the co-authors of the first script, it just doesn’t work as well. You liked the talking animals? We’ve got a whole forest full this time, as Murphy attempts to save them from loggers. The bonding between Murphy and his youngest daughter (Kyla Prat) in the first film gladdened your heart? This time it’s the eldest daughter’s (Raven-Symone) turn, and she’s got a secret you’ll guess before the movie tells you. Never mind that her reason for keeping said secret doesn’t totally jibe with the first movie, sequels often call for forgetting things like that (also see: Ghostbusters 2). You were entertained by the mock-suspense of will John Dolittle accept his gift or go along with his greedy partner? This time you’ve got Murphy vs. the evil loggers and hunters, as represented by Jeffery Jones and Kevin Pollack. Based on people’s good feelings for the last film, and trailers and television spots that contain almost all the sequel’s best jokes, Dr. Dolittle 2 will probably have a strong opening weekend. But then word will spread: while the first film was cute and funny like an adorable animal, the sequel is like that animal pissing on your carpet.
PS: If there are any writers, directors, or movie music supervisors in the audience, I’d like to suggest that the next time a film calls for a disco classic, and the best you can come up with is “I Will Survive,” you watch Man on the Moon, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert or any of the 10,000 films to have used it in the past seven years . . . and think harder.