Like it or not, the modern moviemaking experience is guided, almost exclusively, by the audience testing process. Films are never finalized until the studios backing them are happy that the meaning or message will come across to the most people possible. It’s a very egalitarian approach to entertainment, drawing personality and style out of a project to provide the greatest good for the greatest number and the greatest grosses, too. With it’s sequel scoring significant box office dollars this past month, Fox’s first foray into computer generated animation, Ice Age, is getting a tricked out DVD edition as a less than subtle cross promotion. All throughout the two disc presentation, we learn how invaluable the testing process was, even though it managed to mute most of the magic inherent in the movie.
The story (original conceived as a drama) deals with three prehistoric animals a sloth (voiced by John Leguizamo), a mammoth (Ray Romano) and a saber-toothed tiger (Denis Leary) who take on the responsibility of returning a human child to her tribe. With the glaciers shifting and the big freeze rapidly approaching, these critters must locate the clan before they end up a natural history museum piece. An unqualified success when released in 2002, the film proved that audiences were eager for anything rendered in the 3-D animation technique. For a while, it was considered a curse for any company other than Pixar to release a digital cartoon. But Dreamworks’ Shrek sold tickets, and where there is money, there are movie studios ready to have their share of it.
This is not to say that Ice Age is a bad movie. Indeed, it’s an occasionally witty, often warm combination of expert storytelling and pop culture cravenness. It doesn’t want to offend or expand the animation art form, and allows itself to be easily manipulated by merchandisers and comment cards. As a matter of fact, all throughout the audio commentary accompanying this version of the film, we hear directors Chris Wedge and Carlo Saldanha discuss the process of testing and retooling, tossing aside entire characters and subplots to meet with the audience’s expectations. Sometimes, this resulted in good cartoon karma: John Leguizamo’s Sid went from horny hustler to good natured boob. Yet in other instances, the story was sideswiped, removing much needed depth and direction in favor of schmaltz and sap; for example, the tragic backstory to Ray Romano’s Manfred character was toned down considerably to stay within the targeted pre-teen demographic.
While such a process may seem natural for a PG rated family film, it argues against art. No one would mistake Ice Age for a Disney masterpiece of old, but it does illustrate the current merchandising mindset of the Hollywood system. Movies are no longer meant for the audience but for the advertisement. Desperate to recoup the millions of dollars spent in speculation and development, studios more or less need to guarantee their grosses. Thus the over reliance on the testing system, and in return, the pressure on filmmakers to jerry-rig their vision to secure ticket sales, or at the very least, to hope for a hot turnaround on the eventual DVD release. Of course, the question becomes, how does this happen? How do writers, directors, and the other individuals in the creative team turn a film into a flexible facet of the financiers?
Disc two of this DVD set seems to suggest how. Yet another version of the film, this time called the “Extreme Cool View” edition, offers Ice Age as a combination educational and instructional experience. Most of the knowledge comes from natural history experts, their comments on era and evolution intercut into the overall presentation. Most of the how-to derives from the filmmakers and their staff showing how characters were developed and narrative arced. Adding another level to the already overdone marketing of the movie (as a title, Ice Age has had two previous DVD releases), this bonus-filled offering is supposed to impress the consumer, giving them the false impression that, outside of the theatrical experience, they are getting something more substantial for their money.
While such a belief is up for grabs it depends on how ‘valuable’ you find kid vid games, additional animated shorts and lots of tie-ins to the sequel none of this added material makes Ice Age, the film, any better. After a couple of viewings, the formulaic way in which the narrative plays out, the constant bickering as ballyhoo engaged in by our ‘loveable’ leads, and the occasional traipses into toilet humor hinder the film’s longevity. Like the horrid efforts of a post-Shrek Dreamworks, Ice Age modernizes the cartoon’s inherent anarchic spirit into a sort of post-modern ironic idiocy. Slapstick is transformed into action scenes and wit is washed away in favor of stunt casting and culturally recognizable voice work. One has to wonder if this movie (and Wedge/Saldanha’s other Fox offering, the lackluster Robots) would play the same if anonymous voice actors essayed the leads. At least Ice Age doesn’t pile on the soon to be dated pop culture references. The last thing we need is a bunch of prehistoric animals break dancing to J-Lo songs.
If audiences had wanted to see such a production number, however, it is clear that Ice Age would have included one. It’s disheartening to hear filmmakers champion the cheapening of their efforts, agreeing that elements they thought were funny or clever were obviously flawed because, on a certain day, in front of a certain group of potential theatergoers, those facets fell flat. It is as perfect an example of cinema on a whim as any of the countless other excuses for mediocre mainstream entertainment. In turn, it makes one question how Pixar handles this situation. Do they allow audiences to fine tune films like Finding Nemo and The Incredibles, or do they stand by the vision of their creators, allowing them, not a set of scores, to mandate a movie’s final version?
If you’re only interested in making something successful, not special, then there is nothing wrong with fine tuning your film to fit a certain set of expectations. It’s why Ice Age feels so homogenized and hokey at times. For decades now, writers and directors have decried the “filmmaking by committee” ideal. But those involved in this superficial CGI-fest are more than happy to work within the confines of such a system. It explains why this Super Cool Edition DVD is so focused on this aspect of the process… and why the resulting “Super Cool Edition” of the movie is only more merchandise and less than memorable.