[3 August 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
I have to apologize in advance. It’s been almost a week since I saw the 3D “sneak preview” for December’s Yogi Bear during a screening of Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore and my stomach has yet to settle down. The unnerving feeling of nausea, the desire to hurl my guts at the direction of the people behind this proposed cinematic abomination has left me queasy and uneasy. It’s not that I have anything particular against the Hanna-Barbera creation. He’s a nostalgic relic of his time, a breakout figure founded on Huckleberry Hound’s laconic Southern gentility. But when I see sloppy CGI meshed with oddball stunt voice casting, in combination with that oh-so ‘90s patina of irony, I want to barf. Having it thrust into my eyeballs via pseudo stereoscopic means just adds insult to the ipecac.
In many ways, the trailer (now available everywhere, so mind your bile ducts) reminds me of the feeling of doom I experienced when Alvin and the Chipmunks was first announced. The notion of taking a decidedly late ‘50s/early ‘60s creation of Ross “Dave Seville” Bogdasarian Sr. and turning it into a post-modern mockery of the music industry wasn’t so far off base. After all, the original singing rodents were purposefully used to debunk the pop culture currency of artists as diverse as Tom Jones, The Beatles - and in the ‘70s and ‘80s - the Cars and The Ramones. Chipmunk Punk was a huge gimmicky hit, and differing variations on the theme - Chipmunk Country, Chipmunk Rock, Chipmunk Grunge - kept Simon, Alvin, and Theodore on the cusp of commercial awareness (an ‘80s animated TV series also helped keep the harmonious rats relevant).
The 2007 film that resulted had none of the original’s retro swing swagger, nor did it try to capitalize on the Greed decade deconstruction of the premise. Instead, it went back to the buffoon drawing board, believing (rightfully so, one might add) that animals making underleg noises and referencing their own feces would wow the masses. A mere $370 million worldwide confirmed such crassness. Last year, the inevitable Squeakuel was release (I’ll hold for the requisite laughter such a name inspires…) and it too drummed up enough business to keep the live action/lame CG combo concept alive. Since then, we’ve had numerous examples of the junky genre, perhaps the most telling being the horrific Furry Vengeance. The main thing linking all these kid vid catastrophes - the notion that the demographic is so dumb it will literally buy (or force their Mommy and Daddy to buy) anything.
In last April’s motion picture hate crime, Brendan Fraser plays a land developer battling computer enhanced critters desperate to protect their “property”. In between showers of bird shit and clouds of skunk spray, we get more jokes aimed at the groin and buttocks than a bevy of Jackass reruns. Even worse, the filmmakers strive to go no deeper than the motion picture basics: bad guys want to hurt cute animals; cute animals find low brow ways of hurting bad guys; at least one bad guy has a change of heart and becomes a reluctant good guy; good guy helps cute animals kick bad guys in the nuts - roll funky credits! Some might argue that this is nothing more than an “update” on the old Warner Brothers/Looney Tunes ideal of slapstick. After all, if Wile E. Coyote can get a face full of mountainside every time he hunts the Roadrunner, why can’t Ken Jeong take a shot or two to the shorthairs?
The answer, oddly enough, came from the opening moments of the aforementioned Cats & Dogs. Hoping to jumpstart a desire for short subjects ala Pixar and their pre-feature strategy, Warners reintroduced the fatalistic fun of their classic clashing desert combo and delivered five minutes of bungee cord brilliance. As the super genius himself took snout after snout of pavement, the audience roared in appreciation. Sadly, it was more of a response than the noxious entity that followed would provide in 88 mind numbing minutes. Still, the trailer for Yogi Bear got its far share of scoffs and snickers -perhaps more good than bad. Of course, when the voice casting was announced, the combination of Dan Aykroyd (as the smarter than the average bruin) and Justin (?) Timberlake (??) (as sidekick Boo-Boo) generated a great deal of groans.
None were louder than the pains felt by yours truly. While turning your favorite - or in this case, an afterthought - cartoon icon from the past into a viable big screen icon has kind of worked in the past (the Scooby Doo movies, while badly cast, did recall some of the anarchic spirit of the mystery-based animated TV series), it’s hard to imagine a vast audience outcry to see Yogi and pals go feature length. On average, Hanna-Barbera delivered their characters in eight to ten minutes bites, relegating the families Flintstone and Jetson to full sitcom running time status. Why? Because they knew this is how their brand of comedy worked best. Get in, get out, and leave them with a pseudo-satisfied smile on their face. Co-stars like Yakky Doodle and Snagglepuss were just on the horizon, ready to do the same ADD dance.
But dragged out to fit a corporate considered theatrical experience, characters like this just wither and die. They were never meant to expand beyond a certain window of believability. At some point, about twenty minutes in or so, the smarter members of the audience start getting antsy, wondering when someone will stop the action, stand proud, and shriek “these are goddamn talking varmits for Chrissakes!!!”. The Yogi Bear trailer even has the hairy hero’s status as a chatting anomaly referenced, apparently beating said attendant brainacs to the punch. While it’s hard to get a handle on whether the movie will attempt to transcend the stereotypical testicle and tuckus approach, a final moment with Yogi getting his hinder bashed by a series of well-placed fence posts seems to suggest otherwise.
While it’s never wholly fair to judge something at an initial glimpse, the old adage about first impressions does have some validity- and in the case of Yogi Bear, said glance makes me physically ill. Not just because I will be required to sit in a screening preview five months from now and listen as mindless viewers guffaw like hyenas at what passes of wit, but because I know that Hollywood, if it wanted, to strive to do better. Just this year alone, titles like Despicable Me and How to Train Your Dragon proved that someone other than Pixar could make computer generated joy and Toy Story 3 surpassed previous installments in humor and heart.
Of course, when I learned that my wife’s cousin’s children complained, post-movie, that the latest from Buzz and Woody wasn’t something they “wanted to own”, my own soul sank a bit. Their “you don’t have to buy that one for us, daddy” and the continuing push to pile garbage like Yogi Bear on audiences argues that someone has the right idea, the mere thought of which…sorry…excuse me…I feel the need to vomit.