Tag Archives: D+

FINAL FANTASY: THE SPIRITS WITHIN

The marketing gurus at Sony Pictures–the same geniuses who gave the world David Manning and phony “testimonial” TV ads for their pictures–are telling us that “Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within” is a watershed cinematic event, the first totally computer-generated animated film designed to look “realistic” (or, as the press materials put it, “hyperReal”) in human terms. (Kid flicks like “Toy Story” and “Shrek” are computer-generated, of course, but their characters are hardly intended to be dead ringers for flesh-and-blood men and women, nor are their backgrounds designed to appear “real.”) The fact is, however, that neither the settings nor the “actors” in this picture could be mistaken for actual entities. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, of course. Animation, after all, whether of the conventional or computerized variety, is exciting precisely because it goes beyond what’s palpable and material, allowing for flights of the imagination which could be only dimly achieved using breakable performers and hugely expensive sound stage settings. The problem in this case is not just that the makers fail to achieve what they’re apparently after, but that what they’re trying to achieve is wrongheaded to begin with: animators shouldn’t be attempting to mirror reality but to go way beyond it. In any event, the landscapes, spacecraft and charred city ruins depicted in “Final Fantasy” are as obviously phony as such computer-generated detritus is when it’s regularly inserted into live- action movies nowadays (“The Mummy Returns” and “Tomb Raider” are the two most notable recent examples). The difference here is that the people are phony-looking, too. Simply put, the “human” characters are grossly inexpressive lumps of plasticine; they’re certainly a big step up from the clay figures Ray Harryhausen occasionally utilized as stand-ins for real actors in some of the sequences of his stop-motion “Dynamation” epics (remember how the Sinbad figure in the claws of the Cyclops never really looked like Kerwin Matthews?), and they’re marginally better than what one sees on some Saturday morning TV shows (“Action Man” and its ilk), but they’re still stiff and unconvincing. They don’t walk quite right, and their facial movements, especially when they “speak,” are barely approximations. That wouldn’t matter to us, of course, if the backgrounds and human characters were highly stylized in the fashion of conventional animation. It’s precisely the attempt to make them more “realistic” that’s the mistake, and render them–especially the characters–dull. The failure of the effort is predictable, and the sad fact is that it would be preferable not even to have tried.

That doesn’t meant that there aren’t visually stunning elements in the picture. The glowing forms of the wraithlike aliens being fought by the intrepid band of surviving earthlings, for instance, are very impressive–silky, elegant and even a bit frightening. (The ethereal effect created when they suck the souls out of their human victims is gorgeous, too.) But curiously these figures are precisely the things in the movie that are the least “realistic” and most akin to old-fashioned animation. The remainder of the picture, which strives for a more down-to-earth look, is far less interesting precisely because it seems so unimaginative by comparison.

And then there’s the plot. “Final Fantasy” is based on a video game, and all one can say is that if the original is as turgid and narratively sloppy as the picture, it must be very boring to play. The basic storyline is sort of a gloomy variant of “Starship Troopers” (or of the short-lived TV series “Space: Above and Beyond”) gussied up (or, more properly, weighed down) with all kinds of mystical, New Agey mumbo-jumbo involving some sort of Neoplatonic World-Soul or “Gaia” and an effort by scientists to combat the alien powers by collecting eight spirits which, when brought together into a higher-consciousness union, will vanquish the threat. (Naturally, there’s an obsessive military man who deems the scientists’ plan “nonsense” and is determined just to blast everything to smithereens instead.) I have to confess that I couldn’t make heads or tails out of the gobbledegook that passes for exposition in the picture; all remained a terrible muddle, despite the fact that the piece plodded along so slowly that at times it appeared everything was being repeated two or three times. What is absolutely apparent is that the dialogue is crushingly banal, consisting of strings of cliches, punctuated by the kind of cheap, juvenile verbal jokes that proliferate in similar live-action pictures. It’s no wonder that the lines are, by and large, poorly delivered by the voice talent. Of the name stars, Alec Baldwin and Donald Sutherland recite their bits in the same wooden fashion they employ when stuck in hokey live-action movies, and James Woods gives us a snarling villain no different from countless similar non-animated bad- guys. Steve Buscemi provides the voice of Nick, the obligatory smart-aleck pilot who’s saddled with most of the purportedly funny lines; he’s lucky that he doesn’t actually have to appear on screen–it would have been as hard for him to hide his embarrassment at delivering such puerile stuff as it was when he appeared in the flesh in “Armageddon.”

In the last analysis, the only reason that “Final Fantasy” holds much interest is as a technical experiment. It exhibits what computer animation can and can’t do at the moment in creating more realistic locations and characters; and the result in that department is decent, if hardly awe- inspiring. But although some of the animation is striking, it’s a murky, gloomy movie that doesn’t provide a particularly enjoyable ride. As a narrative, it’s muddled, hackneyed and torpid, and the only emotional reaction it elicits from viewers is one of tedium. (One cares as little when one of the “humans” bites the dust as when an alien gets blasted to bits.) The real test is to imagine what you’d think of the movie if it were a live-action piece; most viewers, I think, would consider it a derivative, silly, sluggish adventure flick, and dismiss its mystical underpinnings as gibberish. The mere fact that it’s animated doesn’t alter that unhappy fact. “Atlantis” is no masterpiece, but it’s far better than this.

MONKEYBONE

There doesn’t seem to have been a good movie starring a simian since the original “King Kong” back in 1933, and “Monkeybone” will certainly leave the record unblemished. A “Beetlejuice” clone with more grotesquerie but far less mirth, the frantically slapstick farce from Henry Selick (director of the marvelous “Nightmare Before Christmas”) is so strenuous you can almost see the sweat roll off the screen. Unfortunately, it’s more irritating than funny.

The picture’s based on a graphic novel (the euphemism for an expensive comic book) called “Dark Town” by Kaja Blackley, and centers on a socially inept cartoonist named Stu Miley who’s in the first flush of major success deriving from his creation of an animated simian called Monkeybone (voiced by John Turturro) who, we can tell from an introductory clip, engages in all sorts of ribald acts to embarrass the humans around him. Stu, a rather retiring fellow, is also finally ready to propose to his long-time girlfriend Julie (Bridget Fonda), a research chemist. But before he can do so, he’s clobbered in an accident and winds up in a coma; while his body’s kept alive in the hospital, his spirit goes to a sort of halfway house between Life and Death called Downtown, the realm of dreams and nightmares overseen by the satyr-like ruler Hypnos (Giancarlo Esposito), where Monkeybone also resides. Stu tries to escape this limbo by sneaking into the kingdom of Death (Whoopi Goldberg) and stealing an “Exit” card back to the world of the living, but Monkeybone, in a plot hatched with Hypnos, instead uses the card to take over Stu’s body–their plan is to release a gas invented by Julie to enhance nightmares and thereby bring joy to the denizens of Downtown. To prevent the now-awakened but monkey-possessed Stu from completing this scheme, the real Stu persuades Death to give him a loner body in which he can try to foil the plot (an ill-timed twist, since it’s distinctly reminiscent of the recent “Down to Earth”); it turns out to be the rotting corpse of a dead gymnast (rubber-limbed Chris Kattan) which persistently sheds organs while being pursued by a bevy of doctors trying to harvest them as he frantically tries to stop Monkeybone. The big final confrontation is between Kattan-Stu and Fraser-Monkeybone-as-Stu, with the fate of the world and Julie literally hanging in the balance–atop a hot air balloon, no less.

This fractured, feverish plot is a wacky Freudian fable in which Monkeybone obviously represents the id of the repressed Stu, the seat of all those animalistic drives which societal demands have forced the poor guy to suppress. (Writer Sam Hamm italicizes this when he has Stu’s spirit pick up his “Psychological Baggage” on the way to Downtown.) So the joke is that when the racy simian takes over his creator’s body and acts like the lascivious, freewheeling character he is, it’s as though all the cartoonist’s inhibitions had suddenly been jettisoned and he can go along with all of his most primal urges. This premise could conceivably have been the basis for a hilarious picture–especially starring Fraser, who’d seem to be the perfect choice to play a Monkey-Man, having previously done nicely as a guy raised by apes in “George of the Jungle”–but it ends up seeming rather limp and lame despite all the slapstick, simply because the writing is so pallid and formulaic. Fraser does all the pratfalls, contortions and wide-eyed reactions demanded of him, but he never crosses the line from exertion to charm; he’s working much too hard to very little effect. Fonda, meanwhile, is utterly wasted as Stu’s fiancĂ©; the role could just as well have been played by a mannequin. And Kattan’s shtick, which has a certain gruesome joviality at first, is dragged out so long that by the end it merely seems unsavory–like one of those SNL skits in which Kattan so often appears that overstays its welcome by a considerable margin. Esposito is simply dull as Hypnos (having his head stuck onto a goat’s body can hardly have energized his thespic motivation), but even at that he’s more interesting that Goldberg, who smirks and walks through the role of Death as though she were still in the center of the Hollywood Squares. (She brings nothing like the wry sense of bewilderment with which William Sadler endowed the Grim Reaper in “Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey.”) Dave Foley, as Stu’s boss, is stuck with a part that’s a series of embarrassments, culminating in a scene that requires him to run around naked with green paint on his face. And, sad to say, the animated Monkeybone himself is an annoying little twit who wouldn’t survive half a season even on Comedy Central. (He’d probably be replaced by yet another airing of SNL reruns.)

The makers of “Monkeybone” have gone all out with the special effects, of course, aiming to endow Downtown and Underworld with some of the same dark glamor that Halloween Town possessed in the far superior “Nightmare Before Christmas.” But the result lacks the enchantingly visionary quality of the earlier film (perhaps because it lacks Tim Burton’s uniquely personal perspective); the picture looks seedy and second-rate by comparison, at worst resembling a more perverse recreation of the elaborate sets and costumes that used to be featured on old Krofft Brothers TV series like “H.R. Pufnstuf.” That’s hardly a compliment.

The over-the-top combination of slapstick, grossness and excessive SFX that permeates “Monkeybone” may appeal to the more primitive instincts in some members of its audience, but most viewers–unlike its poor, possessed protagonist–will retain enough of their rational faculties to dismiss the picture as the rather sloppy, inane farce that it is.