Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Home, the Movie: Human Parents, Save Yourselves!

Today I took my eight-year-old son, Luke, out to see the DreamWorks movie "Home," which he has been begging me to do for weeks. A confession: I can't stand nine out of ten children's movies. I love being a mom, and I've got no problem with kids' pop culture. I just tend to find kids' movies tedious as hell, full of predictable themes and slapstick jokes and made-for-the-toy-aisle characters, and so whenever possible, I let my husband (who likes them just fine) take the kids to the theater on his own as a Bonding Experience.

But with "Home," I felt good-natured about the trip. Luke needed some mommy time, and I had to be at the mall anyway while my teenage daughter shopped for jeans with her friend, so why not? Little did I know I was about to subject myself to some of the most wretched storytelling I've ever imposed on any of my children.

The movie started out cute enough. Spunky girl heroine-- with Island heritage and the daughter of a single mom, no less. I approve! The chubby little aliens, fleeing Bad Guys, stage the friendliest planetary takeover ever, and their way of getting us humans out of the way is fairly imaginative. But soon, the premise drops into place, and it's almost unbelievable in its stupidity. The bumbling, ne'er-do-well alien, named Oh, pulls out his smartphone to invite a reluctant "friend" to his "home-warming party," and accidentally hits "Send All," which sends the evite to everyone in the universe, alerting the Bad Guys to their new location on Planet Earth. There were two buttons on the email: a picture of one person, and a picture of two. Bumbling Alien Oh hit the one with two, and oops, now the survival of their entire population is in imminent danger!

What the hell? This can't be the premise for a movie with a multimillion-dollar budget-- not even one for kids. The aliens can travel intergalactically and efficiently remove the entire population of a planet, but they can't disable "Send All"? Why are the bad guys even in their address books? Why would you give this idiot a smartphone capable of bringing down your entire civilization?

But off we go, headlong into the action. I can roll with it-- "be a leaf on the wind," as a better children's movie once said.

Yet now that the screenwriter has established that he doesn't give a crap whether this film makes sense or not, since the unlucky viewer has already paid for her ticket and is committed, my ears are perked for other feats of slapdash writing. Quickly, I'm getting annoyed with the aliens talk. Their constant grammatical errors don't follow any pattern or make any sense. Plurals are freely, but inconsistently, added in error; verbs are conjugated whimsically, and words are cutely misused at every opportunity. One of the basic rules of writing is that a character can make grammatical mistakes-- say, if they are a child, or a foreigner-- but they must be the RIGHT mistakes-- in other words, consistent and following a pattern. That's why "Yoda speech" works, and why we can all imitate it. Boris, the Ukrainian/Russian character in "The Goldfinch," can say, "Couldn't even get television during monsoon," because dropping articles is characteristic of Russian speech. But the only purpose of the Chubby Aliens' mistakes is to make them sound self-consciously cute. I kept thinking, they can travel to another planet, but they can't conjugate a goddamn regular verb?

Forty-five minutes in, as I stole glances at my son, I knew the greater crime of this movie was that he hadn't laughed out loud once. He was engaged, and watching intently, but none of the jokes had gotten him to laugh. The theater was weirdly silent, even though it was full of kids, most younger than Luke. And the slapstick jokes were coming left and right. They just weren't very funny.

As the third act begins and the girl and her alien sidekick travel from New York to Paris, they somehow pick up "Starry Night," the Van Gogh painting. It sits there in the back seat of her car for the remainder of the movie, seeming to cheekily imply that in the upheaval of the alien-run world, they've happened upon this famous painting and taken it with them. I mean, that makes more sense than their picking up a reproduction from a street vendor. Except "Starry Night" isn't on display in Paris. It's in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. So how the hell did they find it in Paris?! Why didn't they, y'know, pick up a painting in Paris that is ACTUALLY IN PARIS?

The obvious answer to this is "get over yourself, it's a kids' movie, they aren't going to know the difference." But that's my whole problem with "Home."

From the tissue-thin premise, to the sloppy speech details, to the cheap, halfhearted emotional plays to themes of Family and Friendship and Loyalty, to the moment when a character opens a Secret Box sort-of-deal and inexplicably realizes Critical Plot Information (which must be explained to the viewer later), to the bait-and-switch where it looks like a character is definitely dead but miraculously isn't, to the fact that the painting they grab in France isn't even IN that country-- all of these things work together to say, "It doesn't matter if we offer kids good storytelling as long as they buy the toy tie-ins for this movie at Wal-Mart."

There's so much fantastic storytelling out there for kids. Even my teenagers loved "Big Hero 6." I thought "Frozen" was an imaginative, even subversive, delight-- heck, even the LEGO Movie took for granted that its young audience was intelligent and deserved a heartfelt song and dance. "The Incredibles" remains my gold standard for kids' movies-- smart, funny, with detailed characterizations and well-seeded plot points that bloom beautifully in the film's climax (for example: "Jack-Jack doesn't have any powers."). I could name countless literary examples, too, but for argument's sake, I'm sticking to recent films that also sold toys and tickets and DVDs. No matter whether it's written or acted or spoken-word, good storytelling is a glorious, cherished, necessary thing, giving us the opportunity to dive into a few of the extra lives we would live if only time and space could meet the needs of our yearning. Nobody deserves a good story more than a child, because hearing stories helps the mind learn to make connections and predict behavior and imagine outcomes and engage with the ethics and challenges of being human. A well-told story is a gift in all those ways.

But a badly-told one is an insult to the child, whether the child understands that or not. It says, "I don't think you're smart enough to understand that this point doesn't make sense." "I don't think you'll notice if I half-ass this part." "I'm asking for two hours of your childhood in exchange for my third-tier work."

I don't doubt that the animators worked hard. "Home" is visually appealing. It made a lot of money, too. But DreamWorks should do better than to greenlight a crappy screenplay just to get a kids' movie out. Show your young audience a little respect, would you? When a child asks you to tell her a story, rise to the occasion and do your job well.