A week ago I wrote a post about how the Weinstein Company supposedly tampered with the trailer for The Road, in order to “help” the film – which is essentially a meditative look at the bond between a father and son traveling across the ruins of America – reach a (supposedly) wider audience.
The post caused a tiny stir and even inspired a response post from Alex Billington over at First Showing, who claimed (echoing the sentiment of many readers) that I was crying foul about something that is by now a banal topic: Hollywood using bait-and-switch advertising to lure us into theaters under false pretenses.
Well, this week I find myself “crying foul” about bait-and-switch advertising once again, this time in reference to a movie I actually saw and loved. I’m talking about Disney/Pixar’s wonderful new film, UP.
[WARNING: THE FOLLOWING PARAGRAPHS CONTAIN SPOILERS ABOUT THE PLOT OF UP]
If you’ve read my review of UP, then you already know that my overall opinion of the film is that it offers a surprisingly mature (and moving) look at the nature of grief and loss and how we climb back from those crushing emotions. Of course being a Pixar film, that serious undertone is dressed up as a fantastic adventure about a widower who ties a bunch of balloons to his house and flies off to explore South America. However, as I confessed in my review (and many other readers seconded) many key scenes of UP are so wrenchingly powerful, sad even, that you can’t help but be moved to tears. The film really urges you to take stock of your life and (if you’re lucky) the love in it, and (arguably) sends you away with a new appreciation for both.
While that kind of emotional resonance is a phenomenal accomplishment for an animated film (UP is clearly worthy of a Best Picture nomination, IMHO), it’s not so easy for the kids to digest. Sure, there are some silly talking dogs and a juvenile comedic foil thrown in there for the kids to enjoy and laugh at, but at its core, UP tells a very adult story.
That isn’t just my opinion, either. If you check out the comment thread on my UP review you’ll see several instances of parents complaining that the film made for a bad experience for them and their children. A couple of parents even went as far as to say they had to leave the theater at the behest of their melancholy children. My first reaction to these parents was “That’s YOUR fault: Do your homework before you take your kids to a movie; never assume something is going to be OK for them just because it has a familiar brand name slapped on it.” And, truth be told, I was good with that response. I stood by it.
Flash-forward to last night: I’m sitting on my couch catching up on some summer TV when all of a sudden I catch a TV spot for UP – one of those “UP is the number one movie in America!” spots where they flash you all the names of critics and publications that have praised the film. Imagine my shock: Of all fancy names they flashed (New York Times, USA Today, Time, etc…), only one critic (Hollywood.com‘s Pete Hammond) was quoted – and then, only quoted for one word out of his entire review: “Hilarious.”
I nearly fell off the couch.
“Hilarious?” Really? That’s the word that best sums up the experience of seeing UP?
The rest of the TV spot was just as misleading, only showing scenes of the talking dogs running around acting silly and saying silly things. Anybody who has seen UP knows that silly humor occupies about 10% (or less) of the film’s runtime – so why are Disney/Pixar STILL trying to market it that way when they’ve ALREADY succeed in both the critical and commercial levels with UP? Granted that selling the movie as a comedic adventure initially got many of us into the theater, and helped Disney/Pixar rake in a hefty wad of cash – however that misleading advertising also caused a bit of a backlash from upset parents, and really, when you think about it, wasn’t it mostly the beautiful story of love and loss that earned UP such high critical praise in the first place?
For those readers who think it’s pointless for me to complain about false advertising in Hollywood, let me make an important distinction: I’m 100% accustomed to studios manipulating advertising to make crappy movies seem better than they are. I’m not naive – hell I’m among the biggest cynics there out there. To me, selling snake-oil as a cure-all is practically the American Way. What concerns me about these cases of The Road and UP is that, in a way, these two examples represent a reversal of the usual trickery: Hollywood trying to sell us great movies as dumbed-down versions of themselves.
Has the American public really become so low-brow? Both UP and The Road have already been mentioned in the same sentence as the word “Oscar” for their moving stories and fantastic quality, yet respectively they’re being touted to the public as a post-apocalyptic thriller and a kids’ adventure? I get that the goal of this Hollywood game is to rake in as much cash as possible, but since when did top-quality films (that already have the potential for mass appeal beyond the snooty art-house crowd) need to be dressed-down in order to be successful? Can you imagine if The Dark Knight trailers, posters or TV spots had tried to sell Heath Ledger’s Joker as a comedic foil, just because the late actor’s Oscar-winning performance was “too dark?” If that had been the case, something tells me I wouldn’t have been the only pissed-off blogger on the block.
Bottom line: Excellent films should be touted for the full-scope of their excellence. Period. Seeing excellent films being sold by any other merit is (for me) like being trapped in Ayn Rand’s worst nightmare. Cinematic excellence should not be viewed a financial hindrance – the very notion is absurd to me, no matter how much you might want to argue about Oscar-nominated films that made pennies at the box office. Not an excuse.
[UPDATE] The great irony here is: if Disney/Pixar were to start advertising UP as being a “moving” and “beautiful” film that “adults need to see,” that selling point, combined with all the positive critical and general word of mouth, would likely help UP appeal to a vastly wider demographic who still think the film is just for kids. Reaching that wider demographic would ultimately help sell more tickets and fill more theater seats! This misleading advertising, I believe, is actually hindering their chance$ for bigger payday. So, greed supporters, show me where the logic is in that.
In the case of UP, maybe it’s big bad Disney that is the bad influence; maybe Pixar also shares in the blame. Truthfully I don’t know enough to know who to point the finger at, only that somebody needs to point the finger.
Well, consider it pointed.