A couple weeks ago I received an invite that I very nearly glossed over. It was sent directly to this blog’s e-mail address (firstname.lastname@example.org) which is primarily home to entreaties to share in a fortune currently housed in Nigeria or to buy any variety of pills which promise to enhance or improve certain parts of the anatomy. Upon further examination though, it certainly appeared legit and frankly made an offer that had little chance of leading to my being cheated out of any money.
It was an invite to an advanced screening of a movie of which I had never heard: The Oogieloves and The Big Balloon Adventure. Further, I was invited to bring any of my children between the ages of two and seven that I wanted to. While that age range precluded Maggie, everyone else fit it. I nonetheless opted to leave the twins where they were and just bring Henry along for the ride. If nothing else, it would make a nice father-son day and perhaps be the first chapter in some future “Travels With Henry” post.
Between the time that I got the invite and actually went to the screening, I saw some posters for the film. In fact, having not told Henry about our impending adventure, I asked him what he thought of the movie poster we were walking by in the mall. He hugged it and said he wanted to see the film. This was a good sign, I thought.
Also before going to see the film, I did a bit of research. One thing I learned – something that would be reiterated when we spoke with the filmmakers – was that this film was designed to be interactive. Think The Rocky Horror Picture Show for the toddler set.
On the big day, Henry and I dropped the twins off at school and he took a moment to run in to say hello to his class. He had told them all about his big plans on his day off. He was going to see the Oogieloves!
When we arrived at the theater it was only 10AM, well before the place opened for regular business. Inside the lobby they had multiple tables set up with arts and crafts. The kids each had lunch bags they were invited to decorate and customize for themselves. They were also given inflatable beach balls that were designed to come in handy while we adult blogger-types were invited in to meet with the folks who conceived of and produced the movie.
They apparently didn’t have much of a budget to produce the film or much to promote it. What they came up with instead was a nationwide tour of screenings with what are called “Mommy Bloggers.” Their plan was to build momentum for the film’s release by building “word of blog” (my term, not theirs) around the country. They termed it “The Power of Mom.”
You may have noticed I am not a mom. They noticed as well. I haven’t embraced but grudgingly accepted that I can be classified as a “daddy blogger.” Less than a minute after Henry and I walked into the lobby of the theater, the woman who had invited me came up and said, “You must be Marshall!”
As it turns out, this was the last stop on their tour and I was the first and only “daddy blogger” that had come to any of their screenings. They had invited a handful but none had accepted. I was apparently a real “get.”
I chatted with her briefly and then Henry and I got down to gluing and stickers and the like while I picked my way through some danish and Henry took one bite of his bagel.
When the adults were split off from the group we were all led into the theater to sit down and get some information. Waiting for us were the producers Kenn Viselman and Gayle Dickie and writer Scott Stabile. Viselman is probably best known as one of the people behind The Teletubbies. He has made a career out of producing programming – all of it on television until now – for the under-six crowd.
Viselman told us his goal with the film was to create a movie experience specifically designed for those six and under. He told us that while he very much liked and admired the quality of, for instance, Pixar movies, they weren’t really designed for the littlest of kids.
Anyone who has seen any of the Pixar films knows that they have found away to appeal to the whole family. There are story arcs, allusions, and other messaging specifically designed to appeal to adults while most of it goes over the heads of kids. At the same time there is plenty there for the kids as well. This has obviously been a key to Pixar’s success.
Kenn basically argues that, yes, these movies do a great job of appealing to much of the family, but not the whole family. Ultimately, there is stuff that is inappropriate for the youngest in the group whether it be scary images, dangerous situations for the characters, or inappropriate innuendo.
I don’t necessarily disagree with him. There is a roughly four minute montage near the beginning of the film Up that, for adults is heartbreakingly good story telling. But for kids it must be somewhere between too sad and downright confusing. In that specific case, the film appealed to the adults at the cost of the kids in one way or another.
Viselman said that in these type of movies good will triumph over evil every time. He wondered, though, why must there be evil at all in a movie made for kids. He acknowledged it is easier to write the story that way, but that it doesn’t make it any better for the kids.
I admire him and the other filmmakers for this point of view. They are unabashed in their goal of making a film specifically designed for the youngest members of our families. They said their film is “love filled and joy filled.” They wanted to create something that was like the live shows tailored towards kids but at a fraction of the price. All of this, I think, is a noble endeavor.
Their second goal I’m not so on board with. They argued that bringing kids to movie theaters and then expecting them to sit still was unrealistic and unfair. Kenn basically said we don’t allow them “to be children” in movies. As such, he designed the film to not only allow but specifically encourage kids to get up and dance and sing and even run around.
On this we couldn’t disagree more. I would make the argument that if your kids are too young to stay in their seats for 90 minutes, they’re probably too young to go to the theater. There are simply some societal norms that we accept in life and sitting more or less quietly in a theater is one of them. If this one film encourages something otherwise, how could we then not expect these kids to think it’s okay in other ones? Designing a film for kids to run around in, to me, is akin to designing a restaurant where kids are allowed to throw their food at each other. It’s not a good idea and not something we need.
That said I went into the film still with an open mind. They have cues in the film to let the audience know when it was time to get up and when it was time to sit down. These interactions were built into the story and the Oogieloves themselves would explain it all in the first couple minutes.
With all of the discussion complete, the adults were released back into the lobby to retrieve our little ones (and some popcorn, if we so chose) and then come back in for the screening.
Henry and I sat near the front. I was one seat behind him because I wanted to see how he would interact with the film. He has been to theaters any number of times and we’ve never had any issue with his getting restless or otherwise inappropriate (I’m sure Viselman would hate my using that word.) I explained to him that he was allowed to get up and dance and sing and act however he wanted. He told me he didn’t want to. He just planned to sit. I told him, as Kenn had told us, that kids were just as welcome not to interact though he admitted he came to that only grudgingly.
The film started and had a decidedly Teletubbie vibe to it. Just as in the television show, this was a live action film that featured very colorful humanish creatures in an odd looking world. Goobie, Zoozie, and Toofie are our three main characters and they appear to live with a handful of anthropomorphic creatures like a vacuum cleaner (cleverly named J. Edgar) and a pillow named Schloofy. It is the pillow’s birthday and the three Oogieloves have to go out and recover the magic balloons that had gotten away. This is the whole of the conflict that they will have to overcome.
Over the course of the film, they set about getting these balloons back and, along the way, make new friends with whom they also get to sing a number of songs. The film is 83 minutes long and actually features some fairly well known personalities like Chazz Palminteri, Christopher Lloyd, Toni Braxton, Cloris Leachman, Cary Elwes, and Jaime Pressly. Viselman readily admitted that they had to overpay the actors to get them to be in the film.
I could give you my opinion of the film. I could write that Palminteri played the owner of a milkshake shop in a quirky way that made it seem as though he was constantly getting poked with something painful. I could tell you that Elwes played a cowboy that appeared to be both parts blind and constipated. And I could talk about the weird character choices of having Lloyd and Pressly play some strange May/December couple that, while either Mexican or Spanish, appeared to inexplicably live in Holland. Also, Doc Brown spoke only through bongo drums.
Yeah, so I wasn’t thrilled with it. But this movie wasn’t for me. If nothing else about the movie had been made clear it was simply that I was not, at all, its target audience. So, I turn to Henry. And so too, by the way, did both Viselman and Dickie. After the film we were back out in the lobby and both the producers tracked me down specifically. I suspect this was because of my exceedingly rare “daddy blogger” status.
While I avoided the snark on display above when they asked me what I thought (and that’s hard for me, as some of you may know) I admitted that it wasn’t for me. As for my son? He liked it, he told them both.
Gayle asked if had interacted much, and he said he hadn’t. This was, in fact, very true. He had barely moved throughout the entire film. Kenn asked if had sung along. He hadn’t. He asked if he could remember any of the words to the songs. He couldn’t. Finally Kenn asked him if he wanted to see it again. He didn’t.
Part of me cringed inside. If John Lasseter had met my kids when they walked out of Cars 2 and asked if they wanted to see the film again, they both would have said yes, absolutely. But, again, these filmmakers chose these audiences very carefully. They were asking questions of a five-year-old for whom the film was specifically designed to appeal to. I don’t know many five-year-olds who know how to politely lie about such things and neither, surely, does Kenn.
Except that not maybe. By the time we got home, Henry was talking up the movie much more. He told Maggie that she had to go see it and that he would happily go with her. He said that the babies needed to see it too. He also told his teachers all about it the next day.
One of the things I have learned when trying to judge how much a kid actually liked something is to figure out how much they retained. If they like a story, they’ll be able to tell you all about it after the fact. The more they know, the more they liked it. Henry, in the end, had the whole storyline down. He knew that there were five balloons and seven friends made along the way (eight if you count the cow.) He knew the balloons were magical and he knew that the friends had all sent gifts along for the Schluufy’s party. He knew basically the whole thing from start to finish and most of the names. He certainly knew more than me.
In the end, the film seemed to work for Henry. As Henry is the audience, to that degree the film works overall. I fear though that the concept is flawed. I can’t see spending eight dollars per person to go see Oogieloves in the theater. Pixar knew what they were doing when they appealed to adults. It only took the first visit to the first balloon before the formula for the movie was completely revealed. Clearly we know that good will triumph over evil in kids’ films just as we know that the main characters in any romantic comedy will end up together in the end. These stories aren’t about their ends, they’re about the journey of how we’ll get there. There is no mystery from start to finish of this film; we know within the first ten minutes what the next seventy-three have in store.
I respect Kenn, Gayle, Scott and the rest of their team for what they’re trying to do. They’re trying to redefine what a movie for kids is. They’re doing this literally, by the way. They told us they asked the MPAA for a GGG rating. It is to a G-rated film what an XXX-rated one is to just an X. It is kiddie to the extreme. The MPAA didn’t see it their way but the moviemakers have gone ahead and done it anyway. They kept telling us about the Power of Mom (even down to the giveaway bags they gave us at the end with that phrase printed right on it. Is it just me or should someone have taken a Sharpie to mine and just crossed out Mom and replaced it with Dad? Anyway…)
As they saw it, it is up to us to tell Hollywood that we want a different kind of film for our kids. We want the GGG. The thing of it is, I don’t want that. Better said, I don’t want to tell Hollywood that. I like what Pixar and Dreamworks are doing. Those are the movies I’ll pay to see. They feel like movies, like real productions. The Oogieloves and the Big Balloon Adventure just felt like a really long PBS show and whether I’m its audience or not, I am the one who gets decide when we go out to see a movie. I am the one who gets to pay for it.
I’m sorry, guys. I like you and I like that you’re all tilting at this windmill but I just don’t see it working. Moments after coming out of this film, Gayle asked Henry what movie he wanted to see in the theatre and his answer came more confidently, quickly, and, pardon the pun, animatedly than anything he had said about the film she had so lovingly made. He wanted to see Ice Age: Continental Drift. Unfortunately for Kenn and team, I think that’s always going to be the kind of movie that kids expect to see when they come out to the movies. And that’s the kind of movie parents are willing to pay for. In the end, those dollars are all the message Hollywood needs.