The bad, the good, and the ugly of children’s entertainment
Things are getting animated in the increasingly fragmented and competitive online streaming business. In a spate of cartoon releases, HBO Max put out the mixed live-action and animated Tom and Jerry, Disney brandished the fantasy epic Raya and the Last Dragon, and, as part of their rebrand from CBS All Access, Paramount+ presented a new SpongeBob movie—“Sponge on the Run.” They are the good, the bad and the ugly of this month’s kid entertainment.
Sponge on the run
The SpongeBob movie is the “ugly.” But not necessarily in a bad way. In keeping with the surreal aesthetic of the shows, the movie is a strange amalgam of the sentimental, the bizarre and an inconsistent underworld kingdom anchored (yes) by a perennially happy sponge who serves crabcakes to other sea creatures. There’s a zombie sequence, Keanu Reaves’ live-action head in tumbleweed as a guru, plenty of gags for kids of all ages and a cameo by Snoop Dogg.
As with all three of these films there’s a simplicity to the plot. This time, Spongebob and Patrick Star go to the lost city of Atlantic City and rescue SpongeBob’s pet snail Gary from King Poseidon. But unlike the other two, this feels like it is quite happy not to take itself too seriously and to stitch together any good ideas it has in service of entertainment. It ends up Frankenstein-ugly, but also a surprisingly good advert for the SpongeBob prequel, “Kamp Koral: SpongeBob’s Under Years” which is also premiering on Paramount+.
The Tom and Jerry “cat”-astrophe
“Tom and Jerry” is the “bad” movie of the three. And that’s not because of something interestingly “bad” about it. The technical marrying of filmed and illustrated character is impressive. You should watch a clip or two if you’re learning about contemporary cinematography. But the movie is bad. The Tom and Jerry franchise normally produces short cartoons because it has a limited premise. Cat tries to inflict violence on mouse, fails; mouse facilitates cold, smart, unspeakably brutal revenge. Turning that premise into a feature-length movie is a thankless task for the producers who present their meta-task as the theme of the movie.
Given the challenge of making an effective product with characters who engage in chaotic violence that always ends in the same way, Warner Bros made a movie about the challenge of making an effective product given characters who engage in chaotic violence that always ends in the same way. Director Tim Story (Ride Along and Ride Along 2) aims for feature film storytelling despite Tom and Jerry’s reductive cartoon violence constantly short-circuiting everything. Within the movie, Kayla (Chloe Grace Moretz) tries to do a similar thing. As event coordinator, she is the director, trying to produce a wedding between Preeta (Pallavi Sharda) and Ben (Colin Jost) despite the constant cartoon chaos of Tom and Jerry destroying the location. Since he gets to write the ending of the movie, Kayla is successful but, sadly, that success doesn’t transfer back to Story’s own project.
Instead of telling a story, Warner Bros hired one. Story’s cast includes Rob Delaney (as hotel manager) who looks like he’d find the disasters of his breakout show Catastrophe less catastrophic. The plot includes much meaningless drama about a celebrity wedding that must go ahead; apparently men and women are different and ethnic culture gaps exist! Insider gags include a prison cameo for Roger Rabbit as homage to live-action animation. That’s the film. Don’t see it. Unless, of course, you are perversely interested to see how a film set in the heart of New York–and with Tom and Jerry doing a whole day tour of New York–can look so little like New York. In that case I heartily recommend it, you’ll love this movie.
Happiness for people of all ages
So what about Disney? They claim to “create happiness by providing the best in entertainment for people of all ages, everywhere.” That’s an ambitious aspiration but, oddly, you can feel the claim in Raya and the Last Dragon, for which even subscribers to the Disney+ streaming channel must pay another $30. On the one hand it’s tacky, on the other hand it’s actually beautifully produced, of almost epic scope and, though it’s trying really hard to be good for everyone, with wide eyes on the Asian market, it is uplifting.
‘Raya’ has a formulaic kids movie/video game challenge—the kingdom has been split, the dragons are gone and the Earth is dying, our hero’s task is to collect the gems and find a dragon to unite the kingdom and heal the Earth. No spoilers, but it’s obvious from the start what has to happen and, while tugging at our heartstrings, it unfolds in a visually and dramatically satisfying way. The dragon of the title is a little annoying but there are quite a few new types of cute animals, so we may have some less-satisfying spinoffs in our future.
HBO’s stated mission, on the other hand, is to “strive to develop the best shows and films that illustrate the incredible power of storytelling.” If, when taken in aggregate, these three animated kids movies tell us anything, it’s that there are innumerable new techniques to tell stories, even within the strict confines of a feature-length animation in early 2021. I’m just happy I didn’t have to pay any additional fees to HBO to learn that from Tom and Jerry.