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Critiquing the Major Film Studio Logos

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About 90% of the money paid to see a movie in North America goes toward one produced or distributed by one of the six “major” film studios. These are mega-profitable, highly visible corporations that nevertheless usually don’t have a lot of brand distinction between them. A movie is a movie is a movie, for the most part, and I don’t know anyone in today’s world who associates any one major with a particular type or quality of product (with the one exception probably being Disney). Yet each company has a rich history and an identity they try to convey to indifferent viewers, probably more for the sake of tradition and corporate pride than for advertising or branding purposes. The way they do that is through their animated logos which they slap in front of their releases. I decided to examine these little-scrutinized industry totems and review those of the six majors. Here are my conclusions:

Columbia Pictures

“Columbia” dresses up as a Men in Black.

Columbia’s logos over the years have varied as to whether they zoom in to or out of the torch’s light, but all have featured “Columbia,” who looks exactly like Annette Bening, and is supposed to be a female personification of the United States. (A little ironic for a studio owned today by Japanese conglomerate Sony.) The latest iteration, which has been in place since the early ’90s, contains some rich detail and color, especially in the clouds. I think it would be cool if those clouds were animated to move in a more noticeable way, but it’s still an impressive feat to make clouds so visually interesting. This logo also features a lens flare big enough to embarrass J.J. Abrams, which was certainly not the case in the logo’s early years, when lens flare was thought of as an unacceptable error rather than the cinematographic weapon it is today. Although the scene is presented about as attractively as it can be, this logo feels a little off to me. Its patriotism, even after being toned down—the blue drape Columbia holds used to be an American flag—doesn’t seem all that relevant to the idea of movies; the symbol isn’t evocative of much other than silver dollars and World War I propaganda. I really like, however, how the studio lets their mascot have fun: She wears sunglasses and holds a neuralyzer for Men in Black, and in a bizarre meta-joke, had her face replaced with that of the real Annette Bening for her 2000 film What Planet Are You From.

Paramount Pictures

Like most of the logos in this list (movie studios rarely go with a full re-brand, I’ve discovered), the Paramount logo has changed from one variation to another of the same theme for the entirety of the studio’s existence. I had always assumed the mountain depicted was supposed to be the Matterhorn, but it’s a bit too misshapen, and possibly a bit too associated with another company, to be it. The logo’s original designer was a Utah native and many have suggested it could have been inspired by any number of peaks in the Wasatch Range. But if there’s one mountain in the world that most resembles the Paramount peak’s current form, it has to be Peru’s Artesonraju. Anyway, the identity of the mountain is irrelevant; the question is, how does it function as a logo? I would say this logo does a lot with relatively little, and the stars that ring the mountain are the unsung heroes here. For decades, their appearance came spontaneously. Starting in 1986, they approached from downstage right. And after 2002, they descended from the heavens. As you can see in the logo above, the new 100th anniversary one adds some new wrinkles including the stars taking a meandering, leisurely skip across a lake and a bright sun in back of the mountain. I give Paramount credit for making such an obtuse, formerly static symbol interesting. It doesn’t have much to do with movies or anything else really, but something about it just feels right.

Twentieth Century Fox

The monument topped with a huge “20th” predates the company itself, as it was originally used by Twentieth Century Pictures before its merger with Fox Films in 1935. The gleaming Art Deco colossus is a splendid thing to center a movie studio logo around, because it belongs to a certain design era that everyone associates with Classical Hollywood. Until 1994, the image was stationary; only after then was the twirling view of a CGI Los Angeles cityscape introduced. The first iteration included a number of easter eggs to be found in the signage on buildings, including, for instance, “Murdoch’s Department Store.” The version seen above was updated within the last few years but is largely unchanged, as the most visible difference to the old CGI one is the addition of palm trees surrounding the spotlights. I’m wholly in support of this. The more classic Hollywood tropes they can cram in there, the better. I like this logo a lot because it’s sort of like a slightly more reality-bound version of the new Disney one. In this case the fantasy world isn’t one of medieval legend but an idealized, romantic Hollywood, and it feels alive, with individual buildings and moving cars and the Hollywood sign. I think they could probably do more with the idea—how about throwing in a majestic old movie palace marquee or two?—but I still think this is one of the best studio logos there is.

Universal Studios

This is one logo that has benefited a lot from the development of CGI in my opinion. Its extraterrestrial vantage point was ambitious when it became the first still-operating American film studio to be founded in 1912 (beating Paramount by a few months); early renditions of the logo were obviously of the scale model-on-a-matte-background variety, and it stayed that way pretty much until the ’90s. It was only then that the magic of 0s and 1s could provide the vivid detail we see today. The 100th anniversary logo seen above takes, aside from the huge interstellar cloud it has the Earth residing in front of, a very realistic approach to to the globe. This includes depicting the luminescent signs of human inhabitance, a decision that I’m not sure how I feel about. For sheer aesthetics, I think I preferred the late ’90s and ’00s version with an Earth that was shimmering with white light and comprised of the brilliant rainbow of hues normally reserved for topographical maps. To its credit though, the new one is a tiny bit less Americentric, as it doesn’t conclude with North America perfectly centered. (The Earthcentrism of the company’s name referencing the universe but only focusing on our planet is another issue.) All in all, this is definitely a logo I can get behind. I like anything in space, the globe is an instantly recognizable icon, and the subtextual message—that through movies you can have a world of experiences—is a comforting one.

Walt Disney Pictures

The Disney logo of my youth holds a good deal of nostalgia but it was looking aged by the mid-2000s. Knowing nothing but the two-tone, two-dimensional representation of Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty Castle, the 3D, flag-fluttering version that preceded Toy Story (and a few other Disney/Pixar films after it) was a bit of a shock. But nothing prepared us for the staggering orgy of color, sound and visual information contained within the current Disney logo. It starts in space, focusing on the star to be wished upon from Pinocchio, along with the “second star to the left” from Peter Pan. The camera swoops over an ocean, multiple rivers, an expansive network of small villages, a large sailing ship and a steam locomotive before settling before an amalgam of Sleeping Beauty Castle and Walt Disney World’s Cinderella Castle. I love this logo. If you look really closely, you can see numerous individual buildings and trees, a network of roads, docks extending into the rivers, another faraway castle-like structure, and an entirely different landmass beyond the sea. On its bad days, Disney can feel sterile and like a soulless simplification of everything; that feeling is not to be found in this logo. it presents a breathing universe that represents Disney’s position as a modern custodian of timeworn myths and implies that that universe can be explored and lived in rather than only known of at the basest level. Essentially, I want to play an open-world video game taking place inside the Disney logo, and I’m impressed when any 30-second clip of anything gives me that feeling.

Warner Bros.

Unfortunately, I think there is a clear last place among the six majors’ logos, and it is occupied by Warner Bros. Although they’ve gone through some interesting minimalist periods, the gold shield as we see today has been pretty much the same as long as it’s been their logo. I have a number of issues with it, and the fact that it’s hard not to think of Looney Tunes when looking at it is the least of them. Biggest of all is the opening view of the sequence, in which we see a warped, gold-stained aerial shot of what I presume are Warner’s studios. Like I mentioned with the Fox logo, I applaud attempts to showcase imagery that evoke the essence of Hollywood. But this one fails because there’s nothing romantic, exciting or emotionally resonant about looking at row upon row of warehouse-like soundstages, even if they are where the proverbial magic is made. And it doesn’t help that the image is probably too distant to look like anything identifiable anyway unless you are really concentrating, which you are not, unless you are scrutinizing it on YouTube in order to blog about it. Another problem with this logo is the sky background. Columbia proved that with CGI you can make clouds look amazing. So why is Warner still rolling with what looks like a matte painting from the ’40s? It’s jarring, especially since the shield itself has had a 3D, CGI sheen since 1998. I don’t think this logo concept provides very much to work with compared to some of the others, but I still think WB is really dropping the ball here.

Well, that ends my review of the Big Six, though there are dozens more logos like them in the wide world of film production and distribution, including a few real gems. I think my personal favorite might be that of Skydance Productions, which, for some beautifully inexplicable reason, shows the letters of its name being released into zero-gravity space by elaborate vice-crane contraptions in the vicinity of the Sun. I’m also a big fan of those of Marvel and DC, which in my estimation express a similar idea—the mythmaking power of the comics medium—in admirably different ways: Marvel by overwhelming the screen with the vastness of its canon, and DC by showing rays of weightiness emanating from those iconic building blocks of comics, the Ben-Day dots. Hollywood has been owing much to these companies lately, and I think it could learn a lot from their movie logos too.


Art, Physics, and Your Place in the Omniverse

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This surreal moment—in which Michael Scott (of the American version of “The Office”) meets David Brent (of the British version)—took place on the American one recently. I thought it was hilarious and apt that they form a hug-worthy bond within seconds of meeting. This was due, I assumed, to them basically being the same person, thrust together by the most divine of chances.

On the website I first saw this at, Nikki’s Finke’s Deadline Hollywood, a commenter named cookmeyer1970 took a less breezy view of it. Although they said they ultimately enjoyed it, they began by saying:

I was very much against this (the two series shared practically the same script for an episode as well as duplicate characters making it, in my opinion, two parallel universes that shouldn’t cross)…

I don’t think the issue of “duplicate characters” really has to come into play—most of the American characters that were adapted from British ones are done so pretty roughly, and even Michael and David have their differences. And by this point, the American show (which has aired 140 episodes) has created a whole swarm of characters that have no equivalent on the British show (which aired 14). But I admit I hadn’t thought about the fact that the first episodes of the two series are identical nearly line-to-line.

Does a fact like that firmly establish that the two “Offices” could not possibly exist within the same plane of being? Should Scott and Brent have destroyed each other like matter and anti-matter the instant they ran into each other?

From a practical standpoint, my answer was: I don’t care. It goes without saying that virtually any TV series requires suspension of disbelief, and as far as potential inconsistencies go, I realize this might be one of the most obscure, technical ones ever. But from a theoretical perspective, I think it’s quite interesting to consider.

You sometimes hear about “the universe” of a particular film, TV series, book, or other work of art. Some of these universes are extremely obvious. Clearly the universe of, say, “The Lord of the Rings” is not our own. But the truth is that literally all stories, even those that might appear firmly grounded in reality, create their own universe that necessarily cannot be the same as our own.

For instance, look at “The West Wing.” Despite relying on ripped-from-the-headlines political issues for much of its drama and intellectual substance, not to mention frequently discussing U.S. history and governmental minutiae, the world it depicted was in some ways as alien as Middle Earth. The show established that Nixon was the last real president its universe shared with ours, and despite incorporating real foreign states into storylines all the time, also invented the countries of “Qumar” and “Equatorial Kundu” to stand in for generalized representations of the Middle East and Africa, respectively. (It also presented a universe in which every human is capable of delivering a searingly witty riposte without a second’s hesitation at any given moment and for any given situation, but that’s another issue.)

Does this mean we should consider “The West Wing” a fantasy? Certainly not. Does it mean we can’t appreciate the voluminous amount it has to say about the real issues in our world? Not in the least. But it’s not our universe, and actually it’s not even particularly close to being our universe.

The divergence point for the universe of a movie or TV show can come from an even more elementary source. Consider the fact that in the universe of any work that involves actors playing characters, it would be fair to assume the actors don’t exist within that work’s universe. The most brilliant, succinct explanation of this concept is found in the underrated existential action comedy “Last Action Hero,” when a kid enters the universe of a Schwarzenegger film. He finds that in a world without Arnold, logic dictates that the Terminator could very well have been played by Sylvester Stallone.

If I remember correctly, there was also a joke on “Seinfeld” once in which Frank Costanza reads about Jerry Stiller dying. This would prove that actors on a show could possibly still exist within that show’s universe, as odd as it would be for George Costanza’s perfect doppelganger to exist and for him to be an actor to boot. But the bottom line is, it wouldn’t be a joke if that wasn’t the case—and it’s only the case in the “Seinfeld” universe.

This idea is a overlapping concept between art and quantum mechanics. They many-worlds interpretation is too complicated, certainly for me, and possibly for anyone, to fully understand, but the basic principle is that every possible outcome of every possible divergence point exists in a universe somewhere within the “multiverse.” In other words, every single thing that could happen does happen, and it creates a new universe when it does. Does this mean that every choice the author of a work of fiction makes determines what real universe, out there amongst countless others, they end up describing? Who’s to say?

(By the way, it’s worth mentioning that the multiverse is, theoretically anyway, not the be-all and end-all. It is “simply” the collection of possible quantum configurations of our universe; it’s conceivable that there are more multiverses, as well as multiverse-type realms in other dimensions, that we don’t understand. The collection of everything, anytime, anywhere, in any dimension, is referred to as the “omniverse.”)

This panel depicting the DC Comics character the Flash existing in different forms in different universes illustrates the "many worlds" concept.

The medium that has undoubtedly explored this concept the most is comic books. Both DC Comics and Marvel Comics have made explicit references to the many-worlds idea and have taken advantage of it in far more ways than just depicting characters with superpowers. They’ve had DC and Marvel characters fighting each other, transported their characters into the Renaissance, and imagined what it would be like if Superman had landed in the Soviet Union rather than America. There was even a storyline in which the Fantastic Four made their way to our Earth, in which Marvel Comics is a company that produces stories about them, to beg “God” (author Jack Kirby) to save a particular character’s life. This is all while within the many-worlds framework, which ends up being an elegant solution to any potential continuity problems—and, incredibly, a scientifically plausible one at that.

I really like the idea that every story that has ever been conceived is part of the actual omniverse. Everything that you have ever imagined has happened. So when it comes to “The Office,” why can’t two office managers, who presided over an episode-long period of strikingly identical events, exist together? It doesn’t make much sense in our universe, but in the “Office” universe? Why not?

The only point I want to make here is this: You can look at the creation of art and fiction as wondrous, magical even, and I certainly do. But you can also look at it in terms of tapping into the most incredible potential realities that science tells us could exist. And I think that’s pretty damn cool.

One of the most amazing stories of “Star Trek” is a Deep Space Nine episode, “Far Beyond the Stars,” in which Captain Sisko has visions of himself as a sci-fi writer struggling to get his stories—about space station Deep Space Nine and its commanding officer, Ben Sisko—published in segregated America. Even if racist editors prevent his work from being published, he insists, his creations still exist because “you can’t destroy an idea.”

A Retrospective of ’90s Kids’ Sports Movies

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Political scientists say the American political landscape shifts on a predictable 30-year cycle. But I’ve found that the bygone decade that each decade is nostalgic for is even more predictable. The ’00s loved the ’80s. The ’90s loved the ’70s (previous post tie-in alert!). Reagan’s ’80s seemed to mostly buck this trend, but you could definitely argue that the ’70s loved the ’50s.

It’s easy to understand why this cycle happens. Two decades ago tends to be when the current tastemakers grew up. And I’m more than ready to contribute to the ’90s nostalgia that will undoubtedly be a huge deal in the ’10s. When I thought about what this meant, one type of film kept coming up in my mind: the kids’ sports movie.

The ’90s in American sports were, if not altogether hopeful times, at least ambitious, as leagues expanded to include a bevy of Sun Belt and Canadian teams that wore teal or purple or both. I’m not sure if the drive to capture more fans that produced this rapid expansion was the reason, but a whole bunch of movies came out trying to get kids excited about sports. All of them are good for serious ’90s nostalgia, but how do they rate upon viewing today? I watched eight of the best remembered ’90s movies involving kids and sports to see. In chronological order, here’s what I found.

“The Mighty Ducks” (1992) dir. Stephen Herek

"I'm sure this will be a real bonding experience. One day, maybe one of you will even write a book about it in jail."

Given the empire this movie spawned, including two sequels (more on those later), an animated series starring anthropomorphic ducks and—this is still unbelievable to me, 17 years and a Stanley Cup championship later—an actual National Hockey League franchise, it’s easy to forget how much heart the original had. I know I did.

My recollection of Emilio Estevez’s Coach Bombay, for instance, having been mostly informed by the sequels, was certainly not that of the hilariously acerbic bastard he is at the beginning. He tells his driver, trying to find the team he’s been sentenced to coach after a DUI, “Just look for the sign that says ‘Personal Hell.'”

“I’m sure this will be a real bonding experience,” he tells the kids, who have been reacting negatively to his cold demeanor. “One day, maybe one of you will even write a book about it in jail.”

The kids also seem, if not necessarily three-dimensional, realer than your standard hard-luck preteen street gang. They also routinely use the term “cake eater,” which I had to look up to learn is apparently a pejorative Minnesota term for someone rich; that being said, I polled several of my numerous Minnesotan friends on the term, and none of them professed to have ever heard of it.

Of course, the trashtalking kids from the streets of Minneapolis eventually teach him the meaning of fun, and Bombay, being the cutthroat trial lawyer that he is, teaches the kids about winning. It’s a terrific combination.

Pro Athlete Cameos: Minnesota North Stars players Basil McRae and Mike Modano show up, saying they played with Bombay when they were kids.

Quality of Sports Action: Solid, though not spectacular. At least it seems that everyone can skate. Many wide shots look good, and that’s probably because they used doubles. At one point a particularly hard slapshot breaks the net completely though, which takes the film down a few pegs on the realism scale. Also, the vaunted “Flying V” formation is, I’m sorry to say, definitely an interference-and-offsides double helping of illegality.

How Does a Single Parent Play Into the Plot? Charlie (Joshua Jackson), the Ducks’ captain, lives in a spacious art-filled apartment that his single mom can afford working as a waitress at Mickey’s Diner. Bombay acts as a father figure to Charlie, leading to him getting together with Charlie’s mom at the end.

“Rookie of the Year” (1993) dir. Daniel Stern

"If we don't sell out every game for the rest of the year, we're going to have to, uh, forfeit the franchise."

After a miraculous injection of talent, a 12-year-old, Henry Rowengartner, gets to play in the major leagues. What baseball-loving kid wouldn’t love that premise? I certainly did, and I recalled the film vaguely but fondly.

Boy, did my perceptions change on viewing it today. This is one of the stupidest movies I’ve ever seen, in the ’90s kids’ sports movies department or otherwise.

Even if you’re willing to suspend your disbelief that it’s possible for a tendon injury to heal so “tight” that it gives one’s elbow a slingshot-like ability to make 103-mph snap throws—believe me, I am—this film is still riddled with conflicts that have some of the most absurd stakes ever.

If the Cubs don’t sell out every game for the rest of the season, they’ll forfeit the franchise! If Henry doesn’t complete the save in his second major league game, he won’t get an endorsement deal with Pepsi! If the Cubs’ owner doesn’t find out first, the slimy GM will “sell” Henry to the Yankees for $25 million behind his back! Despite now being the only professional baseball player at his school, if Henry doesn’t successfully build a boat with his friends, he won’t get to hang out with his dream girl!

Daniel Stern, who also directed the film, plays the Cubs’ pitching coach, who never displays any indication of knowing a single thing about pitching. At one point, he takes a few hacks during batting practice, and manages to pop three balls in a row directly above him, hitting himself in the head each time. I suppose this is meant to show how hapless he is, but if I saw it in real life, I would probably assume it to be a Harlem Globetrotterian display of skill.

This sums up the film well for me: it seems like a sports film made by people who know zero about sports.

Pro Athlete Cameos: Pedro Guerrero, Bobby Bonilla, and pre-steroidal Pittsburgh-era Barry Bonds are all shown whiffing at Henry’s fastball.

Quality of Sports Action: Atrocious, even amongst the non-child actors. Gary Busey, who is supposed to be an aging star pitcher, has mechanics akin to this guy. There is also a breathtakingly illegal hidden-ball trick in which Henry: one, stands on the rubber without the ball (balk) and two, holds the rosin bag in his glove to make it look like he has the ball (probably grounds for an ejection).

How Does a Single Parent Play Into the Plot? Henry’s single mom, has regaled him with stories of a supposedly great baseball-playing absentee father throughout his life. Meanwhile, her current boyfriend becomes Henry’s evil manager, colluding on the Henry-to-the-Yankees conspiracy, leading to Mom dumping him just as she starts to get together with Busey’s character. Finally, in his very last appearance for the Cubs, Henry pulls a patch off his glove to reveal his mother’s name, realizing that all along, the great baseball or softball player was HER, not his father, producing that rare plot element that is sexist, illogical, and detrimental to the film’s premise all at once.

“The Sandlot” (1993) dir. David Mickey Evans

"You bob for apples in the toilet..."

My completely non-scientific sense is that it’s this film that holds the most nostalgia for children of the ’90s of all the films on this list. I could say that’s curious since it’s the only one that doesn’t take place in the ’90s (it’s set in 1962), but the movie’s strength is in capturing the timeless essence of being a preteen on summer vacation.

It’s probably the least sports-dependent of any of these sports films. The journey of Scott Smalls as he discovers good friends and independence for the first time takes place on a baseball field, but it’s relatable in any context. Sure, some things seem stupid now, such as the way Smalls initially gains acceptance among his baseball peers—he stands in the outfield, with arm outstretched and eyes closed, while Benny magically guides the ball right into his glove—but they feel forgivable.

"...and you LIKE IT."

“The Sandlot” shares with “The Mighty Ducks” an excellent sense of the often brilliant, sometimes bizarre way that kids are liable to talk and trashtalk to each other when no adults are around. My favorite line is when a member of a rival team insults a Sandlot kid by saying, “You bob for apples in the toilet..and you like it.” As if grudgingly bobbing for apples in the toilet is a normal and expected state of affairs, but to enjoy it is the real disgrace.

The entire film feels like a hazy memory from years in the future. Witness the beautifully shot slow-motion fireworks-lit game scene, or the comically large size of the dog the kids try to rescue the Babe Ruth-signed ball from. When the dog is finally befriended at the end, he becomes smaller and realer, kind of like the rest of the world does as we grow up too.

Pro Athlete Cameos: No actual pro athletes appear, but Babe Ruth does show up in a dream sequence.

Quality of Sports Action: Truth be told, actually pretty terrible. When the ball comes off Ham’s bat in the first home run of the movie, it is quite obviously heading toward the right field side before a new shot shows it sailing over the left field fence. And everyone that swings and misses does so by about four feet. But it’s hard to be bothered by it when the baseball is so un-central to the plot.

How Does a Single Parent Play Into the Plot? Scotty’s mom is not quite single, but she has apparently remarried very recently to a man Scotty is struggling to connect with. Stealing his Babe Ruth-signed ball and ultimately covering it in mud and dog slobber doesn’t seem to be the way to do it, but everything works out in the end between them.

Connections to Previous Films on the List: Brandon Adams, who plays Kenny DeNunez, also plays Jesse Hall in “The Mighty Ducks.” In both films, he wears some sort of headwear—a black-green-yellow-and-red knit hat in “Mighty Ducks,” and a Kansas City Monarchs cap here—emphasizing his position as one of the one or two African-American kids in the group.

“D2: The Mighty Ducks” (1994) dir. Sam Weisman

"No! It was me!"

I won’t say that this movie is everything bad the first one wasn’t, but it’s close. I actually had a lot more memories of this one since I owned it on VHS, and could quote it even to this day. For example, I established a tradition among the kids I was a counselor for at Camp Tawonga of yelling “Goldberg!” every time a fart was smelled, after which the culprit had to declare with arms raised, “No! It was me!” But does it hold up?

Well, the premise is ludicrous even for a kids’ sports movie. The idea that a coach who had a single court-ordered successful season under his belt would be chosen to coach the national team at the Junior Goodwill Games is silly. The idea that the team itself would be made up primarily of the kids from the Pee Wee team he coached, several of whom possess quite limited talent, is absurd. And the idea that this coach—again, a youth hockey coach—would be able to sign a lucrative endorsement contract (including his own signature shoe model) and become a household name is truly laughable.

All of which could be forgiven if “D2” delivered the same heart and humor that the first does, but it doesn’t. There is considerably more filler and crass humor, nowhere near as many good one-liners, and Bombay’s arc, going from good guy to vapid celeb-coach and back again, is a lot less interesting or relatable.

I did, however, find the choices of the Ducks’ international opponents to be rather fascinating. Had this film come out 10 years earlier, I think that the evil juggernaut European team would likely have been portrayed as the Soviet Union. But with the dust still settling from the dissolution of the USSR, the role is filled here by Iceland, which is not exactly a hockey powerhouse in real life. I assume the writers figured Iceland, given its name, to be a land of powerful dark sorcery concerning anything involving ice. Also, I really want an authentic jersey of the film’s inexplicable Trinidad & Tobago team.

Pro Athlete Cameos: NHL stars Chris Chelios, Cam Neely and Luc Robitaille make appearances, as does NHL GOAT Wayne Gretzky, as do, rather randomly, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Greg Louganis, and Kristi Yamaguchi.

Quality of Sports Action: On par with the first for the most part, but with a few extremely cartoonish/unrealistic gags thrown in. Fulton ruptures a net in the first film; in this one, his shot produces an inches-deep indentation on a goalie’s hand. The Ducks deceive Iceland by somehow dressing Kenan Thompson’s character in goalie pads during a 30 second timeout without anyone noticing. And in the deciding shootout shot, suspense is milked incredibly cheaply by the film implying that no one is sure whether the Julie “the Cat,” the goalie, stopped the shot or not before she flips it out of her glove. Isn’t that what the goal siren is for?

How Does a Single Parent Play Into the Plot? It’s only mentioned in passing, but apparently Bombay and Charlie’s mom broke up and she married someone else.

Connections to Previous Films on the List: Mike Vitar, who plays Miami speedster Luis Mendoza, also played Scotty’s mentor Benny Rodriguez in “The Sandlot,” and Natalie Portman lookalike Colombe Jacobsen, who plays Julie “the Cat,” plays Henry’s dream girl in “Rookie of the Year.”

“Little Big League” (1994) dir. Andrew Scheinman

"Lou? You can marry her even if you don't hit a homer."

I didn’t remember this film very well, but after watching it, I’m convinced it’s the cream of this eight-movie crop. It shares many similarities with “Rookie of the Year”: a prodigious kid is handed an incredible opportunity involving an MLB team (in this case, inheritance of the Minnesota Twins and subsequently naming himself as manager); he has two best friends who bemoan him spending less time with them; a hidden-ball trick figures prominently at a crucial moment; his single mother hooks up with someone on the team (although, as you might have noticed by now, that one is not exactly unusual for this type of film).

So what’s the difference? Everything. When “Rookie of the Year” is crass, “Little Big League” is remarkably restrained. This is by far the most intelligent, subdued and mature film on the list. Take, for example, the exchange that the kid owner/manager, Billy, has with his star player (who is dating Billy’s mother) before his at bat that will determine the fate of the season. The player, Lou, says he’s asked Billy’s mom to marry him, and she told him to ask Billy first. Billy tells him, rather melodramatically, that he can—if he hits a home run.

Now, this is the point when 99 out of 100 kids’ sports films would take you into the at bat, fully expecting you to experience the suspense of both the team’s fortunes and Lou’s future married life hanging in the balance. Maybe he’d hit the home run and everything turns out perfectly. Maybe he wouldn’t, and Billy would then sappily tell him that he can marry his mom anyway, because, “I know you’ll always hit a home run for her” or something.

But in this movie, Billy calls out to Lou a second after his first statement, seeming embarrassed for thinking to set up such a scenario, and says, “Lou? You can marry her even if you don’t hit a homer.” Some might think this anticlimactic, but I thought it was a wonderfully organic-feeling exchange to be plopped in the midst of such a crazy situation.

This quality is what I love about the film as a whole. It extends to the entire premise. The concept behind “Rookie of the Year” is effective wish fulfillment, but it isn’t possible without a totally hackneyed medical-marvel plot device. The circumstances which lead Billy to own and manage the Twins are unlikely to say the least, but after accepting them, I honestly find his success almost fully believable. Who hasn’t known a 12-year-old kid who displays a joyfully obsessive devotion to baseball stats, strategy and history? I knew one in particular very well. Maybe that’s one reason this film resonated with me as much as it did.

Pro Athlete Cameos: A whole slew of actual MLB players of the time portray themselves, including Rafael Palmeiro, Tim Raines, Ivan Rodriguez, and in the climactic final game, Randy Johnson and Ken Griffey Jr.

Quality of Sports Action: In another opposite from “Rookie of the Year,” the baseball action in this film is exceptionally realistic. The director seems to know it and shows this off with a ton of slow motion action shots. And the hidden-ball trick in this one is legal and in fact based on an actual play from the 1982 College World Series known as “the Grand Illusion,” which is surely one of the greater baseball moments to be named after a Jean Renoir film.

How Does a Single Parent Play Into the Plot? I basically already covered this, but I will add that Lou and Billy’s mom clearly have known each other for some time before the events of the movie take place, making their romance rather less cringeworthy than those in some of these other films.

Connections to Previous Films on the List: John Beasley, who plays a fieldside security guard who’s complicit in the hidden ball trick, also plays Jesse’s dad in “The Mighty Ducks,” and Brock Pierce, who plays a stickball-playing kid here, plays young Bombay in “The Mighty Ducks” as well.

“Little Giants” (1994) dir. Duwayne Dunham

"I call it...The Annexation of Puerto Rico."

This movie might not be quite as bad as “Rookie of the Year,” but it’s definitely more crass than any film on the list. I’m not sure if five minutes goes by in this film without someone falling over, passing gas or getting hit in the testicles. Yes, “The Mighty Ducks” has a character whose flatulence is an occasional source of humor, but “Little Giants” has one whose farts are actually used as an in-game offensive weapon.

The primary kid protagonist in this film is a girl, Becky “Icebox” O’Shea, which it might deserve a bit of credit for, if her character arc wasn’t played out as dumbly as it is.

Figuring that Junior, the Devon Sawa-played quarterback she has a crush on, will want to date “a girl, not a teammate,” this tomboy succumbs to a sudden attack of femininity and decides to become a cheerleader rather than a player…literally on the day of the climactic game, and without telling any of her teammates first.

Even when a rare moment of genuine sweetness sneaks in, like when the team carries the smallest member of the team on their shoulders after he does something good in practice, the film still can’t resist the call of the slapstick: they drop him.

There is one element of this film that I found interesting though, which is the character of Nubie, the team’s nerdy play-designing mastermind. With his large glasses, sideswept straight blonde hair and everpresent button-down shirt and tie, the filmmakers probably figured he was the epitome of archetypal dweebiness, but in fact, he ends up looking exactly like Andy Warhol. Also, I find the name he gives to the gamechanging secret play—”The Annexation of Puerto Rico”—to be the funniest thing in the entire film. I’m not quite sure why. But I’d definitely like to hear what was going through Nubie’s mind when he deemed it as such.

Pro Athlete Cameos: NFL players Tim Brown, Steve Emtman, Bruce Smith and Emmitt Smith, along with coach/broadcaster/Outback Steakhouse pitchman John Madden, show up for one reason or another to inspire the kids.

Quality of Sports Action: Could be worse I suppose, although the relentless sight gags (a barrelled-over defender leaving a full-body imprint in the turf, a receiver whose hands are glued onto his jersey by stickum, etc.) erase any chance of it seeming realistic.

How Does a Single Parent Play Into the Plot? Icebox’s single dad, played by Rick Moranis, apparently hits a raw nerve when he calls her “my little fullback.” Icebox remembers how her mother called her “my little princess” which is part of what ignites her half-day-long girly-girl phase. In the end, it’s left unsaid whether re-tomboyified Icebox and Junior get together, but Icebox’s dad and Junior’s mom, painfully, do.

Connections to Previous Films on the List: Actually, this is the only movie of these eight that does not share at least one actor with another film on the list.

“The Big Green” (1995) dir. Holly Goldberg Sloan

"There's not much to do in Elma."

I don’t know for sure, but I’d bet that this film was greenlit during the 1994 World Cup, the excitement of which also led to the founding of Major League Soccer in 1996. I found it interesting that the movie does not, however, take place in the middle-class suburban setting that came to be associated with soccer in the ’90s. It actually takes place in a tiny dying rural Texas town, which is definitely a more daring choice.

In the first scene of the movie, some of the kids who later become part of the Big Green are shown dumping a bag of cheese puffs onto themselves and waiting for the circling birds to eat them off their bodies. “There’s not much to do in Elma,” they say, and it at first seems that these are the type of futureless screw-ups who will grow up to operate meth labs in their garages.

Luckily, a teacher from England arrives and teaches them about soccer, which the kids have barely ever heard of at first. What follows is mostly a paint-by-numbers rehash of the triumphant-underdog plot. But the way that soccer gives some purpose to the kids’ lives, and especially, their genuinely loving appreciation toward their teacher because of it, is very sweet.

Despite what the unfortunate poster—which features more goats than girls—suggests, this film is also the most gender-equal on the list. And perhaps most interestingly and unexpectedly, it dips a toe into the illegal immigration debate. The Big Green’s best player, Juan, is an American-born citizen, but his mother is undocumented. The cutthroat coach of the team’s ultimate rival tries to get her deported, but the plan fails, the family gets to stay together, the Big Green win, and Juan and the main girl, Kate, maintain their cute flirtation. (See Icebox? Sometimes guys do want to date a teammate.)

Pro Athlete Cameos: I was totally ready for a cameo from some American from the ’94 Cup such as former free-spirit wild man and current unfailingly negative ESPN soccer analyst Alexi Lalas, but none materialized.

Quality of Sports Action: I got the feeling watching this movie that soccer is probably the easiest kids’ sports film to make look good on film. It’s clear that, aside from Juan, none of the characters (or the actors who play them) are very good, but the simplicity of basic soccer ensures that nothing looks too bad.

How Does a Single Parent Play Into the Plot? Kate’s single father is an alcoholic deadbeat who doesn’t care about her soccer exploits at first, but they ultimately bond over it. Although the setup is sad, it was kind of refreshing to see his character find redemption by reconnecting with his daughter rather than getting a girlfriend. Unfortunately there is a gratuitous relationship between the teacher and the town sheriff, though.

Connections to Previous Films on the List: Big Green players Chauncey Leopardi and Patrick Renna are also “Sandlot” kids, having played Squints and Ham respectively. And another teammate, Billy L. Sullivan, plays one of Billy’s friends in “Little Big League.”

“D3: The Mighty Ducks” (1996) dir. Robert Lieberman

"It's only a letter, Charlie. Here. I have hundreds of them."

One year, they defeat the world. The next year…they struggle to usurp the varsity team at the private school they’ve become the JV team for. It’s a bit of a step down for the Ducks, but least the scope of the conflict is a bit more believable this time around.

The feel of this film reminded me of “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” and not just because of the academic setting. Loyalties are tested. A mentor character dies. Romantic relationships become important. A mysterious forbidden prophecy is finally revealed. (Okay, maybe not that one.) In short, this is the Ducks’ growing up moment.

On the one hand, there is a bit of potential in this idea. I was struck by one scene in Charlie (who goes through a similar phase as Bombay did in “D2,” forgetting the game is supposed to be fun) bemoans the team’s new coach stripping him of the C he gets to wear on his jersey for being the Ducks’ captain. Hans, the team’s elderly and soon-to-die equipment supplier/mentor, tells Charlie that if he wants a cloth applique C, he has hundreds—and we, and Charlie, understand the point that being a leader is not about titles or honorifics.

But on the other hand, this film doesn’t have the same sense of fun of the original or even, despite its flaws, “D2.” It has to resort to “Rookie of the Year”-esque conflicts such as the threat of the team’s scholarships being revoked in the midst of their first season just because they aren’t playing well. In a sense I’m glad that this movie exists just to prove that stories of kids’ sports don’t have to end with puberty, but unfortunately it also proves that even strong concepts usually get stretched way too thin by the second sequel.

Pro Athlete Cameos: Paul Kariya, who was the captain of the NHL’s Mighty Ducks at the time, is interviewed for some reason by the school’s hockey announcer.

Quality of Sports Action: On par with the other two, and at least Julie “the Cat” finally takes over from the obviously inferior Goldberg in goal. Goldberg is converted to a defenseman, and in a nice touch, scores the climactic goal of the film in a last-second-of-the-game sequence in which time moves slower than the third dream level in “Inception.”

How Does a Single Parent Play Into the Plot? We assume that Charlie’s mom is still married, although at one point she’s seen talking with Bombay (who is barely in the film, by the way) so who’s to say whether something’s been rekindled there?

Connections to Previous Films on the List: Scott Whyte, who plays the Icelandic team’s best player in “D2,” also plays a snobbish varsity player here.

So there you have it—my survey of ’90s kids’ sports movies. I said at the beginning that ’90s nostalgia is going to be huge in this decade, and I think it’s true not just because of the two-decade-rule I mentioned before. As we mercifully exit the decade from hell that was the ’00s and beseech the gods to let the next one be better, I imagine there will be great interest in a time when everyone first learned about the Internet, the Twin Towers still stood and the government produced a budget surplus. For whatever reason, I think these films capture those times pretty well. So I hope we keep watching them, to remember that even kids that at first have mud on their faces, are big disgraces and have their cans kicked all over the place(s), can still end up as champions—even if it takes a few fart jokes to get there.

Hyperreality, the Impossibility Gap, and the Film-Theme Park Axis

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Pottermanaics make Universal look like the final match of the Quidditch World Cup at the Wizarding World's opening day.

One of the only dreams I still remember years and years after I had it involved me being on a theme park ride. I was in some sort of boat floating on black water in a tunnel with a forest scene painted on the side. I don’t remember if I jumped out voluntarily or if I was somehow bumped out, but I ended up with my face pressed against this fake wall…where I saw that the forest scene was actually painted with unimaginable detail and realism. I felt like I could fall right through it. It was terrifying and exhilarating at the same time.

I’ve always been fascinated by theme parks, though I hardly think I’m unique in this respect. What I think is great about that childhood dream I had is how it reminds me of the one-paragraph short story by Jorge Luis Borges about a map so giant and real that it blended into reality. On Exactitude in Science is often mentioned as part of the definition of the concept of hyperreality, and hyperrealist philosophers have always singled out theme parks as prime examples of the idea: that in a media-soaked age like our own, the fake can seem as real, or realer, than reality.

I’ve been thinking about this (and my dream) recently because of the opening of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios Islands of Adventure in Orlando. There is Ollivander’s Wand Shop. There is Hagrid’s hut. There is butterbeer (though despite rumors, there is apparently be no alcoholic variant). There are plentiful and exorbitant opportunities to purchase merchandise. On the website, Daniel Radcliffe says the Wizarding World fulfills the wish that the Harry Potter universe “could be real, and [parkgoers] could be a part of it.” Emma Watson says it’s the result of kids saying “I wish Hogwarts could be real, I want to go myself.”

Well, I do want to go myself. But does going to a chunk of Universal Orlando themed like it count? I guess it’s obvious that the answer is, marketing aside, no. But then why am I still so excited to go there?

No theme park attraction can possibly live up to the standard pitch of “stepping into the world” of a movie. But theme parks keep building them, and people (myself included) keep being, depending on how you look at it, enthralled by them, suckered by them, or both.

I’d like to believe that in the Wizarding World I could do more than ride rides, buy stuff, and look at the elaborate façade they’ve constructed. I wish I could hop a fence and discover the gritty parts of Hogsmeade that aren’t meant for tourists, instead of support buildings and a visit from security. But I’ve found that being in a place that even allows me to imagine such a thing has surprising power. That’s why when theme parks add even a drop of unexpected reality, it can be startling. Did you know, for instance, that the very Seussian palm trees at Universal’s Seuss Landing are real living plants (curved by Hurricane Andrew and then uprooted and replanted)? Or that tucked into an unassuming corner of Disney World’s Main Street USA lies an operational period-appropriate barbershop?

Theme parks are hyperrealist capitals because they promise something impossible yet deliver something that seems slightly less than impossible. That impossibility gap is everything. When we walk through the eminently fake streets of Hogsmeade at the Wizarding World, we’re in Borges’ map. We let the fake become realer than the real.

What’s interesting is how theme parks seem to know that there is no stronger medium to tie this myth into than film. This is evident nowhere more than at Walt Disney World, where the powers that be have been busy converting almost every stand-alone ride they have into something related to a film, even when it’s quite awkward. The Enchanted Tiki Room is now “run” by Iago from Aladdin and Zazu from The Lion King. The uncharacteristically terrifying Alien Encounter, which simulated a ferocious extraterrestrial spitting blood at you and breathing on the back of your neck, now uses the same mechanisms for a benign show involving Stitch. The river ride in Epcot’s Mexico, which used to be comprised simply of videos of Mexican life, now involves the Three Caballeros being animated on top of the same video in a manner not unlike a rap song that samples an older track.

Even when the film in question is one that is guaranteed to have been seen by virtually no children—such as the racist Song of the South—Disney still has enough faith in the magic of film to base a ride, in this case Splash Mountain, on (the non-racist parts of) it.

It all makes me wonder whether our love of films will one day lead to a virtual reality where we truly do not need to accept the fakeness of theme parks. An artificial world so complex and interactive that I actually could jump over my semi-proverbial Hogsmeade fence. In short, a holodeck. If you ask me, it’s going to be this, and certainly not any ridiculous fad like 3D, that will be the next revolution in cinematic entertainment.

An immersive, photorealistic world, imbued with cinematic depth, that adapts automatically to how the user interacts with it: It would stretch the impossibility gap to a breaking point and make hyperreality indistinguishable from reality in every way except for its fantasticalness. We are a long, long way from that point. But if theme parks let us feel that way for even a moment, then I’m all for them.

Written by Dan Wohl

06.24.10 at 12:05 am

Tim Burton: Spuriouser and Spuriouser

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I do not like you, sir.

Back around the period in which I was Marilyn Manson for three consecutive Halloweens, I used to dream about a dark, weird film version of Alice in Wonderland. I pictured a gray-tinged poster with a vacantly-staring Alice and a real-looking flamingo riffing on this illustration in the Lewis Carroll book. I foresaw a trailer that built to a climax before the soundtrack went silent, a quick zoom went to a closeup of an evil-version-of-Cate-Blanchett-in-Elizabeth-like Queen of Hearts and she growled, “off with her head!” I imagined a film that would retain the genius of Carroll’s world while injecting the character depth and robust plot his stories lacked.

But that’s not what I got. Instead I got Tim Burton’s cinematic brain aneurysm called Alice in Wonderland.

The plot that Burton and screenwriter Linda Woolverton came up with leads Alice to defeat the Jabberwocky, which is all well and good and reminiscent of the climax of the computer game American McGee’s Alice, one of the biggest “twisted Wonderland” influences on my adolescent mind. But things unraveled for me quickly once we learned exactly why Burton’s Alice has to slay the Jabberwock. Apparently, a scroll (don’t ask where it came from) foretells that Alice will do so on a day called… “The Frabjous Day.”

Clearly you’re meant to pat yourself on the back in you recognize the phrase from the Carroll poem:

“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”
He chortled in his joy.

The brilliance of the poem Jabberwocky is the way it proves that because of taken-for-granted linguistic norms, even nonsense words can make perfect sense. Burton and Woolverton don’t get it. The father’s happy exclamation—O frabjous day!— works only in context. If you take it out of its place to somewhere where you aren’t already expecting words like “fabulous” or “joyous,” it’s rendered meaningless, and that’s exactly the point.

It’s a minor point, but I think it’s a perfect representation of Burton’s massive failure in this film, and I’d say, most of his career. Transforming a context-reliant whimsical phrase into a solemn proper noun is exactly the sort of style-above-substance-at-all-costs move that Burton has displayed for a long time. And the worst part is, his style choices seem to be getting worse and worse.

Take the characters in the Alice in Wonderland. Calling them one-note would, for some of them, overstate by one how many notes they’re given. Anne Hathaway’s White Queen does nothing the entire film. I might have completely forgotten Crispin Glover’s Knave of Hearts except for how revolting his real-head-digital-body pastiche was.  And I’m not sure if I have ever had the displeasure of experiencing a film character as lacking in humanity as Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter.

Look at him. He looks like a combination of Madonna and Tim Curry in It wearing the Joker’s suit and the Cat in the Hat’s tie. And what do we know of his character? He confirms that he’s a hatter. It seems fair to say he’s mad. For some reason his accent jumps from one end of Great Britain to the other and back. And…what else? He isn’t a film character; he’s a piece of expressionist art.

Take a look, if you will, at the first minute or so of the video for Avril Lavigne’s tie-in song, “Alice,” directed by Dave Meyers. It might not be a masterpiece, but I think Meyers has exactly the right idea where Burton doesn’t: A live action remake/sequel to Disney’s original Alice in Wonderland should be more, probably much more, unsettlingly real than a cartoon from the ’50s, not less. Especially when its director accepts the mantle of Hollywood’s go-to “goth” director.

Allow me to make a bold statement: I think Tim Burton is the worst thing to happen to goth culture. Ever. No one is more responsible for its Hot Topicization. In its classic form, goth ideology was about romanticism, artistic intellectualism, and an awareness of the earthly, supernatural and existential horrors humanity finds itself facing. Burton’s work hasn’t seriously explored any of this since what I’d say are his two best films, Beetlejuice and Ed Wood. Since then, he’s had one success (Sweeney Todd) and a slew of high-profile adaptations that were either disappointing (Sleepy Hollow) or catastrophic (Planet of the Apes, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Alice in Wonderland).

Burton’s rule of making only adaptations of previous work is the reason that I think he’s a corrosive cultural force rather than merely a poor director. Because of his role as THE goth director, he gobbles up most of the remake projects flagged as waiting for a dark, twisted spin, and they end up instead with Burton’s immature drivel when other directors might have done something legitimately interesting with them.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is, aside from Alice, the other perfect example for me. Everyone knows the 1971 original has its tremendously disturbing moments. It’s safe to say that the horrifying boat ride scene is the only G-rated movie sequence to inspire a Marilyn Manson video. Many would argue that a remake was unnecessary, but an entire film more in the vein of the boat ride did seem appealing. But Burton’s 2005 version somehow delivered considerably less dark weirdness, or substance at all; it delivered Charlie living in a house designed by Dr. Seuss and a Willy Wonka who recoils from human contact in one scene and asks for high fives in the next.

That kind of contradiction in internal logic is one more thing endemic in Burton’s films. Look at Depp’s Ichabod Crane in Sleepy Hollow; in one scene he’s a sniveling scaredy-cat terrified of a spider and in the next he’s a suave detective who orders everyone around.

To go back to Alice for a moment: At the beginning of the film, Alice talks to a crazy old aunt of hers who talks about a prince coming to marry her. Then Alice falls down the rabbit hole into a place where flowers talk, caterpillars smoke hookah and fish breathe air and stand erect on their tails. In a big climactic moment, Alice is informed beyond any doubt that Wonderland is real, not a dream. Fair enough, I guess. But then when she returns to our Earth, she is suddenly imbued with wisdom that she imparts via one-sentence morsels of advice to each member of her family. And what does she say to her aunt? “There is no prince. You really need to talk to someone about these delusions.”

The stunning nonsensicality of this made me want to take a vorpal sword to my ears. Maybe I need to talk to someone about my delusions that the general public will one day agree with me that Burton is not a good director. If it ever happened, that would be, for me, quite the frabjous day.

Written by Dan Wohl

06.22.10 at 12:35 am