Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Double Feature: R.I.P.D. and Turbo

The common theme for today's double feature is Ryan Reynolds. Back in the early 2000's, the Van Wilder actor was going to be the next superstar of the big screen. Unfortunately, while still a talented performer, he's never quite achieved the level of career prosperity that folks once predicted, and his Hollywood experience has consisted of peaks and valleys, with most of his appearances coming in supporting roles and his biggest draws being shared with bigger, more prestigious actors (Denzel Washington in Safe House, Sandra Bullock in The Proposal). He's certainly been busy this year, with roles in TWO animated features (the first was The Croods) and one sci-fi action film. We'll look at the live-action flick first, as Reynolds teams up with Academy Award-winner Jeff Bridges in RED director Robert Schwenke's R.I.P.D.

When Boston Police detective Nick Walker (Reynolds) is killed in the line of duty, his soul does not go to Heaven or Hell. Instead, it is transferred to the Rest in Peace Department, an afterlife police agency that tracks down bad souls on Earth that have escaped judgment. Partnered with former US Marshall and curmudgeon cowboy Roy Pulsipher (Bridges), the pair clash frequently in their search for hiding "Deados". But when an ancient artifact is discovered that threatens to return the dead to the Earth, Nick and Roy must settle their differences before the world as they know it comes to an ectoplasmic end.
Bridges is of course playing Rooster Cogburn.
On paper, R.I.P.D. seems to look something like a cross between Men in Black and Ghostbusters, with a decent amount of Ghost thrown in. Based on the comic book series of the same name from Dark Horse Comics, you figure that there would be plenty of material to mine in putting together the story. Unfortunately, Schwentke's final product is rushed, cramming potentially two and a half hours worth of material into a slim 96 minutes. Everything is hurried, with no chance for the audience to slow down and adapt to the idea of the R.I.P.D. and its role in protecting the planet in secret. The result is that the story comes off as phony and unbelievable, and the films that should have been sources of inspiration (the three above) are instead mined for specific imagery, their theft leaving R.I.P.D. without an identity all its own. The special effects are at least better than you might expect, but the quality isn't consistent, switching between good and mediocre in a heartbeat.
R.I.P.D. even stole M.I.B.'s secret locale.
There are two factors in which the film does redeem itself, however: humor and acting. Annoying physical humor aside, R.I.P.D. actually has excellent dialogue, which is crisp and helps alleviate the mediocrity of the overall story. And that humor really comes across thanks to a cast not just composed by its leads, but also by Mary-Louise Parker, Stephanie Szostak, and Kevin Bacon, who has really enjoyed a career renaissance on screens big and small the past couple of years. They manage to elevate the movie by a couple of rungs, and both Reynolds and Bridges carry the film through the strength of their constant interactions.I do wish the director had stepped away from the duo a bit more to focus on the support cast, but otherwise I can't really complain, as the result is entertaining enough.
Get to the choppah!
But despite some fun that can be had, it's hard to get around the fact that R.I.P.D. could have been much, MUCH better than it turned out. It's just too derivative to fully get behind, and while it's not nearly the train-wreck that many critics have attested, for the money that was allegedly spent ($130 million got us THIS?), it's definitely going to go down as one of the most disappointing comic book adaptations this year. It might be worth a rental in a few months, but don't rush out to see it just yet.

A much better Ryan Reynolds jaunt (and one for the whole family, no less) is the latest animated film from Dreamworks, Turbo. If you were to take Ratatouille, change the animal in question from rats to snails, and then fuse it to Cars, you have an idea of how this one plays out. Theo (voiced by Reynolds) is an average gastropod, weary of his slow-paced existence and dreaming of becoming a world-class racer like his heroes on the NASCAR circuit, much to the chagrin and embarrassment of his sensible older brother Chet (Paul Giamatti). When a freak accident with nitrous oxide turns Theo into the super-fast snail Turbo, his dreams of going fast quickly become true. Soon, he is teaming up with fellow dreamer and taco truck driver Tito (Michael Pena), whose family business is suffering due to its poor location. Tito and Turbo hatch a plan that's so insane and unbelievable that it could only happen in a Dreamworks movie, as Tito uses all his saving to enter Turbo into the Indy 500, racing against the top car racers in the world. But could Theo's powers be only temporary, and if they are, what will happen if he slows down during the big race?

Turbo; a snail with a plan.
Like all Dreamworks animated pictures, Turbo is quite pretty to watch, but not quite on par with its superior competition. The company's response to the idea that they aren't as deep or emotional as those put out by Pixar (even over the last couple of years, Dreamworks has struggled to maintain its second-place status on the animation front), the response has apparently been to crib the best themes from Pixar's highlights (in this case the excellent Ratatouille). First-time feature director David Soren at least does a decent job with his second-hand story, mixing the idea of never giving up on your dreams with a healthy mix of characters.
Just stand back and let the merchandise sales roll in.
And it's the characters that stand out most in Turbo. Excellent actors such as Paul Giamatti and Michael Pena hold key roles, and the gang of renegade racing snails (which feel remarkably akin to the Fast & Furious gang), are a lot of fun. They're led by Samuel L. Jackson, but Soren never relies on them to pick up the slack elsewhere. In most films, that would be a great sign of restraint, but here it seems a little foolhardy. Turbo, and Reynolds as his voice, are interesting enough to maintain their lead character credentials but is a bit vanilla for an animated lead. Though there's a great cast in here, they can't quite make up for an uninspired lead.
In the grand scheme of Dreamworks animated films, Turbo is certainly not bad. On a scale between the excellence of How to Train Your Dragon and the much-reviled Shark Tale, their latest comes in somewhere around Kung Fu Panda. While the concept is almost as absurd as it is derivative, kids will definitely get into seeing this animated feature on the big screen, and unlike a lot of Dreamworks' other titles, Turbo has enough for adults to get into the act, especially if they're fans of the still-growing race culture. But with Monsters University and Despicable Me 2 still in theaters, I can't see any reason you should rush out your door to see it either, unless your kids really love the idea of racing snails. Or if you do. No judging.

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