Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Ultimate Movie Product Placement

2007 saw the box office success of "Transformers," based on the classic transforming robot toys, which was produced with the full backing of the toy company Hasbro who owns the rights to the toy property. Soon after, announcements started trickling in that other Hasbro toys and games would be getting film treatments. "GI Joe," which was released last summer, was the first one out of the gate, and currently in the pipeline are plans for films based on the boardgames "Battleship," "Monopoly," "Ouija," "Candy Land," and the action figure "Stretch Armstrong."

Anyone who grew up during the 80s knows that this isn't Hasbro's first foray into branded entertainment. Our Saturday mornings were full of animated toy commercials. Hasbro's contributions included such notables as "Transformers," "GI Joe," "My Little Pony," "Jem," "Care Bears" and "Strawberry Shortcake." There was even a live action film based on Hasbro's "Clue" in 1985 - recently announced to be getting a remake, naturally. With the resurgence of 80s nostalgia in the mainstream cinemascape these days, I'd have been surprised if the company didn't try to seize the opportunity to get their properties up on the big screen. What I didn't expect was the sudden proliferation of these projects, or that so many recognizable names would be attached to them so quickly. We have Ridley Scott rumored for the "Monopoly" movie, "Twilight" star Taylor Lautner signed up to be "Stretch Armstrong," and actor/director Peter Berg has committed to a helming "Battleship" for a 2012 release date.

From the marketing standpoint it makes sense. Where once A-list movie stars were counted on to bring in audiences, these days what the studios want is a recognizable brand that viewers are already familiar with. Children's toys and games provide some very strong ones, well-established for decades, and intrinsically tied to positive, nostalgic feelings. Of course industry watchers and film fans have reacted with trepidation, if not outright scorn. The idea of major films being created specifically to market children's toys has led many to declare that Hasbro's partner in these ventures, Universal Pictures has gone creatively bankrupt. There have been jokes that audiences should prepare themselves for epic blockbusters based on Chutes and Ladders and Silly Putty next. Many point to the Hasbro films that have been released so far as proof of future folly. After the summer of 2009 gave us "Transformers 2" and "GI Joe," which critics excoriated but audiences didn't seem to mind, there's been deep skepticism that any of these blatant product-pushing films could possibly have any artistic merit.

I understand where all the frustration is coming from, and yet I remain cautiously optimistic. Artistic inspiration can come from anywhere, even the most crassly commercial sources. Board games and toys might not be the most exciting place to start from, but I don't see anything objectionable about them either. There's nothing keeping any of the announced projects from being good films, or even excellent films. Hasbro's track record may be terrible - and after sitting through the torturous "GI Joe" with a professed fan of the cartoon series, there's no better descriptor - but it doesn't reflect on the basic concepts behind them. Consider, a "Ouija" film would only require that the title be "Ouija" and that the plot somehow involve a Ouija board. I doubt that the filmmakers would be given carte banche to do anything they wanted with the property, but there's a lot more creative leeway here than for something like "Superman" or even your typical "Nightmare on Elm Street" reboot.

The project I'm most interested in is "Candy Land." It was announced back in 2009, to be directed by animator-turned-director Kevin Lima, best known for "Enchanted," and written by Etan Cohen, one of the guys behind "Tropic Thunder." I loved the board game when I was a kid. It's one of the simplest, easiest, most basic games out there, and yet it held such strong appeal for me because of the fantasy theme and gorgeous candy characters. I doubt there was any kid familiar with Candy Land who didn't mentally give the game characters backstories or wonder about the sort of adventures there were to be had in peppermint forests and chocolate swamps. When I ran across life-size versions of Gloppy, Mr. Mint, Princess Lolly, and King Kandy at Dylan's Candy Bar's in New York, I was so tickled, I was reluctant to leave the store. This may not be much source material for filmmakers to work with, but nonetheless there is the potential for something interesting there.

Video games and comic books were once scoffed at as unsuitable source material for major films, but have since been embraced. More recently, Disney received flak for announcing several films based on its theme park rides in the early aughts, until Johnny Depp's performance in "Pirates of the Caribbean" brought in accolades from critics and viewers alike. So when "The Haunted Mansion" with Eddie Murphy and "The Country Bears" with Haley Joel Osment were dismal failures, it was rightly pointed out that they were victims of poor execution rather than unforgivable money-grubbing origins. And if Hollywood can create good films from board games or action figures or cereal mascots, I hardly care what the motives are.

Finally, the 2007 "Transformers" may have been a lousy film, but we shouldn't write off the whole franchise just because Michael Bay got his nitroglycerin-happy mitts on it. Gen Xers all know the real "Transformers" movie was the 1986 animated film, where Optimus Prime died and left us bawling in the theaters. The new CGI version is only a rank impostor.

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