Tuesday, March 15, 2011

When a Delay Can Be a Good Thing

I've come to the point where I'm actually happy when certain ambitious movie and television projects, long-simmering in development hell, fail to go forward. Late yesterday, the news came in that the proposed CW "Sandman" television series and the planned "Yellow Submarine" motion-capture animated film have both been stymied. "Sandman," based on the Vertigo comic by Neil Gaiman, was being touted as a potential replacement for the CW network's long-running "Supernatural." Now it looks like a new "Wonder Woman" is the most likely contender. "Yellow Submarine" was supposed to be an animated musical based on Beatles songs, but since "Mars Needs Mom" became one of the biggest bombs of all time, Disney has passed on any more mo-cap animated features. These projects may still go forward at some point, but their chances don't look very good. I thought both looked problematic from the start, so I couldn't be more relieved about this turn of events.

You always hear about the long, arduous process that some films have to endure to make it to the big screen. The trouble is, a long development period is no guarantee that the final product will be any good. Plans for an "I, Robot" movie had been knocking around Hollywood since at least the 70s, when studios were scrambling to find the next "Star Wars," and the film that was ultimately made in 2004 with Will Smith was based on a ten-year-old treatment. Last year's "The Tooth Fairy," started development in 1992, when it was originally intended to be an Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle. Both movies are terrible, an absolute waste of all that time and effort. Sometime it seems to be pure dumb luck that a long-gestating project finds the right script, director, and stars at just the right time. Too often, it all goes wrong. I still wonder what "Watchman" would have looked like if Terry Gilliam had made it instead of Zack Snyder. Or if Martin Scorsese's "Alexander the Great" had gotten off the ground with Leonardo DiCaprio, instead of Oliver Stone's ill-fated "Alexander" with Colin Farrell.

Having been burned too many times, I've gotten much warier over the years whenever anyone starts talking up a project that is finally clawing its way out of development hell. Sure, I'd like to see a "Preacher" movie as much as anyone else, but do I want to see one helmed by the director of "I Am Number Four"? And yes, I'm a "Sandman" fan who has been following every rumor about a film or TV project since the 90s, but am I happy that Warners is trying to turn it into a teen-friendly hourlong for the CW network? No on both counts. Everybody daydreams about seeing their favorite properties brought to screen, but those dreams usually involve projects with faithful scripts, good talent onboard, and being targeted to the appropriate audiences. Last week, Guillermo Del Toro wasn't able to move forward with his long anticipated "The Mountains of Madness," because the studio balked at the R rating. I'm of the opinion that Del Toro was right not to compromise. If "Madness" couldn't be done the way he wanted, he was better off waiting for another chance.

There are benefits to waiting, after all. Sometimes you get a slow burner like "Tangled," which was the culmination of at least a decade of effort to bring "Rapunzel" to the big screen, and went through all sorts of different iterations. At one point it was supposed to feature mo-cap animation. At one point the two leads were supposed to be modern-day kids who were transmogrified into fairy-tale characters. Several of these early versions sound pretty weak, and the finished product clearly benefited from all the delays. CGI technology got better, the mainstream culture grew more receptive to animation, and the industry recovered from a very low point in 2004. If it had been made during that time, the movie would have been a disaster. Looking back at all the production delays and the creative clashing that was going on behind the scenes, it feels like a minor miracle that "Tangled" turned out to be a decent animated feature.

And I guess that sentiment plays into the easier acceptance of these delays and cancellations too. It takes so much time and effort to get anything greenlit these days, and there's so much riding on some of these big projects, sometimes you have to wonder why anyone would settle for mediocrity. I can think of a dozen major motion pictures from last year that should have been sent back for more script rewrites, or left in development for a few more years, or had completely inappropriate people attached. When a film is delayed, at least you have assurances that someone is keeping an eye on what's going on, instead of letting a production barrel out of control to meet a predetermined release date. Sometimes good art takes time. If it takes James Cameron another decade to finally make "Battle Angel Alita" or more "Avatar" sequels, fine. If Terrence Malick wants to futz with "The Tree of Life" for another year, great.

If it's for the good stuff, I never mind waiting. "Sandman" and "Yellow Submarine" are sure to surface again in other forms, and hopefully better ones.

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