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Good Letters

Please note: This post contains plot spoilers for some of the films discussed. 

We go to the movies to get out of here. To go somewhere else. And sometimes, that’s enough.

But it’s best when we come back bearing treasure, like Bilbo Baggins returning to Bag End in The Hobbit—wiser for his adventures, richer for what he gleaned along the way “there and back again.”

Filmmaker Neil Labute once said that he makes movies to provoke and engage people in some way. “The worst criticism in the world doesn’t come from a movie critic,” he said. “It’s an audience member who uses you as two hours of air conditioning … and then never tells another person about what you’ve done.”

Are summertime moviegoers just trying to escape the heat? Or is something of substance drawing them in?

Most of this summer’s blockbusters have something in common: They’re pulling us backwards. We’re time traveling. And judging from the previews, it’s going to continue. Having failed to inspire us with recent entertainment, Hollywood is banking on our longing for past joys, and hoping our children will be nostalgic for a previous generation’s childhood.

I did some time-traveling myself last week. I bought a ticket to Cars 2, and went back to a world I’d enjoyed in 2006.

The first film—Cars—is not as beloved as some of Pixar’s finest works, but I liked it a lot. It glowed with the sumptuous, standard-setting animation that has made Pixar the king of animation studios. And it reminded a fast-paced, freeway-driving culture that there are rewards to slowing down and appreciating open spaces and unspoiled places. It suggested that we are better people when we accept criticism and learn to work as a community.

But alas, the critics who have condemned Cars 2 to the junkyard are correct. Cars 2 sucks.

Unlike its predecessor, it’s a frantic, chaotic, confused movie, blasting crowded imagery and raucous noise at audiences, and suggesting that its annoying central character is blameless and even admirable. “You’re just fine the way you are, so stay that way!” it says, and it reprimands characters who voice reasonable complaints about an ignorant buffoon. It’s exhausting, empty, and it lacks the heartbeat of thoughtful storytellers, a sound that has been the rhythm of every previous Pixar production.

But Pixar’s surprising stumble wasn’t the strangest part of that afternoon at the movies. The previews made me feel like I’d fallen into the Twilight Zone.

First, there was a trailer for The Muppets.

Watching clips from Jason Segel’s upcoming revival of the Jim Henson franchise, I was surprised by just how right everything seemed. You could almost picture Henson himself just below the frame, lifting Kermit to life again and choreographing the whole affair.

But I’m tying down my expectations. Like Monty Python, the Muppets won our hearts through a particular combination of imaginations. Handmade, hand-operated, they brought us close to the personalities of their talented performers. Can that remarkable chemistry be reproduced? Will it appeal to a new generation? I hope so.

What followed was another invitation to time travel: A trailer for Disney’s Winnie the Pooh.

Filling the screen with simple drawings and primary colors, this trailer surprised me. The sights, sounds, and style are surprisingly equivalent to those in the Disney adaptations of the late 1960s. I don’t think I can tell the difference between this Pooh Bear, voiced by actor Jim Cummings, and the original, voiced by Sterling Holloway.

But much remains to be seen. The “originals” were true to the spirit of A. A. Milne’s stories. Will the new film rekindle that sweetness, that gentleness, that thoughtful storytelling pace?

Then came a trailer for another revival: The Smurfs.

Has anybody been asking for a return to Smurf-land? Is anyone actually grateful that this 1950s Belgian comic strip was translated into English? Is it actually an improvement to project these disposable characters in 3D?

Then came a short “Toy Story Toon” from Pixar. It produced bigger laughs than anything that followed it, but I think Pixar made a bad move by reminding us of their past triumphs before playing Cars 2.

As the movie finally began, I realized that everything I’d seen was exploiting moviegoers’ memories of past experiences. And I realized that the theaters around me were filled with similarly derivative material.

Transformers 3? It can’t recapture the magic of its two predecessors, because they didn’t have any. But it is reminding us of childhoods in which we played with clever toys and used our own imaginations. (By contrast, the Transformers movies overwhelm and stifle our imaginations, bombarding us with chaotic sensations.)

Director, J.J. Abrams recently launched the Starship Enterprise so we could boldly go right back to familiar personalities and situations. Now, with Super 8, he’s paying tribute to the early 80s films of Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis. Oh, he can mimic Spielberg’s style with skill. Super 8 bears a charming resemblance to E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial and The Goonies. But its climactic moments are a letdown. Spielberg once led us to a sense of illumination, to profound encounters with mystery. Abrams leads us to a grouchy alien who treats earth as an aggravating bump on an intergalactic highway. The movie offers nothing more profound than this: “Bad things happen.”

Meanwhile, X-Men and other familiar superheroes are everywhere, and the summer’s biggest hit is a poorly reviewed return to Jack Sparrow’s Caribbean.

Bob Dylan once quipped, “Nostalgia is death.” It’s true. All of this backward-looking cinema suggests a breakdown of imagination. Hollywood has chosen imitators over artists, and we’ve thanked them for it. (Pirates 4just passed $1 billion at the global box office.)

Art is incarnation: word become flesh, of a sort. Whether artists strive with ponderous deliberation or playful whimsy, they’re embodying what would otherwise remain unknown. But while artists fashion new gifts for us, we’re telling the studios we prefer to receive familiar packages with little or nothing inside.

The three films I’ve enjoyed most this summer have all invited moviegoers on trips back through time. But in taking me backward, they’ve carried me forward, introducing me to new worlds and making me hopeful about the future instead of pining for the past.

I’ll say more about those next time.

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The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Jeffrey Overstreet

Jeffrey Overstreet has been recognized for his writing on cinema in The New Yorker, Time, The Seattle Times, and Image, and spent an award-winning decade as film reviewer for Christianity Today. Overstreet writes fiction, memoir, reviews, and arts journalism. He is an international public speaker and teacher of creative writing, film studies, and cultural engagement for people of faith, including a term as Writer-in-Residence at Covenant College in Georgia. Random House’s WaterBrook Press has published four of his novels including Auralia’s Colors. Through a Screen Darkly, his “memoir of dangerous moviegoing” is available from Baker Books. He lives in Seattle with his wife, the poet Anne M. Doe Overstreet, and serves as contributing editor to Response magazine at Seattle Pacific University (SPU), where he works as a Communications Specialist. He is currently writing two novels, a book about film, and is enrolled in SPU’s MFA in Creative Writing program. He blogs at Looking Closer.

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