I don't know about you, but I'm starting to get tired of the over-caffeinated, fast-talking animal sidekick and his reluctant partner, the slower-speaking, more laconic hero. We've seen it in "Shrek," we've seen it in "Mulan," we've seen it in "Ice Age," we've seen it in . . . well, let's just say that we've seen it a lot.
And in "Open Season," the first product to come exclusively out of the relatively new Sony Pictures Animation studio, we see it again. The general premise will also seem familiar, especially if you've seen films like "Over the Hedge," "Madagascar," and "The Wild." Films seem to come in clumps, and "Open Season" feels like the latest installment of animals leaving their element and having a go-round with humans.
In an ideal world, an animation studio's premier wouldn't be so derivative. But this is a buyer's market, and I'm betting that studios are thinking that they have to roll with what sells. Monkey see, monkey do. Or in this case, bear and deer.
Martin Lawrence plays the gigantic Boog, a grizzly who was rescued as a cub by a park ranger named Beth (Debra Messing) and now resides in her garage. In Hollywood plots, either the hero leaves the world or something comes into the heroes world. "Open Season" gives us both variations. Boog had a great life, pedaling on a unicycle and amusing tourists in a little one-animal show, until he and the ranger drive into town and park right next to a pick-up truck with a mule deer strapped to its hood. It turns out that this mangy, one-horned wonder was killed by the movie's villain, a crazed survivalist-style hunter named Shaw (Gary Sinise). But the minute that the curious Boog pokes it with a stick and it turns out to be alive, everything changes. Boog uses his claws to set the deer free, and Elliot (Ashton Kutcher) ends up pestering him to be his "buddy." Eventually, Elliot gets Boog into trouble, and it results in both of them being airlifted back to the wild, where Boog tries to return "home," and they all try to survive the first day of hunting season . . . with Boog eventually leading them all in a Spartacus-style critter revolt.
Say what you will, but the biggest decision facing animation studios these days is the question of audience. Are you writing for kids only, kids first, the whole family, adults first, or adults only? Films like "Shrek" cashed in by appealing to adults first and kids second. At times it seems as if that's the model "Open Season" has chosen to follow. Other times, it feels as if they're aiming for the whole family, while some scenes seem totally kid-oriented. But I can picture more than a few parents wishing that a scene in which Elliot gets Boog to go out and live and have some fun were cut. After all, what kind of message does it send to children to have this lovable bear and yak-yaking deer break into a convenience store and vandalize it? Yes, Boog gets in trouble with the ranger, but even Yogi Bear didn't cause that kind of mischief. In addition to the almost requisite scatological gags, there are moments involving a couple searching for Bigfoot that are also more for adults than children. There's also some innuendo, as when one character says to another, "We'll need your nuts . . . and your acorns too." Meanwhile, allusions to Red Riding Hood are so elementary that they're clearly aimed at children. A little consistency in the matter of audience focus would have helped.
But inconsistency is a hallmark of this film. As I watched it, I found myself both liking it and also being annoyed by it. There's much to praise. I liked the backgrounds very much, and though I might quibble with some of the character designs, the animation is really very fluid and natural. The animators do an especially nice job with the water/flood sequences. Set in Timberline somewhere in Alaska or the Pacific Northwest, the little town has a real "Northern Exposure" feel to it. In fact, police chief (and sole law enforcement officer) Gordy is played by Gordon Tootoosis, a Native American who appeared on that popular show. It's refreshing to see a Native American character in a role like this, and Gordy's bolo tie and big silver belt buckle, jeans, and cap are just the way I remember people like this dressing when I lived for a time out West. Though the hunter is a manic caricature, Sinise has so much fun playing him and the artists clearly have so much fun drawing him that it's hard not to warm to this villain. Same with Lawrence's performance as Boog.
On the flipside, there are some strange scenes that the writers thought funny, but which might only traumatize young viewers. We're talking bunny abuse, people. It starts when Elliot flings rabbits, not rocks, at the garage door window to get Boog's attention, and continues throughout the film--even into the bonus features. Bunnies used as gas masks? Some may laugh, but small children may be a bit rattled by the bunny abuse. My little girl was. Personally, I was more traumatized by Kutcher. If he was this hopped up in real life, Bruce Willis would never visit. I also thought it a bit of a cop-out and to use different nationalities for the characters. Usually Indians are the most abused in this department. Here, we get a German accent for a dachshund named Mr. Wienie, a Scottish accent for an obnoxious squirrel named McSquizzy, and salmon who speak with a Japanese accent. There's also a sense of tokenism in some of the other characters. With Ian (Patrick Warburton, sounding exactly as he did in "Hoodwinked"), the alpha male of the deer herd who apparently kicked Elliot out of the herd, is introduced as another villain, but that subplot is never really pursued. It's things like that which keep "Open Season" from being an all-applause debut.
One of the main bonus features on this disc is a long trailer for "Surf's Up," a new feature from Sony Pictures Animation. And it involves penguins. Oy, as the squirrels in "Open Season" echo every time McSquizzy shouts one of his menacing little threats. "March of the Penguins" was a success, and so was "Happy Feet," so why not make a movie about penguins? They're hot! Well, put me down as one who'd prefer that the people at Sony Pictures Animation find the confidence to go off into new territory, where no animal has ever gone before.
Mastered in HD (though, of course, a standard disc has limitations as to how much detail it can capture), "Open Season" looks as good as recent CGI animated features, with plenty of detail on the fur of animals and some gorgeous-looking backgrounds and water animation. The aspect ratio is 1.85:1, anamorphic widescreen, and for a standard disc it looks very good.
The sound is a full and rich Dolby Digital 5.1 (in English or French), with a Spanish Dolby 2.0 Surround option that's a step down. Subtitles are in English (CC), French, or Spanish. There's plenty of raucous rear-speaker action, though Kutcher's manic prattle seems to come out of all 5.1 channels.
There's a nice variety of bonus features here. The audio commentary by the three directors--Roger Allers, Jill Culton, and Anthony Stacchi--is full of the wide-eyed wonder of people who've just given birth to their first creation. Part of it is a lovefest, and part of it is a narrative of how things came together. They point out, for example, that the opening sequence with Elliot tied to the hood with rope posed perhaps the most difficult challenge for animators, and one of them worked on the sequence for a year and a half.
Two short documentaries are included, one that focuses on the animators and animation process, and another that zeroes in on the voice talents. In both cases, there's a nicely edited blend of talking heads, real-time background footage, and clips from the film.
Also included is a forgettable (and unimaginative) music video, "I Wanna Lose Control," by Deathray, and three "Ring Tales," which are extremely short comic-book style animated scenes on the rabbits, security camera, and camouflage. How short can something be and sustain our interest? Well, these three blips on the cartoon screen really put it to the test.
The rest of the features are pretty decent. Young ones will like two activities, one of them a "Voice-A-Rama" in which you select a scene from among four choices and then can select another 4-7 different voices that show how a scene would sound with a different voice actor. A "Wheel of Fortune: Forest Edition" game will also hold their interest. You see four squares that give clues for you to guess the answer, based, really, on movie trivia. The surprise is that it really goes on for quite a while. Be warned, though, that there's more bunny bashing. One poor critter is tied to a stump and his ear is the flapper that points to the roulette-style wheel, while another is whacked over the head every time he tries to pop up. Because the scenes are extensive and the use of the angle button is posed as a kind of activity, young ones may also enjoy "Swept Away" scene deconstruction, which makes the flood scene come to life in storyboards, layout, animation, and final lighting. Even the galleries are better than usual, and for a change the artists get credit--their names appear on each of the environment, character, or beat boards.
The extensive "Surf's Up" preview is augmented by trailers for seven other Sony films, some of them non-animated. A bonus cartoon ends up being a little racy. In it, the Bigfoot hunters "skinny dip," and seeing the woman's butt cheeks with tattoo is a bit too much information for most young viewers. Rounding out the extras are a few deleted scenes--nothing extensive, and nothing that should have been left in the film.
There's a lot to praise in this first feature from Sony Pictures Animation, but we've seen many of these characters, scenarios, and devices before. Based loosely on the comic strip "In the Bleachers," "Open Season" is an energy-filled but flawed debut.