Each week the Before The Cyborgs staff comes together to answer one question relating to the current events of that particular week. This week in celebration of the 10th anniversary of the critical flop turned cult classic – Speed Racer – we ask: What is your favorite critical flop?
In the late 90s-early 2000s Tom Cruise was an unstoppable force. During that span he played rom-com leads (Jerry Maguire), action heroes (Mission Impossible) and collaborated with some of the greatest directors of all time in Kubrick (Eyes Wide Shut), Spielberg (Minority Report) and Paul Thomas Anderson (Magnolia) but the one severely underappreciated movie in that span is Vanilla Sky (42% on Rotten Tomatoes) .
Reuniting with Cameron Crowe, Vanilla Sky is an ambitious psychological thriller with science fiction elements. Following Cruise’s turn as a good looking man who loses everything, this is a movie that poses many ethical/philosophical questions that it does not always have the answers for. This notion may frustrate viewers going in expecting a rom-com (given the cast and director) but go in with an open mind and the results should spark at least some discussion.
Vanilla Sky is a project that would be hard-pressed to get financed today (at least at the massive budget that Vanilla Sky got [68 million]) and it is certainly something Cruise probably doesn’t sign up for today. One of the last films that showcase the diverse toolset that made Cruise a star in the first place, if it’s good enough for Kanye to reference, it’s good enough to warrant a watch.
Notoriously, one of the most expensive films in history, and every single dollar of that budget can be physically witnessed on screen in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (45% on Rotten Tomatoes). The finale to Gore Verbinski’s Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, At World’s End, is as epic and bombastic as any capper to a trilogy could ever ask for. While undoubtedly bloated and convoluted at points, a rare blockbuster franchise sequel with this much ambition and buildup almost earns the right to be. The cliffhanger ending of Dead Man’s Chest, which left us with Captain Jack Sparrow being devoured by the Kraken and banished to Davey Jones’ Locker, as well as teasing the return of Geoffrey Rush as Barbossa, promised a finale of massive proportions.
In this nearly three-hour-long action spectacle, a surprising amount is spent on character depth and developing the motivations and backstories of these characters beyond just their basic surface-level perceptions. Even Davey Jones is revealed to be a more profoundly tragic figure, in addition to the menacing threat that we already knew him to be. The extensive climax is an exercise in pure Hollywood blockbuster spectacle, and Verbinski’s dedication to character and world-building elevates it far beyond other standard family-friendly adventures. Try to find another Disney movie that opens with the hanging of a child.
With a rating of only 49% on Rotten Tomatoes, Atlantis: The Lost Empire can certainly be considered the odd man out among Disney’s animated features, mostly in the way that nobody was quite sure what to originally make of it. In retrospect, this shouldn’t come as a surprise given how much of a direct departure it was from the usual Disney’s musical fare of the time both in style and tone, but still trying to be “Disney”. However, while certainly different and not without minor issues, Atlantis: The Lost Empire still delivers a purely fun cinematic romp with a pulp-styled Science-Fiction Adventure story inspired straight out of the works of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells.
In the absence of musical numbers in favor of more action and adventure, the film takes to the challenge of creating a unique world never seen before with a fine attention to detail, and in a lot of ways it succeeds. Adapting from excellent concept and production design by celebrated comics writer-artist Mike Mignola (Hellboy, B.P.R.D.), the film utilizes traditional hand-drawn and CGI animation, delivering with more than a few impressive cinematic moments exceeded further by James Newton Howard’s excellent score. From the opening scene to the suspense driven “Leviathan” attack, to the very climax set within the crater of a millennia-long dormant volcano, Atlantis is not short of visual splendor. Even the depiction of Atlantis itself, meticulously built around an original mythology and culture (even bringing in Klingon-language inventor, Marc Okrand, to develop an entirely original language and alphabet) as a considerable achievement in strong worldbuilding. And on top of it all, the film is led by a plethora of likable and well-crafted characters, both in lead and supporting, with more than a few standout performances from its ensemble cast (though by far, Don Novello’s Vinny Santorini is a definite show-stealer).
While at the time considered a major misfire, and even still viewed as a lesser entry in the legacy of Kirk Wise & Gary Trousdale’s past films, Atlantis: The Lost Empire stands as an enjoyable, unique and even admirable experiment on Disney’s part. Still showing its interest in trying new things, looking toward all audiences and seeing just what the medium was capable of. And as far as adventure films of a style like this, which in Western animation is surprisingly rare, it’s an attempt that’s honestly better than the original reception it got and certainly worth a watch. After all, sometimes even a little more Pulp can be all the better for you.
Immediately readers may be asking “How could you possibly like a movie with a percentage rating like that?!” Though critical reviews of director Roberto Benigni’s live-action adaptation of “Pinocchio” (0% on Rotten Tomatoes) have been notoriously and overwhelmingly negative, I have always had a personal connection to the original text which has allowed me (and others) to appreciate Benigni’s work; in truth negative reviews of this film seem legitimately based on an ignorance of not only the source material but of the type of performer Roberto Benigni is.
Those familiar with Carlo Collodi’s original 1883 text of Pinocchio will discover that this story is full of complex, funny, saddening and very incisive commentaries. Not solely on the themes of childhood innocence and responsibility, but in a larger context providing a commentary on a newly emerging Italian society after unification in 1861. Benigni’s film is thus a faithful and lovingly crafted tribute and recreation of Collodi’s book; but there lies the problem for many North American audiences.
For it is not Collodi’s book they are familiar with, but Disney’s version; if we are talking about faithfulness to the source material then Disney’s treatment is among the worst. This is not to say Disney’s film is bad, it’s a great early animated achievement. But to compare it to the book is like looking at two different stories. And so for many non-European audiences, the concept of Pinocchio will be based on Disney’s spin (which is totally not accurate to Collodi’s vision at all!). Along comes, Benigni’s film, and North America does not know how to respond….. Indeed in Europe and Italy itself, the film was quite well received and won two David di Donatello Awards (production and costume design). What a great and sad irony it is that an actual faithful adaptation of the story ends up being panned…
Major criticism was directed towards the English dubbing (which was poorly done by Miramax), the “incoherence” and “absurdity” of the story, and Benigni himself who played Pinocchio despite being 50 years old. Though the English dub criticism is legitimate, critiques directed towards the story and acting indicate a sad ignorance of this work of world literature. Is this movie perfect? Certainly not. But to be condemned by North American audiences is a gross injustice; audiences seem to give the impression that it’s not Collodi’s Pinocchio they love, but Disney’s “interpretation”. Instead, perhaps critics should watch the original Italian version with subtitles and be a little more aware of the fact that this story is so much more than what Walt Disney would have you believe.