There’s nothing wrong with G-Force that John Lasseter couldn’t fix.
For that matter, the Pixar honcho, now head of Walt Disney Animation Studios, has already done this story right: It was called Bolt, and it was the first theatrical release from Disney Animation under Lasseter’s watch (he also produced). If you missed Bolt in theaters last fall, it’s well worth catching on DVD — particularly as a counterpoint to G-Force, which is pretty much the film that Bolt could have been if it were Disney as usual … which, thanks at least in part to Lasseter, it wasn’t.
Consider first the similarities. G-Force and Bolt are both 3-D family action-comedies centered on elite, high-tech, computer-animated animal agents. In both films, the animals are driven off reservation by extenuating circumstances, where they team up with civilian animals (including a colorful pet hamster/gerbil type whose ancestry is said to include more ferocious species), face up to humbling discoveries regarding their belief in their own high-tech specialness, and ultimately decide that what really matters is the ones they love.
Both G-Force and Bolt feature hamster balls in high-octane action, flashy pyrotechnics and stereotyped 007-style villains who turn out to be not quite what they seem. Both are also first-time feature films from directors with no more than a single short to their names.
Yep, they’re practically the same movie, with one tiny, crucial difference: In G-Force, the computer-animated heroes share the screen with live-action human beings in a real-world setting. Which means that G-Force is from Walt Disney Pictures, not Walt Disney Animation Studios. Which means Lasseter had nothing to do with it. In fact, where Bolt was produced by Lasseter, G-Force was produced by Jerry Bruckheimer — whose record, to be fair, does include a decent family film or two (Pirates of the Caribbean, National Treasure) as well as a lot of trashy detritus (Kangaroo Jack, Bad Company, Bad Boys II, Coyote Ugly).
So while Bolt had, among other things, (a) actual characters you care about and relationships that matter, (b) a well-constructed story with real dramatic beats and emotional hooks, (c) a wittily self-aware spin on the premise of animal super-agents, and (d) slang and speech mannerisms that weren’t just supposed to be generically hip but created a sense of place, from New York to LA, G-Force has none of these things.
Instead, we get (a) generic stereotypes (the serious leader, the hootchie-mama Latina, the hip-hop color character, etc.), (b) a story that plays like James Bond on nitrous oxide, with stuff blowing up good without the slightest dramatic or emotional resonance, (c) a resolution that makes no sense whatsoever, and (d) good old reliable potty humor, including an explosion generated by breaking wind into some sort of incendiary mechanism.
The premise: Ben (The Hangover’s Zach Galifianakis doing Rick Moranis duty) and his irrelevant assistant Marcie (wasted Kelli Garner of Lars and the Real Girl) are federally funded researchers working on a government intelligence program using animals. Their team consists of three commando guinea pigs — Darwin (Sam Rockwell), Juarez (Penelope Cruz) and Blaster (Tracy Morgan) — as well as a computer-whiz mole named Speckles (unrecognizable vocal stylings from Nic Cage) and a camera-carrying housefly named Mooch (Dee Bradley Baker, probably equally unrecognizable).
The plot: A wealthy technology mogul named Saber (Bill Nighy of Davy Jones fame), whose empire includes everything from telephones to coffee makers, is about to activate dormant microchips in every appliance he has manufactured and sold — supposedly to enable the appliances to, I don’t know, coordinate household needs or something, though apparently communication among Saber products is going to be on a larger scale. You don’t suppose this would generate any privacy concerns, do you? (Ack, I started thinking. Better nip that in the bud.)
In fact, this already alarming scheme masks an even more alarming scheme, which is to market large quantities of plush guinea pigs with commando gear to young children — oops, sorry, I gave it away! What I meant to say was that Darwin and company suspect that the microchips in Saber’s products will be doing a lot more than putting new batteries and light bulbs on the shopping list, or whatever.
The plot is no sillier than the schemes of Bolt’s evil Dr. Calico — except that Dr. Calico was a fictional character, and Bolt and his beloved Penny were actors on a TV show (even though Bolt didn’t know it).
In G-Force, a civilian guinea pig named Hurley (Jon Favreau) is the only one who seems to realize how silly the whole thing is. When Darwin tries to explain that they’re not circus animals, but genetically engineered animal agents, Hurley’s response is, “I get it, you guys are from the Hollywood division!” No, that was Bolt. The guinea pigs are seriously serious.
Silliness, I can do. But even so there has to be some consistency. G-Force opens with a big set piece in which the team goes on an unauthorized op to prove they can infiltrate the bad guy’s inner sanctum and steal his encrypted files — yet when it seems they got the wrong file, the feds don’t just slap them for breaking the rules, they shut them down completely. But then it turns out (vague spoiler warning) that the G-Force program nearly destroyed the world — literally if there were no G-Force, there would have been no threat in the first place — yet instead of being seriously shut down, they all receive commendations and badges. Huh?
Director Hoyt Yeatman does one thing right: He makes the movie look interesting in 3-D, for example framing a lot of shots with transparent objects in the foreground in front of other stuff in the background. Some of the eye candy in the big action scenes is reasonably diverting. What Yeatman doesn’t do is eke any heart-tugging from the movie’s would-be big moments, like a limp “You mean it was all a lie?” scene.
Parents may be interested to know that the movie tie-in toys are equipped with sound and movement as well as gear. Will the toy Blaster say things like “Pimp my ride!” and “That was off the hizook!” like he does in the movie? Will the toy Juarez riff on the Pussycat Dolls line “Doncha wish your girlfriend was hot like me”? Will the toy Darwin say “Yippie kay yay, coffee-maker!”? There’s a click moment waiting to happen in another ten or fifteen years (hopefully not before that).
A plush Darwin or Juarez will set you back about $18. You can pick up Bolt on DVD for about $13. I’m just saying.
It’s not quite Pixar grade, but Bolt blots out tepid memories of the likes of Chicken Little and Home on the Range, standing comfortably beside the likes of Kung Fu Panda and Horton Hears a Who in the race for second-best computer-animated family film of 2008.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.