If the most entertaining thing about your animated kiddie flick is the cool 3-D effects, that's probably not a promising sign. That's the thought that popped in my mind about a third of the way into Open Season, the latest studio offering targeted toward young kids (and their parents' wallets) in a year way over-flooded with animated fare. The one big thing working in Columbia/Sony's favor on this one is that they're releasing the film at a time when there isn't a lot of other competition, and that's probably a good thing for the film and its ultimate box office take.
The film has a basic storyline that a lot of kids will no doubt find appealing: A bear who has been raised by a park ranger with all the comforts of modern life meets a wild-and-crazy deer rejected by his herd, who induces him to party all night on a sugar high, tearing up a store. Because of this, he must be released into the wild, where he will first dislike but eventually bond with the deer, mingle with assorted wild critters (all also cleverly personified) and eventually, work together with them to take down The Man, aka the hunters who have just descended upon their domain because it's, well, open season. Get it?
The bear, Boog, is voiced by Martin Lawrence, and the deer, Elliot, is brought to life by Ashton Kutcher (how come nobody ever hires, say, Ian McKellan or Patrick Stewart to do these voices? Just for fun, watch Open Season while imagining the rolling voice of McKellan in the part of Boog and Stewart as the wacky deer counterpart -- it will keep you awake through the slower parts of the film). Of course, the character of Beth (Debra Messing), the park ranger, is granola-crunchy, and of course she has to have a foil, in this case the Evil Hunter, Shaw (Gary Sinise, who at least seems to be having fun as the wacky bad guy), who lives in a remote cabin decorated with assorted dead animal parts.
But after introducing these characters as practically mortal enemies, the storyline does practically nothing with them beyond having them hurl insults at each other. In Disney's The Fox and the Hound, a much better film, and one of my favorite animated films from the Mouse House, this playing on opposites was done much better: The old woman's fox cub, Tod, befriends Copper, the hound dog pup of the grizzled old hunter who lives down the road, and the two animals become childhood best friends who later meet again as enemies on the hunting ground. The Fox and the Hound dealt with issues of hunter and hunted in a more realistic way, while at the same time personifying the two main characters and imbuing them with character arcs and the ability to make moral choices.
In Open Season, on the other hand, the moral choice faced by Boog is more simplistic. After he accidentally destroys a beaver dam, creating a flood that sends all the animals from the safety of their remote location down to the hunting grounds, Boog must choose: Go back to his cozy garage at Beth's house (not really a choice, as she's already been told by the town cop that she has to let Boog loose in the wild, especially after his rampage at the store), or to stay in the wild with Elliot and the other animals, and help them figure out a way to escape from the hunters. Of course, he's not going to choose to abandon his new buddies, not with almost half the film yet to go. What would be the fun in that?
Once they actually get around to the animals versus the stupid humans, the action picks up a bit. The kids in the audience were delighted by the sight of the majestic bucks with colorful bras strapped across their antlers as slingshots, and the skunks stink-bombing the hunters were also a huge hit. But after all that buildup, there was just no suspense whatsoever about the outcome; there was never a sense that the animals were really in any danger. This is where screenwriters Steve Bencich and Ron J. Friedman (who previously brought us Chicken Little and Brother Bear) could stand to borrow a few tricks from the Disney Bible: Your main character needs to face real, believable peril.
In Bambi, Bambi's mother is really killed by the hunters, who are that much more frightening because they are represented by vague shadow figures and the sound of gunshots coming from nowhere; at the end, when there's a forest fire, the animals are literally running for their lives. In The Fox and the Hound, as Tod and Vixey are being relentlessly pursued by the hounds, everything comes down to the moral choice Copper must make: To give away Tod to his owner and master, or to answer the call of his heart, which reminds him that Tod was once his friend, however much they might now be enemies. Even in Finding Nemo, the little fish is in grave danger. Taken from his ocean home to the dentist's aquarium, doomed to be given to the hideous, fish-killing niece, Nemo must escape from the aquarium or die. The payoff, therefore, when these characters overcome the dangers they face and triumph, is actually rewarding.
In Open Season, the bad guys are such caricatures that there's just never any doubt as to the outcome. Even Shaw, the worst of the bad guys, is so mind-numbingly stupid that he's taken out of the game by the smarter animals fairly easily. Another problem the film has is that a lot of the humor is fairly mean-spirited. At one point, when Elliot is being picked on by his herd, my five-year-old, who was my guest for this film, burst into tears over the way the other deer were treating Elliot. Later in the film, after yet another mean-spirited moment, she pulled me down to whisper, "Mommy, how come these animals are all being so mean to each other? It's scaring me."
There's also this fairly disturbing recurring theme of "rabbit tossing" that runs throughout the film, from Elliot hurling rabbits at the garage window to get Boog's attention, to a later scene at the end when they have a "rabbit fight," hurling rabbits at each other. Gratuitous violence like that -- bigger animals tossing smaller ones around -- rather defeats any moral high ground that established the animals as morally superior to the hunters. What's the recurrent theme here? The bigger, more popular animals picking on the smaller, stupider ones? Nice.
The 3-D effects were pretty cool, and had the little kids all reaching into the air to try to touch them. The problem with Open Season, though, as with a lot of kiddie fare that's been on the multiplex buffet lately, is that it focuses on animation and effects over story and character development, relying on bigger-name voice actors to carry the film. Lawrence and Kutcher can do the insult-hurling thing fairly well, but as a parent, that's not what I'm looking for in a film to take my kids to. They learn enough about how to be rude and how to bully others on the playground and from television (which is why we're careful about what tv shows they watch as well). If you really want to take your kids to Open Season, at least take them to an IMAX theater to see it in 3-D. It'll make up at least a little for having to sit through the bad jokes, the cliched characters and the unnecessary violence that permeate the film.