With Toy Story (1995), a studio called Pixar blew the lid off of animated movies as we knew them. Thirteen years later, the other studios have yet to even approach that early level of excellence, let alone match the advancements Pixar has made since. Oddly similar to the most recent clunker Space Chimps, the new Fly Me to the Moon looked infinitely more promising in that it was based on an actual idea: the 1969 Apollo 11 mission as seen through the eyes of three stowaway flies -- in 3D! But sadly it proves itself as technically dull and as creatively stifled as Space Chimps as well as nearly every other non-Pixar movie.
After a totally useless, noisy black-and-white prologue, we get a very cool establishing shot. The camera flows smoothly through the back lots behind Cape Canaveral in Florida. It swoops into a patch of dirt and a tangle of weeds, through some bits of discarded junk, to the world where our little flies live (like humans, in little dollhouses). During this and other traveling sequences, the 3D works beautifully, engulfing us comfortably in this tiny world. But as soon as we meet the characters, the movie starts to sputter. In real life, houseflies can zip across the kitchen pretty darn fast relative to their size, but these flies drift lethargically from place to place, and the movie bogs down in their lackadaisical pace.
It gets worse when the flies stop moving and start talking. Their faces are smooth and without texture, with eyes sunken into their heads, rather than protruding as on a real fly. Shown a picture of these creatures and asked to name their species, most viewers would probably come up with different answers. (Gnats? Mosquitoes? Crickets?)They speak like 12 year-olds writing their own school play. And it follows that the characters have a serious lack of personality. The filmmakers compensate by using ideas that were already out of date in "The Little Rascals" shorts of the 1930s. Our hero, Nat (voiced by Trevor Gagnon) is the "normal" kid. His friend I.Q. (voiced by Philip Bolden) is smart and wears glasses, and his other friend Scooter (voiced by David Gore) is fat and talks about food all the time. And if you bet your kid's college fund that Scooter's girth is going to cause him to get stuck in one of the spaceship's various tubes and passageways, you'll emerge a great deal richer.
Nat and his friends play "rocket ship" in their yard while the other flies date girls and go off to see the world. Nat's grandpa (voiced by Christopher Lloyd) encourages him to do amazing things, regaling him time and again with a story about his flight with Amelia Earhart. So when the Apollo 11 gets ready for its momentous launch, our fly trio decides to stow away, thinking they'll be gone merely for an afternoon and that no one will miss them. It's a shock when they learn that they'll be gone a week, but the movie doesn't go into detail as to how they'll survive for that time. Do their homemade spacesuits work that well? What do they eat?
Then, as if having a hard time killing 84 minutes, the movie desperately tries to keep things moving by cooking up little dramas within the capsule; Scooter gets stuck in the back part of the capsule, about to be jettisoned and left in space forever. The three flies get caught and are imprisoned in a test tube, etc. But the movie still isn't exciting enough, so the writers cook up the most ludicrous subplot of all: Russian flies on the ground attempt to sabotage the mission so that Americans will not have the glory of being the first ones on the moon. Oddly, as silly as this subplot is -- resulting in the usual third act chases and fight scenes -- it comes the closest to capturing the politics behind the space mission. It was never an act of scientific curiosity; rather, it was a race to beat the "godless" Russians. (See also In the Shadow of the Moon.)
That's where Fly Me to the Moon gets really weird and depressing. When all is finished, the welcome-home/victory parade is done, real-life astronaut Buzz Aldrin appears and tells us that no flies were actually on board the capsule, that it would be impossible. Why go to the bother of cooking up this story, with its moral of "follow your dreams and live your adventures," if it's not actually possible to do so? The thing is: they're right. The space race is over, mainly because the political drive is gone. Perhaps if the North Koreans concentrated on conquering space rather than building weapons, the U.S. would be motivated to beat them to the punch. But for the moment, the sad truth is that all those junior would-be astronauts who dream of walking on the moon probably won't get their chance in this lifetime. (Unless, like Billy Bob Thornton in the infinitely better The Astronaut Farmer, we build our own rocket.)
If Fly Me to the Moon, written by Domonic Paris and directed by Ben Stassen, weren't so terribly slow or if the characters had at least some personality, it wouldn't have left such a grim residue. (Only Lloyd, as the half-crazy, half-avuncular grandpa manages to get through a measure of human connection.) On a further note, I brought my two year-old son to the screening, the same one who sat enraptured through Horton Hears a Who! earlier this year. Maybe he didn't like wearing the 3D glasses and couldn't get used to their disorienting effects, but within the first two minutes, he was shrieking, "I don't like this! I don't like this!" I couldn't have said it better myself.