Doogal / Maryscott O'Connor
Film Reviews | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()
I’d been looking forward to Doogal since I first saw the preview. One of my heroes, Jon Stewart — in a kids’ movie! Sure, my kid has been equally excited, but I suspect his anticipation is born of my own. Doogal! We’re going to see Doogal!
And then we saw it.
It was inevitable that lazy filmmakers and greedy suits would glom onto the most obviously attractive feature of recent kids’ movies — the “in-jokes” for grownups — and co-opt it for their own unimaginative rip-offs. The thing is, they’re great when they work — think of Aladdin, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Ice Age, to name a few. It might seem that these films’ appeal to adults is all in those nods to adult pop culture, the wink-and-nod, over-the-kids’-heads stuff. You’d like to think that, wouldn’t you, Mr. Shortcut-Loving Studio Exec? Sure, you pepper a cartoon with paeans to American Idol and sitcoms of days gone by, throw in the cute furry talking creatures for the kiddies, and bingo, instant classic, right?
Wrong. The key to a great kids’ film is the same key to any great film — a fucking story. An engaging, clever plot, characters you can love or hate with abandon — these are essential to any good film, be it animated or live action. And bad movies lack these elements. Bad movies throw in the clever dialogue and the stars and treat the plot as an afterthought. Such is the case with Doogal, much to my dismay. And I’ll take it further: a mere nod to pop culture does not a witty line of dialogue make. It has to fit the context, for God’s sake, because if it starts looking formulaic — “Insert pithy pop culture nod here” — it ceases to be witty and quickly becomes tedious and, frankly, insulting.
Doogal is an adorable talking dog, living in a utopian town populated with other talking animals and their human companions, under the aegis of a good wizard named Zebedee (who resembles nothing so much as a liberated jack-in-the-box). Like any good young hero, Doogal has flaws that lead him into trouble and an inherent courage that eventually gets him out of that trouble. Doogal’s addiction to candy and inability to consider the consequences of his actions set loose Zebedee’s evil doppelganger, Zeebad (voiced by the enjoyable Jon Stewart). Zeebad’s stated goal is to cover the earth with ice and snow by gathering up three scattered diamonds and freezing the sun. It falls to Doogal and his friends to save the universe (and Doogal’s best friend, Florence, who ended up frozen in the carousel as a result of Doogal’s feckless pursuit of candy) and find the diamonds before Zeebad does.
Perhaps you’ve noticed no mention of the actors playing the other characters. That’s because they are, for the most part, perfectly fine actors performing serviceably but unremarkably. And certainly that’s no fault of their own; it’s what happens when the plot is thin and the characters barely distinguishable from one another. Still, the (underused) talents of Chevy Chase, Jimmy Fallon, Whoopi Goldberg, Bill Hader, William H. Macy, Ian McKellen, and Kevin Smith deserve a little recognition. Consider them recognized.
At some point, whoever pitched this tale to the man who greenlit it probably used the phrase, “Hijinks ensue.” This is code. It means “they have an adventure and eventually everything works out in the end.” It also means “the plot is irrelevant.” And, sure enough, hijinks ensue. Many sharp elbows to the adult audience later (references to The Lord of the Rings and Pulp Fiction abound), everything works out in the end.
Look, man, I know everything works out in the end. The key is keeping my kid and me engaged on the way. I’ll grant them this: Terry cried at three different points during this film. So obviously, he was engaged, to a point. He’s six, though, and six-year-olds can’t see past the moment, so I had to lean over and reassure him that everything works out in the end. As for keeping me engaged, I can say that, having deliberately avoided looking at the poster and the advance publicity, I had a rollicking good time determining which actors were voicing which characters. And yeah — Jon Stewart rocks. Pity he was the only character I liked. Because, boys and girls, the bad guy always loses. And when the most interesting character is the bad guy, it’s all over when the bad guy goes down.
I’m an adult and you’re an adult, and I’m writing this review primarily for you but, to be fair, you’re probably not going to see this movie if you don’t have kids. If you do have kids, you’ll likely end up seeing this movie regardless of reviews.
Don’t get me wrong — it’s not torture. It’s tolerable. It’s bland, innocuous fare. I’m not doing cartwheels, true, and I do take mild offense at the lazy shortcuts taken by the filmmakers — but certainly no more offense than I take at Yet Another Cop Movie, you know?
But if you don’t have kids, consider yourself lucky to have escaped this tripe.
Maryscott O’Connor reviews children’s movies for Pajiba and publishes the liberal weblog My Left Wing. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and six-year-old son.