Where Have All the Decent Live-Action Family Comedies Gone?

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R-rated films and animation rule comedy nowadays. The Big Year likely won't change that.

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20th Century Fox

The trailer for The Big Year—a "comedy" about birding that comes out today—invites you to "go big or go home." There's a better option: stay home and avoid The Big Year altogether.

The Big Year stars Jack Black as Brad Harris, a divorced, 36-year-old bird enthusiast who has decided to take his shot at a "big year": 365 days during which he'll spend his savings traveling the United States in an attempt to see more birds than any other person. He faces competition from record-holder Kenny Bostick (Owen Wilson), who's determined to maintain his title, and Stu Preissler (Steve Martin), a retiring CEO who finally has time to chase his passion.

What happened to the tradition that produced like Big, The Princess Bride, and Home Alone?

More than anything, The Big Year is bland. We understand that these men are passionate about birds, but we never understand why. There's no song choice too obvious for The Big Year ("Blackbird," " I Like Birds," et al), no metaphor too banal (Black's character, explaining that his favorite bird is the ordinary-looking golden plover, which "everyone overlooks," seems to be on the verge of turning to the camera and saying, "Get it?"). It's tough to call this a comedy, because comedies generally have jokes. But the problem isn't with the cast; in addition to its three generally likable leading men, The Big Year assembles some of the most reliable comic actors on television—Rashida Jones (Parks & Recreation), Joel McHale (Community), and the Emmy-winning Jim Parsons (The Big Bang Theory)—but saddles them all with straight-man roles.

Why would so many brilliant, funny actors sign up for a film as poorly conceived as The Big Year? To understand, look no further than the recent (and, unfortunately, relatively un-mourned) decline of a once-reliable genre: the live-action, PG-rated comedy.

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The Big Year is particularly disappointing for Jack Black, who has historically excelled at live-action, family-friendly comedies. Black's most recent family comedy—Gulliver's Travels, which came out last Christmas—was critically reviled and generally ignored, and his last hit as a leading man goes all the way back to 2003's School of Rock. But Black's recent box office successes tell us even more about contemporary Hollywood comedy than his failures. On one hand, we have the kid-friendly Kung Fu Panda series, in which Black voices the titular kung fu-ing panda. On the other, there's the massively successful Tropic Thunder—a gleefully profane action-comedy aimed squarely at adults.

The gulf between Tropic Thunder and Kung Fu Panda is a quintessential example of the schism that currently exists in Hollywood: adult comedies have become very adult, and children's comedies have become very childish. There's no greater evidence of this ever-increasing dichotomy than the list of the top-grossing comedies of 2011: No. 1 is The Hangover Part II. No. 2 is Cars 2. The roster goes on, leaping schizophrenically between raunchy comedies (Bridesmaids, Horrible Bosses) and children's animated films (Kung Fu Panda 2, Rio). The first live-action film on the list that isn't rated R is Adam Sandler's Just Go With It, which sits at No. 9, and no live-action comedy actively marketed to families appears until No. 14 (Zookeeper).

Though much has been written about the rise of the R-rated comedies—which, as The Hollywood Reporter notes, is a genre that outgrossed even superhero films this summer—fewer have commented on the subtle shift in the family film. What happened to the tradition that produced Big, The Princess Bride, Groundhog Day, and Home Alone?

We can trace the decline of live-action family films over the past decade to a simultaneous uptick in quality computer-animated films, which command a bigger slice of the box-office pie every year—particularly those produced by Pixar (though Dreamworks is catching up). In recent years, movies like Toy Story 3, Up, Despicable Me, or How To Train Your Dragon have garnered mass critical acclaim and dominated the box office. But pivotally, those are good movies first and good animated movies second. Unfortunately, Hollywood has learned all the wrong lessons from the success of computer-animated films. In recent years, live-action comedies like this year's Zookeeper and Mr. Popper's Penguins have emulated all the worst aspects of animated films (big-name stars! Wacky animals!) without recognizing the actual qualities (great storytelling! Universally relatable characters!) that made those films compelling for children and adults alike.

The term "fun for the whole family" gets thrown around so often that it's easy to overlook how difficult it is to actually be fun for the whole family. Where recent family-friendly animated films have succeeded (with another tip of the hat to Pixar), live-action family films have failed. Zookeeper and Mr. Popper's Penguins are blandly juvenile films, with scripts that would play just as poorly in animation; there are a few lazy bones thrown to any adult unlucky enough to be dragged to the theatre, but nothing truly universal. The Big Year feebly grasps at universal appeal, but as it awkwardly leapfrogs from slapstick pratfalls to unconvincing drama, its wobbly tone won't end up pleasing anyone.

But where there's a vacuum, there's also an opportunity. Like any business, Hollywood operates on market trends, and certain genres fall in and out of favor. The western lay dormant for over a decade before a recent renaissance sparked by 3:10 to Yuma and the Oscar-nominated True Grit. Even the conventionally animated film has seen a much-deserved resurrection, with flicks like The Princess and the Frog and this summer's tragically under-seen Winnie the Pooh.

With the right movie, the live-action family comedy can see the same kind of revival. Unfortunately, that revival will not be sparked by The Big Year. But though The Big Year is a disappointment, the sheer quality of its cast suggests that talented actors are hungry for the genre to return to the box office. Let's hope that audiences are, too.

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Scott Meslow is entertainment editor at TheWeek.com.

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