The Perfect Trifecta:
Is the third time really the charm?
This past summer, it seemed like you couldn’t enter a movie theatre without tripping over a sequel of some sort. The big moneymakers this season weren’t dancing penguins or Ben Stiller as a bumbling fill-in-the-blank, but rather a potpourri of sequels that saw the return of Jack Sparrow, John McClane, and the green ogre Shrek. It’s not surprising that blockbuster follow-ups are being produced – it’s the industry cash cow that keeps on giving. But what is surprising is the alarming speed at which sequels are being cranked out. At this rate, the year 2010 will consist of maybe five or ten original films, all starring Adam Sandler and Kevin James.
Sequels are a tricky breed, rarely satisfying fans enough to place on par, let alone better, than the original. There are only a handful of good sequels and sequel’s sequels ever made. The Godfather, Star Wars, Die Hard, and The Lord of the Rings franchises all make good cases for this. These films consistently show up in critic and fan top lists, and make buckets of money for their studios. But for every Harry Potter, there are twenty Hostels II that fall short of the critical and economical box office mark.
This spring and summer alone, there were twelve sequels released in theatres: Hostel II, Evan Almighty, Are We Done Yet?, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, Rush Hour 3, Daddy Day Camp, The Bourne Ultimatum, Spider-Man 3, Shrek 3, Ocean’s Thirteen, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, Live Free or Die Hard, and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. The latter seven films, four of which are part threes, are currently in an elite group known as the top ten grossing films of the year – which is hardly surprising given the fanfare and high anticipation of these movies. But for the rest, the triumphant road to easy profit was not meant to be.
What makes a good sequel? There doesn’t seem to a concrete formula on what will work and what will fail, but there are some obvious guidelines:
Get the original cast members to return. Make sure the script is damn good and involves idiosyncrasies native to the original that audiences will remember and relate to.
Seems simple enough. In fact, any network executive at FOX can tell you this. So what went wrong? Why did audiences love Ocean’s Thirteen and shun Rush Hour 3? What makes the third time around the charm? For some answers, let’s take a closer look at this summer’s most anticipated second sequels, ranked from dismal to superb.
Rush Hour 3
What, no one likes transcontinental cultural jokes that simultaneously serve to reinforce stereotypes and offend a whole nation? Rush Hour 3 made headlines, but not the ones it was expecting to, when China said, thanks, but no thanks, to playing it in theatres. After a meek opening, it quickly fell from the top spot and unsteadily clings to the top ten, with a domestic gross of $114 million, and a worldwide gross of about $154 million. That seems like a lot of cash, but when production values clock in at $140 million, the profits are slim. Even odd-couple Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker couldn’t save this one. And while no one expected Rush Hour 3 to be a cinematic masterpiece of character depth and good storytelling, everyone expected a higher rating than a dismal 20% at Rotten Tomatoes. At least this will ensure that Rush Hour 4 will become a scary urban myth.
With the monetary success of the first and second installments, not to mention a seal of approval from both die-hard fans and critics, Spider-Man 3 looked like a sure bet. Although it still managed to have the gross domestic product of a small country handed to it on a silver platter, the script and pacing of the film left something to be desired. Yes, Spider-Man’s 90% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and Spider-Man 2’s 93% on the same critic site is a lot to live up to, but the third time around, Peter Parker & Gang only managed to score a paltry 60%. I Know Who Killed Me would have killed for half that score (pun very intended), but coming from a franchise revered for outstanding special effects as well as superior character development, it’s nothing if a little disappointing. Perhaps it’s time to retire the Spidey senses and let Tobey McGuire have a career outside of red tights and repetitive scenes with a whiny Kirsten Dunst, who always seems to end each movie hanging precariously from a tall building. Perhaps seeing a weary 32-year-old McGuire play an emo, self-serving Spider-Man is a little too jarring, not to mention forced. Or perhaps packing three villains into a two-and-a-half hour movie is a little too ambitious. Whatever the case, Spider-Man 3 is a good indication that the franchise has run its course.
Shrek the Third
Proving that people can never get tired of green ogres with questionable hygiene, the box office triumph of Shrek the Third ensured that a fourth film was only a donkey’s hee-haw away. On the whole, the film was much better than a lot of new releases this summer. But what didn’t work for the green ogre this time around was a chronic need to repeat every joke ever told in Shrek and Shrek 2, but with the gusto reserved for a drowning man who’s just spotted a life raft. Characters return, but the absence only makes them that much more annoying. Toilet humour almost always gives way to more toilet humour, which gives way to less adult humour that made the franchise so likeable in the first place. And while Shrek 2 was a welcome retread of the titular ogre’s silly adventures, plus the addition of the adorable Puss In Boots, the third film just serves to remind us that too much, too soon, plus Justin Timberlake as an animated heir with self-esteem issues, is never a good thing.
A sizeable cast which rivals that of 300’s doesn’t leave a lot of room for character development, but it does lead to a whole bunch of plot devices. This third installment in the Danny Ocean saga could have gone either way, and fortunately for those involved, it leaned more towards positive than negative. While the first Ocean’s saga was fresh, new and shiny, the second one lacked the camaraderie and well thought out pacing of the first (and the meta joke involving Julia Roberts could only really have been appreciated by Julia Roberts). But the third try brought the films back on track, with a heist so grand that it literally filled the movie’s two-hour running time. Although Steven Sodenbergh helmed all three, much of the credit for the brilliance of Ocean’s Thirteen has to go to the writing duo of Brian Koppelman and David Levien, whose rapid-fire dialogue and throwback to pack rack caper films lends a retro feel to a modern concept. Ocean’s is an example of a franchise that stumbled off course, but recovered quite nicely at the end.
Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End
Let’s face it, the allure of the Pirates films all boils down to Jack Sparrow. Everything else, including Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley, is merely filler. If Jack Sparrow were in a film about raising monkeys in the wild, everyone would watch. If Jack Sparrow were in a movie about a stripper who has a secret twin, everyone would watch. If Jack Sparrow entered the Miss American pageant, everyone would watch. The last film in the highly successful franchise lagged at times, but ultimately offers a resolution that fans can live with.
Only time, and the maniacal studio brains behind Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, will be able to tell which characters and their adventures will be returning to the big screen. From this summer, we can surmise that big budget “failures” like Evan Almighty, I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, Grindhouse, Nancy Drew, Stardust, and The Number 23 won’t be gracing us with their presence in the future (although the kiddie film Daddy Day Camp, a sequel to Daddy Day Care without the Eddie Murphy, came out of left field).
Are we ready to be bombarded with more sequels? Do we want to see Peter Parker brood some more, with a late onset of teen angst at forty? Do we want to see Shrek’s little ogre brood burp their way to a part four? Are we really sure that we can handle more of the bad, hammy acting that is Fantastic Four? Can we suspend disbelief and watch an aging Harrison Ford don the fedora and whip of Indiana Jones?
On the other hand, the successes of The Simpons, Ratatouille, Knocked Up, and Superbad left audiences begging for more. Who wouldn’t love to see another of Homer’s bumbling adventures on the big screen? And cringe at the glorious adolescence and throwback to Meatballs that is Superbad?
Now that Hollywood’s cyclical development has to come an impasse, there’s no getting around sequels (and sometimes remakes, or sequels of remakes). Some will be good, but most will be ugly. And a small percentage will be atrocious. Much like a battlefield, a multiplex should be treaded lightly. Choose wisely, and leave the Evan Almightys for the discount bins. ¤ C.Ho.