Starring- Jim Parsons, Rihanna, Steve Martin, Jennifer Lopez, Matt Jones
Director- Tim Johnson
PG- mild action and some rude humor
Well, it’s a DreamWorks Animation movie, so I guess it’s time for me to commence with my usual conspiracy theorizing. I have done almost no research, was granted no special access to this film, and probably have even less insight into the production process than most people writing about movies on the Internet. Here, anyway, is my theory on how Home came to exist in its final form.
So, every time I review a DreamWorks Animation movie, I hijack a few paragraphs to talk about my theory regarding the studio’s process: It usually produces at least two movies a year, and historically, I really like one of them (or at least admire it distantly) and think the other is soulless and pandering. Even knowing very little about how an animated movie is produced, it always seems like much, much more effort went into one of them, from the story to the characters to the animation itself. One good movie, one bad movie — that appears to be the DreamWorks philosophy.
But 2015 is unique in that Home is the only movie the studio is releasing. It seems, based on a cursory glance at its upcoming slate of projects, that Kung Fu Panda 3 was supposed to happen in December but got delayed for one reason or another. I don’t know what happened, but it wouldn’t surprise me if DreamWorks was caught off guard and had to figure out what to do now that Home, probably intended to be 2015’s bad movie, was its only offering for the entire year.
I say that because it would go a long way toward explaining why Home suffers from such a contradictory problem: It both tries much too little and tries much too hard.
Oh (voice of Jim Parsons) is a little alien who doesn’t quite fit in. His people, the Boov, frown upon individuality; he, on the other hand, has it in spades, though he agrees with them on one point: Cowardice and running away are the key to survival. The Boov have gotten pretty good at both, having been pursued across the galaxy by their greatest enemy, the Gorg. As the film opens, it’s moving day again, and the Boov have chosen their new home: a little planet called Earth. After forcibly relocating the current inhabitants to Happy Humans Land (it’s in the Australian desert), the Boov begin to settle in. Oh is so excited about his new place that he decides to invite everyone to his housewarming party. Unfortunately, he accidentally hits the “send all” button on his invitation, sending the Boov’s new location directly to the Gorg mothership.
Now a fugitive, Oh teams up with Tip (voice of Rihanna), a preteen girl searching for her mother, to set things right before the Gorg destroy the planet.
My stupid theory aside, Home does come across like a movie that did a complete 180 after it was already substantially finished. I’m pretty sure some script doctors were called in at a certain point to spruce it up a little — it’s mostly pretty mediocre, but every now and then, out of the clear blue sky, it’ll hit you with a scene that’s emotionally effective and intelligent in a way that suggests a steady hand trying to salvage everything.
Whatever the case may be, it would explain why it feels like there are two separate movies happening in Home. It would explain why the first half of the movie is totally coasting — light, fluffy, stupid, broad, uninteresting — and why the second half abruptly goes for your emotional jugulars and is practically screaming at you to have rich, important feelings.
The first half of this movie is token DreamWorks — zany rather than funny, too fast-paced, feeling pitched at demographic trends rather than establishing its own voice, and so on. The animation is simple and almost textureless — something that, unfortunately, holds true throughout — and I’m generally not a huge fan of the art direction here. The movie doesn’t seem to have a great sense of color or scale — how certain things look when they’re sharing a frame. It’s a very colorful film, but those colors never pop. Ultimately, it ends up feeling like an especially elaborate TV movie.
The second half of the movie, on the other hand, goes so all in that it was actually jarring to watch. It goes from an outlandish premise and goofy humor and silly, upbeat characters to emotional intensity in seconds. The first half of the movie involves Oh building a car out of a slushy machine and farting out of his ears, and the second half involves slow motion, dramatic self-sacrifices, an imminent apocalypse, live-action-style camerawork and editing designed to establish a sense of significance (there’s a totally sincere shot that made me think of Beasts of the Southern Wild, of all things), all of it set to a soundtrack of emotional pop songs. So. Many. Pop songs. This is not an exaggeration — I think if you took all the pop montages out of this movie, it would lose a full 20 minutes off its run-time. It’s bad — obvious and cheesy in the usual ways but stretched to its breaking point and then some after the fourth or fifth montage in one half-hour stretch. The first half of the movie barely tries to make you feel at all; the second tries so, so hard that you start to worry about it. “Movie, are you okay? Do you need an adult?” After keeping you at arm’s length for the better part of an hour, the movie suddenly asks you to care about its characters like you’ve never cared about fictional characters before.
I ultimately don’t know whether or not script doctors were involved in trying to stick the landing, but I feel like they were: Despite the visible strain in every other element of the film, the story actually does achieve the base level of functionality in the second half. The script packages in a couple of moments that are largely sweet and heartwarming. It even develops surprisingly complete themes — albeit simple ones, pitched at kids. I can’t really fault it for its message — it’s basically a case study in empathy, spread across all of its characters and conflicts.
It’s too little too late, especially since the parts that work are sandwiched between heavy-handed Jennifer Lopez songs and jumbled, unattractive visuals. Still, it ends up not leaving as bad a taste in your mouth as you might expect. I honestly don’t think it’s that bad a movie for kids — it has a good message and isn’t so brainless that I’d be concerned about them growing up on it. But I don’t write reviews for kids; I write reviews for the people getting dragged along with them. I liked parts of Home well enough, but they were few and far between and, ultimately, not worth it.