Friday, 1 June 2018

Duck Duck Goose (2018) - Movie Review

The plot: As his flock prepares to migrate for the winter, Peng (Jim Gaffigan) finds himself stranded on his own. He comes across two ducklings, Chi (Zendaya) and Chao (Lance Lim), who have also been separated from their flock, and he begrudgingly agrees to join them as they both make their way back to their respective families. However, with the psychotic cat Banzou (Greg Proops) hot on their trails, it seems that their migration has only begun to get difficult.

Gaffigan is a decent fit as the gander who needs to grow up and be part of a flock/family, getting some good chuckles in while also serving nicely with the more dramatic moments. Zendaya and Lim as the two ducklings do pretty good as a buddy team, even if Lim is honestly more entertaining in the middle of… well, I can’t even call it “hangry”; it’s more “hossessed” in how weird a certain moment in this turns out, but it’s still entertaining nonetheless. Proops as the evil cat not only does well on the intimidation factor and makes for a decent villain, he handles the more Gollum-y moments quite nicely on top of that. Stephen Fry and Craig Ferguson as a double act (man, someone involved with this film must have been peeking at my cinematic wish list) do well, even if they aren’t exactly given the most worthy material, and Rick Overton and Jennifer “Yes, the same one from Dirty Dancing” Grey as a rooster and hen respectively make for another decent duo in their domestic quarrelling.

So, this film is already off to a promising start with the cast list here; how about the animation? Well, the water textures suck. Big time. Like, the worst I’ve ever seen in a film I’ve had to review. It has that same quality to it that you would expect from either an animation demo to show how the in-engine physics work for the given software, or from a first-year animation student who is still grappling with the basics.
It is painfully distracting, not only because the water features in a lot of key moments in the narrative, but also because it is the only really egregious thing to be found as far as visual quality. The rest of the film actually looks pretty damn good, with solid texture work on the animals, giving that nice balance between cartoonish and realistic (leaning more on the cartoonish side, a la early Dreamworks), and the scenery is genuinely impressive. Whether it’s the startlingly well-rendered interior of an underground cave, the dimly-lit hustle and bustle of the human town, or the red-and-orange glow of the autumn foliage, this looks quite nice. Doubly so for the flying sequences, which make for some nice action beats.

Okay, good acting and good animation; what about the writing? Well, while it isn’t nearly as dismal as some of the other talking animal movies I’ve had to sit through this year already, it isn’t anything necessarily to write home about either. Let’s try and ignore the irony of me putting that last statement into writing. It’s a fairly straight-forward story about the loner who learns how to work in a group, framed against the Chinese landscape with bird migration basically being the push for the story to progress. As far as parables against isolationism go, this isn’t anything exciting but it’s definitely serviceable. There’s a little too much reliance on fart jokes (and really plain fart jokes at that) but there’s nothing in the comedy here that really grates too much. It gets some decent chuckles, nothing too substantial but it didn’t give me the urge to just walk out at any point. Yes, after having sat through films like Pup Star, this is how low the bar has been set.
Not that it really needs to be as, on top of doing well enough as a comedy, its take on being part of a natural community and being a parent in particular are rather solid. The emotional turns fit nicely, nothing feels too manipulative or too cloying to be ineffective, and watching the relationship between Peng and Chi & Chao grow as the film goes on is rather nice.

So, it all looks just fine so far. Nothing exciting, but fine… until I started doing my usual overthinking of things and came across something a bit troubling. While the film itself is animated by Original Force, the film’s production as a whole was led by Wanda Media, a subsidiary of Dalian Wanda Group. Now, that name might not seem too familiar at first, but I can guarantee that you’ve come across them at some point. Not only are they the current owners of Legendary Entertainment, who have been behind a lot of giant creature features over the last few years including the latest Godzilla franchise, but Wanda is also the owner of the Hoyts Group, the company behind one of the biggest cinema chains here in Australia, as well as owning majority shares for AMC Theatres in the United States.
Why is this important? Well, as much as I would like to reduce any kind of fearmongering “The Chinese are taking over, run!” sentiment that is far too prevalent in the Western world already, I would like to draw Wanda’s place in the place industry against its cultural background. Wanda Group, between its cinematic ventures and its real estate holdings, is a big cultural force in China, and it seems like they’re in the middle of making some serious power moves as far as Hollywood is concerned. But to what end? Well, keep in mind that this company also gave us The Great Wall, a film that I and many other critics wound up wholly misrepresenting. It wasn’t a white saviour narrative, not that it even tried to be; it was meant to be a piece of nationalist propaganda, and while I honestly didn’t take issue with it, that connection does make this film’s emphasis on the flock and the repeated chants of “birds of a feather migrate together”, spoken like a military cry, a little iffy.

But hey, why should China be any different as far as pushing nationalist ideas go? Yeah, the focus on being part of a larger group has some communist undertones to it, but so what? Given how the only Chinese human characters are portrayed here (in a jarring but ultimately effective look at the ultimate fate of a lot of the native poultry), it doesn’t carry any emphatic aggrandising of its home culture; just the nature that exists around it. And as for a possible argument towards this being communist propaganda (yeah, even I’m surprised that the review went in this direction)… well, as I’ve said in the past, I’m getting quite tired of isolationist rhetoric, and since it falls neatly into more traditional family-friendly territory here, that very well could be the case but it doesn’t necessarily need to be read as such. I know this is going to be a weird statement to make, especially after dedicating so much of this review to it but… let’s leave the politics alone on this one.

All in all… yeah, serious digression there, but this is honestly a decent film. Not amazing, but decent. The acting is (mostly) good, the jokes are (mostly) tolerable, the animation is (mostly) well-rendered, and the message at the core of the narrative is (mostly) harmless. I’d say it’s an indication of how low this year’s standard has been for more ostensibly kid-friendly cinema, but this still has enough pull to it to make it good enough for kids, and not a pain to sit through for adults. That’s a win in my book. Hell, even the fact that I was able to wring what could very well be some political context out of this production already gives it an edge; it may have just been a thought experiment, but I like films that give me interesting things to write about. Okay, ‘interesting’ is subjective here, but still.

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