I try not to describe movies along the lines of, "super fun if you just shut off your brain." Sure, there are movies that exist solely to entertain without creating an internal dialogue about humanity or getting people to face their own mortality, but no film should treat its audience like they're stupid. There's something deeply hypocritical to me about a movie that literally and figuratively makes fun of its viewers after taking their money.
Going back to the original "Toy Story," modern filmmakers have proven you don't need to condescend to an audience when making a children's movie or creating something emotionally inauthentic to try and appeal to a mass audience. "Inside Out" was designed specifically to give children a new vocabulary to talk about their feelings. That's astonishing. Even something like "Anchorman" exists for mass audiences to laugh their asses off, but still has enough intelligence to comment on toxic masculinity and second-wave feminism.
I went to three movies this weekend without expecting much except for some "mindless" entertainment and air conditioning. To some extent, that's what I got, but not in the ways I predicted.
First, I checked out "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem," something I had unreasonably high expectations for, just based on my deep and abiding nostalgia for the IP. Ever since the animated series appeared in 1987, I've been a fan, watching every single movie in the theater since 1990. I never would have guessed "Mutant Mayhem" would be my favorite TMNT movie since the original, but here we are, and it's my favorite for the exact reasons I mentioned above: it doesn't take its audience for granted.
Director Jeff Rowe (responsible for the criminally underrated "The Mitchells vs. the Machines) built a perfect voice cast, starting by actually casting teenagers for the Turtles. Along with Paul Rudd, Ayo Edebiri, Seth Rogan, Post Malone, Jackie Chan, Ice Cube and a dozen more, there's so much talent involved with the performances and such delicate care taken in the characterization of the Turtles that I felt like I was getting to see a classic adventure from my childhood brought to life. Plus, with an intelligent script filled with thematic and emotional depth, I never felt like I was being talked down to by the filmmakers.
Then came the movie that I expected to be the most fiercely entertaining, "Meg 2: The Trench." I'm a big fan of director Ben Wheatley, who has been behind visionary horror films including "Kill List" and "A Field in England," so I expected "Meg 2" to be something more than just Jason Statham fighting a giant prehistoric shark. Nope. That's it. He kicks and punches a few dudes, too, but it's mostly Underwater Jason trying to kill a Megalodon.
Which, OK, that's cool, maybe my expectations were too high, but I didn't expect it to be just so eye-rollingly stupid. Yeah, the original is dumb, too, but the fun moments in "Meg 2: Electric Boogaloo" are so few and far between that the two-hour runtime feels endless. I would have been fine with the movie just being Statham growling at the camera while punching sharks, but there's just no sense of fun to be found. I think I actually liked "Sharknado" more.
Finally, I checked out Disney's new attempt to capitalize on its theme park rides with "Haunted Mansion," a much better attempt at a movie than the one with Eddie Murphy from 2003, but it still doesn't have the spark of a Disney theme park movie like the original "Pirates of the Caribbean." I know that's a fairly high bar to clear, but with a cast featuring the great LaKeith Stanfield, Owen Wilson, Rosario Dawson, Tiffany Haddish, Danny DeVito, Dan Levy and Jamie Lee Curtis...this should have been so much cooler.
Instead, we have another overlong slog (albeit with some very cool visuals) that just wants to remind people that Disneyland exists, as opposed to telling a story that has some originality and makes use of that incredible cast. Justin Simien is a strong storyteller (as he proved with his debut, "Dear White People"), but too much of "Haunted Mansion" feels like filmmaking by committee, edited to death by focus groups, producers and the House of Mouse.
We should feel no shame in wanting to go to the movies to forget about our daily lives, but something can be escapist while still appealing to our intellect and the spirit of our collective humanity. Look at "Barbie." That movie is deliriously entertaining while also having layers of important ideas on its mind. Both things are possible. We deserve better as filmgoers and consumers. Let's start asking for it.