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Gobble, Gobble 

Undercooked endeavors stuff theaters

Audiences in the mood for escapist fare at this point in the holiday season should continue to turn their attention toward the successful twofer of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and Die Another Day, since the batch of films served up over Thanksgiving week proved on the whole to be about as appetizing as adorning the pumpkin pie with turkey gizzards.

Except for the occasions when they're aligning themselves with the Pixar company (Toy Story, Monsters, Inc.), Disney seems to have largely lost it when it comes to producing animated features that truly engage our imaginations. The latest case in point is Treasure Planet, a reasonably enjoyable but hardly awe-inspiring effort that adds a sci-fi twist to Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island. Jim Hawkins is now a troubled teen into surfing across the skies, while pirate John Silver has been reconfigured as a cyborg. As expected, the animation is bright and the voice talents have been well-chosen (Emma Thompson as the heroic Captain Amelia, Roscoe Lee Browne as her distinguished second-in-command, and Michael Wincott as the villainous spider-critter Scroop are especially effective), yet when it comes to the comic relief, the studio just might have set a new low for itself. The fussy Doctor Doppler (David Hyde Pierce) and a blob known as Morph are tolerable, but the late-inning addition of an insufferable robot named B.E.N. (Martin Short) cripples much of the film's momentum and renders many of the latter scenes near-unwatchable (a friend at the screening dubbed B.E.N. "the Jar-Jar Binks of animation," and she's absolutely right). Little kids will eat the whole package right up, but discerning older viewers would probably have been content seeing their childhood classic neither shaken nor stirred.

Perhaps not since the 1998 Christian Slater-Cameron Diaz dud Very Bad Things has there been a Thanksgiving week release as stridently anti-audience as Solaris, the latest picture from the increasingly unpredictable Steven Soderbergh (Traffic, Erin Brockovich). The screening I attended may have set a new record for the greatest number of walkouts, and several of those who remained could be spotted struggling to stay awake (after about 20 minutes, the chap next to me pulled his baseball cap down over his eyes and snoozed for the duration of the picture). Obviously, this second adaptation of the Stanislaw Lem novel is a movie about ideas rather than action -- a noble sentiment, certainly, but one that could have been presented with a bit more oomph. George Clooney, struggling mighty hard in a role that's out of his range, plays a psychologist who's sent to a space station orbiting the planet Solaris to investigate some strange occurrences; soon after arrival, he bumps into his wife (Natascha McElhone), a baffling phenomenon considering she had committed suicide years earlier. Give Soderbergh credit for trying something different -- unlike many other current releases, his film is clearly about moviemaking rather than movie marketing -- but for a picture that attempts to make some salient points about humanity's emotional pull, this is an extremely chilly endeavor, with its glacial pace and murky leading characters working against its success. The only sign of life comes courtesy of Jeremy Davies, whose off-the-wall turn as a jittery crew member perks up the proceedings at regular intervals.

Any critical goodwill Adam Sandler earned for his work in Punch-Drunk Love will probably be negated by his participation in Adam Sandler's Eight Crazy Nights, an animated feature for which he co-wrote the script, served as a producer, and voiced three of the central characters. Basically a frat-house version of Dickens' venerable A Christmas Carol, this shows how an anti-social young man, turned rotten by a tragedy in his past, becomes a swell guy thanks to the efforts of a diminutive elderly guy. As is par for the course, the movie turns faux-sentimental in time for the fadeout, but before that, we're subjected to the usual Sandler gross-out humor, with the central set piece finding one character tumbling down a hill while trapped in a porta-potty, thereafter emerging covered in excrement which some passing deer are only too happy to lick off his body. The various musical numbers (featuring songs with lyrics like "I don't decorate no trees ... But I'll give this old lady's melons a squeeze") are well-executed, but the movie's product placements travel far beyond the already shameful norm, as logos for (among others) Foot Locker and Victoria's Secret come alive to offer lectures on the meaning of Christmas. This corporate pimping is actually far more offensive than the scatological humor, which, had this been live-action rather than animated, would have earned the film an R rather than its benign PG-13 rating.

For about an hour of its 90-minute running time, Extreme Ops feels like the longest, most expensive soft drink commercial ever made -- every five minutes or so, I kept expecting one of its nerdy heroes to take a break from skiing or snowboarding or parachuting to whip out a Mountain Dew and down it in one gulp. Perhaps aware of this similarity, the trio of scripters elects to make the leads involved in the filming of -- yep -- a TV commercial in the Alps. Realizing after a clueless length of time that audiences may start to realize they could be watching this sort of action (minus the ludicrous dialogue and characterizations, of course) for free on ESPN, the writing wizards then add what in a good movie would be called a "dramatic conflict": A Serbian war criminal hiding out in the area somehow mistakes these morons for CIA agents hot on his trail, and he orders his Idiot Son Number One and other assorted followers to kill them. Idiot Son Number One, however, has other plans: Getting the drop on these sports enthusiasts, he then persists in ordering the two foxes in the group to (brace yourself) ... kiss each other on the mouth (apparently, this guy's Playboy subscription ran out circa 1994, so he'll take what he can get). From there, the inanities escalate, barreling past a climax so puny and rushed that the movie was over before I knew it. Not that I'm complaining, mind you.

 

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