Friday, October 1, 2010

Shame On Me (or is it Shame On You?)

Dear Hollywood,

I am done with your "true story behind the legend" movies. The moment I see those words on your poster or hear those words in your trailer is the last moment I'll give any thought or consideration to whatever movie you're advertising.

At first it seemed like an interesting idea: We all know the legend of ____. But what's the true story behind that legend? Let's tell that story! I'll admit it, even typing those words, I'm filled with a little bit of excitement and curiosity. After all, it worked for Batman Begins, didn't it? We had never actually seen the story of how Bruce Wayne became Batman. Up until BB, we had never actually seen a Bruce Wayne movie. What a novel idea (and what a great movie)!

"What other stories/legends can we give this treatment to?" I'm sure you asked yourself. "King Arthur," someone must have said. It's amazing how quickly you can go from "brilliant" to "just awful" on the idea scale.

King Arthur without Excalibur? Arthur without Merlin? No Green Knight, no Holy Grail, no Camelot? Strip all the magic away and all you have is a king who doesn't like sharp furniture. It just doesn't work. King Arthur had a wonderful cast, but there was just nothing special about it. In my perfect world, that cast would reunite and tell the Arthur story properly.

This idea, of re-imagining a story, actually worked with Troy. It might not be the best movie, it might falter for other reasons, but that story actually can be told without the gods. You want to know a story that can't be told without the gods? Hercules. But perhaps the most epic failure, and the reason for this open letter, is Ridley Scott's perplexing Robin Hood.

If there's a character from folklore that deserves to have his own franchise, it's Robin Hood. If there's a hero people could rally behind right now, it's Robin Hood. If there's a hero that is nearly impossible to get wrong, it's Robin Hood.

Robin Hood has been told a thousand different ways. My personal favorite remains Disney's 1973 animated Robin Hood. But there are general plot points that remain the same:
  1. King Richard is off fighting the Crusades.
  2. Prince John is trying to usurp the throne.
  3. He is raising the taxes on everybody and really making life miserable.
  4. The Sheriff of Nottingham is John's right-hand man.
  5. Robin Hood steals from the rich and gives to the poor. And he's a damn fine archer.
  6. Maid Marion loves Robin. Robin loves Marion. But she is royalty. It is a forbidden love.
There are other details (Sherwood Forest, the Merry Men), but they are more negotiable. How simple and beautiful is that? Can you imagine how that story would play in today's economy? People would go absolutely nuts for it! A vigilante who steals the taxes back from the government and returns to those who need it?

It doesn't need reinterpreting. It doesn't need re-imagining. It's a rollicking adventure. It doesn't have things that are so outrageous that they couldn't happen in real life (unlike the Arthur legend). Bill him as the original caped crusader and you'll make back your budget opening weekend. Which brings us to the movie Ridley Scott brought us.

I love Ridley Scott. I love Russell Crowe. I love Cate Blanchett. I was very excited when I heard that awesome triumvirate was bringing us a Robin Hood movie. I mean no offense to any of them, because it's obvious they're trying really hard to make a good movie. There's so much good stuff on screen, in fact, that the only people I can blame are the people who were behind the scenes. Someone, or a group of someones, decided they didn't want to make a Robin Hood movie. Because this was not Robin Hood.

Robin Hood stands up for the oppressed. He fights evil. This Robin desserts the army as soon as his king's dead and then wanders through the next two hours of movie with no motivation to do anything ever again. Why does he stay with the Loxlies? Why does he pretend to be the man's son? Does no-one know what the son actually looks like? The only time he does something for the good of England is when he gives his Magna Carta speech. It's all very Libertarian of him, but what is Robin Hood doing giving rousing political speeches?

Yes, the supporting characters are here. There's Tuck, Alan, Will Scarlet, Little John, the Sheriff, and Prince John. But they could be anybody. They have so little to do in the movie that it's actually kind of awkward and weird knowing that these people are supposed to be important.

Who's idea was it to end the movie with a recreation of Saving Private Ryan? Who didn't do their research to know those kinds of boats didn't exist for another 800 years? Who puts Robin Hood in armor, gives him an axe, and sends him into battle? Robin should be holding a bow and maybe a sword. The battle should be small and personal, not big and sprawling.

There are so many built-in parallels and themes that are relevant today that you don't need to add more. Yet you do. You add a very heavy-handed war with France that the country of England is not behind, but the king wants it, so what can we do?

It was just so disappointing. I really wish this had been Kingdom of Heaven 2. I wish this had been about Balian returning home from the Crusades and finding his home ravaged with infighting and injustice. And instead of retiring to his castle, like he could, he gets involved and fights for the oppressed. It could have been nearly the same script. And it would have given you the freedom to do whatever you want with the character, instead of feeling like you had to pay homage to the legend every other scene. Because with this Robin Hood, nothing works.

The historical accuracy holds the legend back and the legend holds the history lesson back. They cripple each other to such a degree that all we're left with is a very neutered movie that isn't even entertaining unto itself, let alone as a prequel to one of the greatest folklore tales of all time.

It isn't fun. It isn't clever. It really . . . isn't anything.

It would be like telling the story of Bruce Wayne before his parents died. It would just be about him at prep school, hanging out with his friends. He's eight years old, a little moody, but a pretty decent kid. Stuff happens, but nothing too terrible. I mean, his parents don't die or anything.

Sure, you could tell that story, but why should you? Who would be interested in that?

Or maybe this Robin Hood is more like making the movie Dead Poets Society and calling it Bruce Wayne. The story has nothing to do with Batman but you're using the Bruce Wayne name because it's familiar enough to attract people to the theater.

So, I end this letter a little less angry but a little more confused. Should I be angry with myself, for falling for another marketing ploy, or should I be angry with you, for giving me something different than what you sold me?


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