Wednesday, June 27, 2018

In Laman's Terms: Of Uncle Drew And Other Movies Based On TV Commercials

An image from the upcoming Uncle Drew movie.
In Laman's Terms is a weekly editorial column where Douglas Laman rambles on about certain topics or ideas that have been on his mind lately. Sometimes he's got serious subjects to discuss, other times he's just got some silly stuff to shoot the breeze about. Either way, you know he's gonna talk about something In Laman's Terms!

This Friday see's the release of Uncle Drew, a new comedy starring basketball star Kyrie Irving based on an assortment of Pepsi commercials that starred Irving in old man makeup as a character known as Uncle Drew getting into all sorts of basketball shenanigans. The various Uncle Drew shorts were highly popular viral sensations, garnering enough popularity to generate a feature film adaptation. Hollywood movie studios love to base feature films of all sorts of types of source material (board games, comic books, TV shows, etc.), but movies based on TV commercials like Uncle Drew are a rarer breed, mainly because of the difficulty of trying to have company mascots who feature in said 30-second long TV commercials sustain an expansive feature-length narrative.

Despite the inherent difficulties in making fixtures of TV commercials movie stars, there have been past examples of this phenomenon occuring both domestically and abroad, perhaps most notably with 1980's/1990's comedy fixture Ernest. Yep, Jim Varney's Southern goofball started out as a fixture of various TV commercials, shelling for all kinds of products with his trademark style of humor and assorted catchphrases that got him endeared to the public at large. Ernest a variety of local and national advertisements that eventually gave the character enough popularity to headline theatrically released movies like Ernest Goes To Camp, a number of which found similar success at the box office.

Another comedic character from TV commercials that ended up starring in a number of comedic motion pictures is that of Rowan Atkinson's character Johnny English, though his original TV commercial incarnation, also played by Atkinson, went by the name of Richard Latham. As pointed out by Stuart Heritage in a 2011 article for The Guardian, the character of Richard Latham appeared in a Barclaycard advertisement well over a decade prior to the release of the original Johnny English film. Though the names may have been changed, both super-spy characters are clearly identical of one another as a vessel for Rowan Atkinson to satirize James Bond with his own trademark style of slapstick humor.

While Ernest and Johnny English found major box office success in their leaps from TV commercials to feature films, a 1980's example of this trend was not so lucky. At this point, I'm sure we've all heard of the infamous E.T. knock-off Mac And Me and its infamous sequence depicting its lead alien (in a disguise) dancing around in a McDonalds. Interestingly, unlike our last two examples, the project didn't start out as a TV commercial that was adapted into a film, but, as detailed in a 2017 Thrillist article, Mac And Me was brought to life in direct partnership with the McDonalds brand name and franchise, the thought of advertising directly with this fast food empire was ingrained into its blood. This movie was like they cut out the middleman and just made a film adaptation of a mascot character from a popular TV commercial...without actually having a TV commercial to let the producers behind the project know if said mascot character was popular enough to warrant a feature film adaptation. Hey, at least Mac And Me gave us all the iconic clip Paul Rudd plays every time he shows up on Conan's talk show.
The 1996 hit film Space Jam also originated from various commercials for companies like NIKE that paired up Michael Jordan with various Looney Tunes characters. Like the then-future motion picture they'd inspire, the commercials are trash.
Let's briefly turn our gaze from feature films adapted from TV commercials to short films adapted from TV commercials. Why you ask? Because I discovered this utterly bizarre short film called The Polar Bears last night that you all need to know about. Centering on those polar bears from those ubiquitous Coca-Cola commercials, this seven-minute short was directed by Kung Fu Panda helmer John Stevenson, produced by Ridley Scott (yes, that Ridley Scott) and the late Tony Scott while Finding Nemo writer David Reynolds penned the screenplay. The voice cast was headlined by Armie Hammer and none other than Alexander Hamilton himself, Lin-Manuel Miranda, as the main character. With all that talent assembled, it's a shame the short film is such a snooze, an overly conventional tale of a polar bear cub who feels like his dad doesn't respect him getting into some wacky antics before everything gets wrapped up in a tidy little dance party. The most entertaining part of the short has gotta be hearing Lin's one-of-a-kind voice coming out of a polar bear cub and delivering such stale dialogue in such an artificially calculated short, it's like hearing Kurt Cobain do voicework in a Filmation Saturday Morning Cartoon that was made just before Nirvana took off.
That empty yet oddly star-studded short might be a perfect example of why we haven't seen more TV commercials translated into longer forms of storytelling. Too often the people who really want to see TV commercial mascots get their own movie aren't people with an idea for a story or theme they want to explore, but rather marketing executives who wanna make a quick buck off recognizable characters. The result is typically something like The Polar Bears, calculated, derivative and just not that interesting. Ernest and Johnny English really aren't my cup of tea as far as humor goes, but at least their individual movie adaptations allow their leading actors to indulge in the kind of comedy people like seeing them perform, which already gives them more heft than The Polar Bears or Mac and Me which exist solely to hawk brand names.  We'll all find out this weekend if Uncle Drew turns out to be a positive example of this sparse subgenre of cinema or yet another instance of marketing driving the story and not the other way around. Whatever happens, I doubt it's worse than that TV based off of the GEICO caveman that actually existed for a few weeks and starred Nick Kroll to boot!

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