Wednesday, January 8, 2020

In Laman's Terms: Marmaduke And How Far Studios Will Go To Embrace Trends And Brand Names

The saga of the Marmaduke movie never fails to turn up a new interesting wrinkle. I have just discovered that modern posters for this feature highlight Owen Wilson & Emma Stone as the leads whereas the original poster didn't even mention Stone. Instead, Owen Wilson & George Lopez were the two above-the-title stars.
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!

Movie trends consist of a single movie coming along, becoming extremely popular and a whole slew of other movies try to copy its most surface-level qualities in a bid to replicate that success. The examples of this phenomenon are numerous. The avalanche of sex comedies that followed in the wake of Porky's box office success, which happened again after American Pie made bank. Don't forget about all those 3D movies that came out after Avatar became the biggest movie of all-time or all those postmodern fairy tale comedies after Shrek became a hit. In the moment, movie executives get swept up in all the hype over something new making money and decide to greenlight half-baked ideas or incorporate equally half-baked in-theater technologies in the hopes of getting some of that money for themselves.

In the moment, it probably seemed like a great idea to spend money converting The Last Airbender into 3D to bank off the success of Avatar, but ten years later, it just sounds like a ludicrous insultingly obvious get-rich-quick-scheme. Looking back on movie trends tend to be like looking back on actions you committed while drunk. Did I really put a lampshade on my head? Did I really belt out My Heart Will Go On at the top of my lungs? Did I really greenlight a live-action Marmaduke movie? That last query was not a non-sequitur, that was a reference to an actual movie that happened and was actually given a massive marketing push by a major movie studio.

Though the big memorable movie trend in the early years of 2010s was all those movies getting converted to 3D to try and tap some of the sweet box office glory of the previous year's juggernaut Avatar, another prominent movie trend of this part of the nascent decade was a wave of live-action movies starring CGI critters. These titles were all aiming to replicate the success of 2007s Alvin and the Chipmunks, a title that had managed to make lightning strike twice with an equally massive sequel in 2010. This meant a whole bunch of older animated characters were being brought to life with live-action/CGI kids movies heavy on bathroom humor and celebrity voice-overs. The Smurfs, Yogi Bear, even an inexplicable Cats & Dogs sequel fit into this trend.

The studio behind those Chipmunks movies, 20th Century Fox, was also trying to cash in on their own success by looking towards another beloved cartoon creature that caused chaos for its owners. Yes, I'm of course talking about Marmaduke. Based on a comic strip penned by Brad Anderson that ran from 1954 to 2015, Marmaduke was a baffling choice to use as an Alvin and the Chipmunks clone right from the start. Whereas the Chipmunks had consistently maintained a pop culture presence through a hit Christmas sone and assorted TV shows, Marmaduke had rarely been seen outside of his single-panel comics. The only time Marmaduke had previously leaped beyond the comic strip medium was in brief animated segments in a Heathcliff animated TV show.

Even being charitable and taking into account how movie trends can make bad ideas seem like great ones, taking a relatively obscure character like this one and plopping them into the leading spot of a $50 million budgeted family movie was madness, especially since Marmaduke the comic didn't have much of a cast beyond the dog. An entire original supporting cast (all voiced by recognizable celebrity talent, of course) would have to be drummed up. Heck, the dog didn't even talk in the comic, so why were they making a live-action movie where the dog would now talk with the voice of Owen Wilson? Marmaduke the movie bore so little resemblance to the comic that inspired it that it's a wonder they didn't just make their own original movie and skip paying a licensing fee, especially since the Marmaduke brand name isn't exactly something that helps get hordes of moviegoers into theaters.

Yet, 20th Century Fox pressed on. Director Tom Dey was put in charge of the project, which now carried a star-studded cast including Lee Pace and Judy Greer as the titular canine's owners as well as voice-over performances from a group of actors that immediately date this as a 2010 production. Chiefly, the fact that Fergie is one of the female leads and also that future Oscar-winner Emma Stone is merely around to play Marmaduke's love interest will make you instinctively reach for an iTouch that's blaring OMG by Usher. Then again, the entire existence of Marmaduke, one of many early 2010s kids movies meant to cash in on the success of Alvin and the Chipmunks, dates it as a product of 2010, doesn't it? If it had been converted into 3D, Marmaduke would be just a Team Coco pin and a Jersey Shore reference away from being the cinematic manifestation of the year 2010.
Here's the original poster showcasing Lopez as one of only two actor names prominently emphasized. 
Though it falls short of that distinction, Marmaduke still stands up as a bizarre example of how far American movie studios are willing to go to movie trends as well the bizarre lengths such studios will go to slavishly adhere to the idea that all movies must have a recognizable brand name. To be certain, Marmaduke would not have become either a box office smash nor a critical darling if it had been the same movie but just called Max the Great Dane. But Marmaduke is a property that had to be so substantially overhauled to be turned into a movie that one wonders why they even bothered adapting an existing property in the first place. Why not just embrace your movie being an original idea when you're basically already doing that, save for the fact that the canine protagonist has a somewhat familiar name? Reflecting just how far movie studios are willing to go to make "branded" content in the name of movie trends is just one of the many bizarre aspects of Marmaduke, though it's still not as bizarre as the fact that Marmaduke has a Turner Classics Movie page. I am dying to see what kind of introduction Bill Mankiewicz would give prior to a showing of Marmaduke.

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