Review: What new animated Dreamworks comedy 'Home' has to teach George Lucas
Once again, Dreamworks is undone by trailers that managed not to convey the actual experience of the film they're selling. They have this weird habit of making their films look worse than they actually are, almost like they're trying to tank them. By now, I shouldn't be surprised when they make something that's good, but they keep cutting these trailers that promise crap.
"Home," based on the book "The True Meaning Of Smekday" by Adam Rex, serves as an interesting example of someone doing the right version of something that someone else has bungled. In this case, "Home" is an example of someone setting out to create a character like Jar Jar Binks… and pulling it off. Because no matter what you think of "The Phantom Menace," there's a specific character type that they're doing, The Fool, the bumbler who somehow becomes a hero by virtue of being decent but stupid. When I first read the script for "The Beginning," I thought the way they'd written Jar Jar was… risky.
I saw the point, and I saw how they gave him his character arc, redeeming him on the battlefield, but the dialogue was scary. The particular way they made him sound on the page was possible, but it seemed like it was a lot of language for not the right amount of return. I figured they'd work on it by the time they put it onscreen. Lucas had the right idea in hiring a guy to be on-set and "play" the digital character for the other actors. But Lucas was dead wrong in the choices he and Ahmed Best made. I feel for Best. Always have. He did exactly what Lucas asked him to do, and he did it at a time when no one was giving this kind of performance. It was forward-seeing in many ways, and I still say Lucas is less a case of intentional racial insensitivity and more a case of tone-deafness in how to play a particular kind of comic character. He was meant to be The Annoying Frog Who Saves The Day, but Lucas went all in on the Annoying.
Oh is a character who walks that same tightrope from the moment we meet him, and part of that is because he's unmistakably voiced by Jim Parsons. If you're familiar with him from "The Big Bang Theory," the question could fairly be asked if he's ever going to play anything else at this point, or if he's too closely identified with that character now. I have seen some of that show. I've never been particularly for or against it. It's expertly made and performed. It sometimes makes me laugh. From the moment we meet Oh, who tells the story of the film to the audience, Parsons plays it straight. He is frequently the butt of the joke, and the joke is that he is totally indefatigable in his attitude towards everyone and everything. He is unflappably decent, even when he endangers every member of his species, the Boov.
Oh speaks in a sort of mechanical and incorrect English, a tried and true comedy device, and it's to the credit of both the screenwriters (Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember) and director Tim Johson that it's never over-used. Once Oh falls into his traveling friendship with Gratuity Tucci, aka Tip (Rihanna), the dialogue between them is smart and emotionally direct. It's well-done. I thought the turns for the characters were earned in a way that was not embarrassing as a parent. You know what I'm talking about if you have kids. You take them to something and at some point, the film curdles and you just think, oooooooof. Nope. Well, this one is never remotely embarrassing. It gets better as it goes. It builds to a big emotional punch, and it knows exactly how to make sure it sticks. It's a really confident piece of work, and I was surprised by how good Rihanna was as Tip. It's a warm and funny performance, and considering what her day gig is, it should be no surprise she relaxes into the technical demands of sound recording reeeeeallllly well.
Jennifer Lopez plays a key role, and Steve Martin scores some giant laughs, but it's largely a three character piece with the third character being Pig, Tip's cat, who spends much of the adventure in the backseat of Tip's flying car. This is the sort of movie where there are things like flying cars that run on convenience store slushee machines, anti-gravity devices that upend the entire world, and an alien invasion in which Earth is conquered completely by the time the opening title is shown. Tip is an appealingly designed kid character, the right foil for the uber-sincere Oh. Tim Johnson gets the character stuff right, and the animators do an amazing amount of subtextual work with color and with texture ripples on the various Boov characters.. It's lovely work overall, and it might be the most cheerfully benign conquering force we've ever faced on film.
The story is familiar stuff, and here's where the Jar Jar comparison really comes in. Oh s a fugitive and he goes on the run with someone who keeps him out of harm's way until the moment comes for him to bumble his way to heroism. Parsons plays the transformation in a way that makes Oh into one of the more endearing creations of Dreamworks Animation overall. I just plain like him by the end of the film. Same with Tip. I'm not sure how calculating it was for them to cast Rihanna as Tip, but it works. I don't really know her music, but I like her work here quite a bit. Like Parsons, she knows how to really pour it on for much of the movie. "Home" is not especially subtle but it does what it does very well. I think it builds to an elegant conclusion, nothing like I would have expected at the start of the film. Not every joke lands. I think a few of the sequences are too "Dreamworks Animation Dance Party Mix Tape!", but that's inevitable with these movies. And I think they handle it as well as can be expected.
"Home" goes to some obvious places and does it in a few obvious ways, but even so, it's a clever and well-designed movie, and I commend them for not doing anything that looks like franchise-building. It feels like one story, told and concluded, and it's just refreshing to see that. Just how excited I was by that may have more to do with the landscape out there and less to do with this film in particular. Whatever the case, "Home" worked for me, and it's the kind of film I wish the studio made every time.
"Home" is in theaters now.