Sometimes, words are justworthless. That’s a tough truth for a writer to admit: If it weren’t for words, I’d be out of a job, and you’d be picking up this paper just to ogle the massage ads (maybe you already are). But even the most loquacious lexis lover must concede that images can speak louder than a thousand words.
The importance of imagery was vividly illustrated at a few openings this past week. First up was a visit to the Orlando Science Center for a preview of their new large-format film. Sea Monsters: A Prehistoric Adventure is a 40-minute National Geographic documentary from producers Lisa Truitt and Jini Durr, who were behind the enjoyable Roar: Lions of the Kalahari (Live Active Cultures, March 20). Like that film, Sea Monsters was originally intended for IMAX 3-D theaters. OSC hasn’t yet upgraded their equipment, which is probably just as well; there’s enough visual overload in 2-D on the giant dome screen.
Despite what the title implies, there are no Loch Ness nightmares or flesh-hungry Frankenfish to be found here – only an engaging and educational exploration of ancient undersea life. Actor Liev Schreiber’s narration is largely unobtrusive; the real stars are the family of dolichorhynchops, or “dollies,” dolphin-sized fish that once filled the “Western Inland Sea” that submerged the American Midwest 80 million years ago (much as it does today). These creatures, as resurrected through top-quality CGI, are cute enough to be compelling without the over-anthropomorphizing that slightly marred Roar. Sequences depicting the dollies’ primal struggle for survival amid predators like the toothy tylosaurus have plenty of natural drama. Director Sean Phillips is less successful with his human actors, who appear in fossil-finding “re-enactment” scenes comprising cheesy performances and CSI-style ADHD editing. As long as it lets the silvery schools and luminous jellyfish do the talking, Sea Monsters is a superior swim.
Perhaps no American artist was better at telling a story through illustration than Norman Rockwell, subject of OSC’s latest large exhibit, Rockwell’s America (through Oct. 15). Closely following the Orlando Museum of Art’s excellent American Chronicles: The Art of Norman Rockwell display that closed May 26, OSC offers the opportunity to “step through the frame” into a few of his best-loved Saturday Evening Post covers. After a brief pre-show video, patrons enter a re-creation of Rockwell’s studio, followed by a series of theatrical settings drawn from his iconic imagery. The vignettes include an early electronics shop, an old-fashioned switchboard, a one-room schoolhouse and a classic soda fountain – all appointed with interesting trivia and interactive doodads that illuminate the socio-historical context. (The rotary-dial phones were particularly foreign to youngsters in attendance.)
There’s a wealth of detail in the environments, and the staff is attentive and enthusiastic, so it’s a shame that the featured figures are such a disappointment. The static sculptures in this traveling exhibit have seen too many miles without TLC paint touchups; at their best, they are fairly fugly and fail to capture the humanity that was Rockwell’s hallmark. My complaint is counterbalanced by the quality of the rest of the exhibit, and few in the target audience will be bothered by any aesthetic anomalies. OSC CEO Brian Tonner recently announced his Aug. 1 resignation, but he’s clearly left the museum pointing in the right direction.
The best argument against oratory for this week is Wall-E, the latest digitally animated wonder from Pixar. In the distant future, Earth is a polluted wasteland devoid of organic life. Humans lounge on an interstellar cruise ship, having devolved into boneless blobs incapable of walking without hoverbeds or communicating without computers. Mega-conglomerate “Buy N Large” assures the porcine population they’ll head home as soon as the reclamation robots finish tidying up, encouraging senseless shopping in the interval. If you’ve visited a Wal-Mart lately, you know the only part of this scenario that’s unlikely is that it takes 700 years to get there – 70 sounds more like it.
Enter Wall-E, a trash compactor on tiny tank treads, endlessly stacking skyscrapers of cubed crap. With a Twinkie-loving roach as his only companion, Wall-E scavenges cultural detritus – Rubik’s Cubes, sporks and singing bass – like a post-apocalyptic visionary folk artist. He dances to an ancient VHS of Hello, Dolly!, weaves drunkenly when his solar charge runs low and defines himself as the most delightful lead character of the summer movie season without saying a word. There is virtually no dialogue in the film’s opening third and not much more in the remainder. That’s a breathtakingly ballsy move, especially for a “kids” film, but it pays off big-time. By the time Wall-E encountered Eve, the iPod-esque fembot that he romantically pursues with Chaplin-like determination, I was sold: He had me before “Hello.”
There are familiar voices in the film – Jeff Garlin, Kathy Najimy, perennial Pixar good-luck charm John Ratzenberger – but the best acting comes from director Andrew Stanton and his animators, with a big assist from Star Wars sound genius Ben Burtt. Together they’ve breathed life into a character that is as endearing and enduring as R2-D2 and E.T. combined. Add Thomas Newman’s witty and romantic score, richly textured visuals that defy dull CGI convention (Coen brothers’ cinematographer Roger Deakins consulted) and a shockingly subversive anti-consumerist theme, and you’ve got a great movie for any age. If only the action-oriented third act didn’t feel slightly formulaic, Wall-E might have displaced the peerless Toy Story 2 as my favorite Pixar film.
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