In his 2008 review of the movie Speed Racer, the New Yorker‘s Anthony Lane saw a disturbing implication in the picture’s digitized ecstasies: “There’s something about the ululating crowds who line the action in color-coordinated rows; the desperate skirting of ordinary feelings in favor of the trumped-up variety; the confidence in technology as a spectacle in itself; and, above, all, the sense of master manipulators posing as champions of the little people,” he wrote. “What does that remind you of? You could call it entertainment, and use it to wow your children for a couple of hours. To me, it felt like Pop fascism, and I would keep them well away.”
Lane’s judgement was accurate. To see a subtle oppression lurking in commercial culture is hardly new, and given the choice I’d prefer to be in an air-conditioned movie theater rather than the ruins of Stalingrad or the showers of Auschwitz. But a trip to the multiplex these days is like a descent into Triumph of the Will as Jim Henson might have envisioned it: Wagnerian production values and Wehrmachts of technicians put in service of lightweight dazzle and diversion. The Smurfs 2, to which I was recently subject, offers all the staple elements of CGI-heavy family entertainment in the wake of Toy Story, Shrek, and their innumerable sequels: it celebrates the intimate values of friendship with a corporatized production credited to no less than five screenwriters and a small metropolis of animators and special effects personnel; the Smurfs’ home is a pre-industrial idyll, yet they speak in the meta-ironic inflections of contemporary southern California; the movie uses well-known pop songs to punctuate the action and serve as ready-made promo clips; it has the requisite attempts at “adult” asides in between the slapstick set pieces; and its cast includes big-name actors, some of whom may once have aspired to roles in Shakespeare or Chekov, to play as or alongside cartoons. The last time I witnessed such excitement, adventure, and invention as I saw in The Smurfs 2 was during Operation Shock and Awe, which premiered in Iraq in 2003.
The relentless, suffocating visual ingenuity of The Smurfs 2, of course, has been fundamental to the Hollywood aesthetic since the industry began. Movies have always been a mass medium, in which the largest feasible talent pools are organized in quest of the largest possible audiences. But by now this McCinema quality – where the digital bells and whistles matter more than the story and dialogue, and where the marketing dictates the content rather than the other way around – is particularly blatant. The old Tex Avery or Chuck Jones shorts were themselves stuffed with hyperactive mayhem, but they only lasted a few minutes, and they remained recognizably the products of one man’s creativity. Now, however, every frame of an hour-and-a-half feature film like The Smurfs 2 has been vetted by committees of gag writers, in consultation with various sub-departments of design specialists, social media savants, publicity agents, and graphic artists. At the heart of The Smurfs 2 is not a plot, a message, or least of all the simplicity of the original comic figures, but a network of contractual agreements.
What does this portend? As the technology to watch movies – and to make them – becomes increasingly cheaper and more accessible to average consumers around the globe, the major studios have had to devise productions whose sheer scale and volume are beyond anything on Youtube and whose budgets are greater than those of some European nations. The result is the proliferation of gargantuan releases built upon the flimsiest of foundations: fairy tales, cartoon characters, video games, and the single joke or high concept of a Los Angeles financier. This is the industry’s bleak future: a procession of pea-brained, dinosauric blockbusters, playing as coherently in China and India as in Iowa and Ontario, meticulously crafted to blow the minds of six-year-olds of all ages, dragging billions of deafened, slack-jawed, glaze-eyed, soul-benumbed theatergoers in their wake. And led by a Smurf.