From The Inside: Super 8 And What It Means For Amblin Entertainment

It’s hard to commit to writing a regular column for many writers who love (and write about) cinema. But occasionally members of the Inside Pulse Movies Staff have long form thoughts on film they want to share with you, our valued readers. Thus comes a new project from Inside Pulse Movies, “From the Inside,” where members of the movies staff sporadically share their thoughts on anything and everything related to film.

Elle Fanning having a really bad hair day.

This past weekend saw the release of Super 8, a nostalgic sci-fi trip populated by kids foremost and adults second. Directed by J.J. Abrams, a former showrunner for television programs Felicity and Alias, and writer for projects like Regarding Henry, Joy Ride and Armageddon. He also directed two films based on TV series with Mission: Impossible III and Star Trek. Now with his resume out of the way, let’s move on to his partner-in-crime with the production, a guy by the name of Steven Spielberg. You may have heard of him. He’s a director as well, and someone who carries the distinction of brand recognition.

When you think Spielberg, what movies pop into your head? Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jaws, Jurassic Park. Maybe even Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List – part of his prestige lineup of feature films. Outside of films he’s directed, Spielberg’s biggest impact has been in the production arena, namely with his company Amblin Entertainment.

Named after the director’s student film Amblin’, at one time the production house carried the same weight as a company that Pixar carries today. Success was hard to achieve early on. In 1985, Amblin had a pair of theatrical releases that would continue to entertain audiences decades later, that of Back to the Future and The Goonies. But its foray into television with Amazing Stories on NBC was a financial setback. The anthology series, even with some of Hollywood’s best talents behind the camera helming the episodes (Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorsese, Robert Zemeckis, Joe Dante, and Tobe Hooper among others), could only make a dent in the ratings and failed at taking viewers away from mystery writer/amateur detective Jessica Fletcher on Murder, She Wrote.

Logo features the silhouette of E.T. riding in the basket on Elliott’s bicycle.

Even with trial and error, Amblin Entertainment would go on to produce some of the most successful films of not just the 1980s but in movie history. From Spielberg’s own films (Raiders, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and E.T.) to Gremlins and Back to the Future. Then you have something like Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, a film that I believe truly embraces the mythos of Amblin Entertainment in its mixture of film noir and cartoons. The main character, Eddie Valiant, a washed-up private investigator who has a love affair with the bottle, takes a case where it involves snapping a few dirty pictures of a cartoon producer (human) engaged in the act of hanky-panky – or in this case, a game of Patty Cake – with a female entertainer (cartoon). A mixture of two worlds with Eddie Valiant in the middle, doing the job because he needs the money but not real big on ‘toons. And in some way, that’s how a lot of Hollywood is today. Families going to movies where only the kids have a good time. Adults are left counting the second hand on their watches, or sneaking a glimpse of the indigo glow of their digital watches. Before Pixar came along, Amblin Entertainment was that happy medium of features directed at children that adults could enjoy. That’s why you have features like Harry and the Hendersons, Arachnophobia and Hook.

Amblin Entertainment would go on to have its biggest success in 1994 with a pair of Steven Spielberg features. The first is Jurassic Park. Based on Michael Crichton’s bestselling novel about cloned dinosaurs in a theme park setting. The other is Schindler’s List, a black-and-white drama about the Holocaust. The first saw revolutionary special effects from Stan Winston and Phil Tippett. The second was another prestige picture from Spielberg that saw him finally get an Oscar for Best Director. (Note: the Amblin logo does not appear on Schindler’s List or Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, which also had Amblin as a production partner.)

In 1995, after the releases of Little Giants, Casper and Balto, there was a shift in Amblin’s output. In late October 1994, Spielberg, along with Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen, started DreamWorks, a new studio outfit that placed an emphasis on film, TV and video game properties. Spielberg still had Amblin, but a number of the new productions would either be Spielberg’s own films or favors for friends (like Joe Dante’s Small Soldiers). To be honest, the only project that had Amblin attached as a studio producing that actually felt like an Amblin release would come more than a decade later, in 2006, with the release of Monster House. Again it goes back to having kids in the forefront with adults as secondary characters. That was Amblin early on before it lost that focus in the mid-’90s.

So what changed? You could point fingers at Hollywood’s lack of creativity. You could also point fingers at the audience. The marketplace has changed, and not necessarily for the better.

There’s been a serious drought in features where kids are being heroic. Instead, kids typically are secondary characters. Ever see The Mummy Returns and The Legend of Zorro? Those franchises added children in the sequels as a way to attract young eyes to their respective franchises. And both suffered as a result. Robert Rodriguez created an entire series around children with Spy Kids. Regardless of their quality, at least he made an attempt at having kids be the heroic protagonists. (Eight years after Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over, Rodriguez tries to reboot the franchise with Spy Kids: All the Time in the World, opening on August 19, 2011.)

Rowan Blanchard and Mason Cook are the new kids on the block in Spy Kids: All the Time in the World.

But getting back to Super 8 and Amblin Entertainment. J.J. Abrams’ third feature prominently displayed the classic Amblin logo in its advertisements. While it was Abrams paying homage to Spielberg and Amblin’s early years, it may also signal a resurgence in the company that early on didn’t shrink at the idea of headlining its features with child actors. Populated with six young actors, all under the age of sixteen, the film has had a fairly positive response, even if the story is just an extenuation of Spielberg’s earlier works. And while it is fun escapism, you have to wonder if more studios will have the courage to have one of its mid-minor blockbuster releases (in the $40 million to $60 million range) star mostly young unproven talents. Could the early success of Super 8 cause such a resurgence? Maybe not in the immediate future with the exception of the Christmas release of The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn.

The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn opens December 23, 2011.

Steven Spielberg’s first foray into the world of animation, Tintin is a performance capture 3D film based on a series of comic books created by Belgian artist Georges “Hergé” Remi. Though it may not feature child actors in a live-action setting, it does have the spirit of Amblin. Tintin is a young reporter who is described as having a “lack of depth” and being “bland.” Spielberg became a fan of the series after the release of Raiders of the Lost Ark when someone told him that the adventure was reminiscent of the adventures that Tintin and his dog Snowy would get into. Full of boy-scout ideals, Tintin is at times absent-minded but apparently is very well read when it comes to foreign languages and can drive a wide assortment of vehicles (cars, motorcycles, tanks). And he’s pretty strong for his age too, able to take on enemies that are much larger and stronger than him. But even with smarts and brawn, good luck is his saving grace when avoiding peril. Just like a kid, thinking he’s invincible until he’s gets in over his head.

In relation to Tintin is a British film called Attack the Block. Joe Cornish who was one of the screenwriters on Tintin (along with Edgar Wright of Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World fame) wrote and directed Block and it is every much as an Amblin-inspired release as Super 8. Maybe more so. Though instead of taking his cues from Spielberg, Cornish looks to Joe Dante and the his comedy Gremlins. Having seen it at an early screening, it is definitely a gem to the genre. A little more adult-oriented in terms of language and carnage, it may only be appreciated by the thirteen and older crowd. Look for it to get a wider release this fall.

So there you have it: a brief history of Amblin Entertainment from its humble beginnings to it being missing in action to it finding new life thanks to J.J. Abrams and Super 8. While there is potential for an Amblin Entertainment resurgence – Super 8‘s opening is proof of this – for my money The Adventures of Tintin looks to be the better vehicle to see if audiences can handle escapism with a teenager in charge (albeit an animated one) and not some adult.

Do you think Amblin Entertainment can return to its glory days? And do you think films like Super 8 and The Adventures of Tintin will rekindle interest in the idea of kids being heroic in movies?

Tags: , , , , , , , ,