'Ice Age': Criticizing the Critics

Updated July 18 with Diablo Cody passage

By Robert Marich

   In reading many mixed reviews of Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, I asked myself what audience do the film critics purport to serve? It’s a marketing issue.  
   “Unlike such wise, witty Pixar Animation tales as Up and WALL-E,” goes an Associated Press review, “this one’s strictly a slapstick tale for the young ones, who will ooh and aah over all the adorable beasties, new and old.”
    The third Ice Age movie is a great slice of family entertainment that is fun to watch though admittedly is very conventional. But some critics dismiss it completely for simply being conventional—and dislike it because they think it will be a hit.
   “The movie is pleasant enough for kids and will surely play to large numbers of them during the summer: If 80% of success is showing up, the main component of box-office success is filling a need,” writes Wall Street Journal reviewer Joe Morgenstern. “…there’s also a sense of ineptness in a script that constantly reaches, with only modest success, for amusing things that the mammoths and their friends can do.”
   I think the demise of film critics at newspapers in recent years can be traced to their emphasis on very high brow. The newspaper and magazine critics tried to deliver another layer of discussion – the art—but often it came across as just self-conscious pabulum. The result is they didn’t connect with their audience and their bosses felt they were easily expendable when faced with a need to downsize staff.
      Let me add that I’m not advocating critics praise or pan a film simply based on its box office. Rather, reviewers should be enthusiastic about the conventional when the conventional is done very well, since it meets the information needs of their audience. Too often, critics seem to go out of their way to bash a well-done middle-of-the-road film.
   Certainly, trapsing through the world of high art instead is more fun. Hollywood talent is fond of calling themselves “artists” but in fact they are really craftsmen—skilled but essentially making repetitive creative products. Hollywood talent is more like a goldsmith or a violinist, and should not be confused with Rembrandt.  
   Perhaps the ultimate example of elitism came in a July column in Entertainment Weekly penned by Diablo Cody, who dissed mass appeal movies. In the same column, she put her own haute culture credentials on full display by praising end-of-year Oscar contention movies about “unhappy marriages or political situations.”
   “And finally, the less said about summer movies, the better,” Cody writes. “I appreciate a big, rowdy, bros-before-hos comedy as much as anyone, but I’m basically allergic to action franchises and ‘family’ fare.”
     I’m certain that Cody -- who makes a living as a screenwriter -- would not enjoy working in the diminished film industry that would result if action and family films suddenly went missing. They bring prosperity and that makes other genres possible.
    Commentators need to loosen up. Ice Age had a few great laugh-out-loud lines and audiences obviously appreciate the movie since it grossed a hefty $41 million in its opening three-day weekend. The signature mammoth character voiced by Ray Romano deadpans to another, “Sid, whatever you’re doing, it’s a bad idea.” In total, the movie was simple fun.
   The Weekly Standard commentary editor John Podhoretz had this telling anecdote in a May article about the decline of critics in media outlets. “There is a story told about a major American newspaper that was among the first to do a huge readership survey in the early 1980s,” wrote Podhoretz. “The survey cost several million dollars. And in those days, the editors expected to learn that their lead political columnist was the most popular in the paper, that people really followed the sports columnists, and that the area rose and fell with the opinions on the editorial page.”
   “To their absolute horror, what the editors discovered was this: No more than 5 percent of the readers looked at the editorials. The lead political columnist was one of the least-read. And the most popular item was ‘Walter Scott’s Personality Parade,’ a column of questions and answers about celebrities which appeared not in the newspaper itself but in Parade, the independently published Sunday supplement.”
   “And nobody, but nobody, knew the names of the critics. This was at a time when the paper in question had two movie critics, two theater critics, two television critics, two book critics, a dance critic, a rock critic, a classical music critic, and an architecture critic. It took the paper nearly three decades to get around to it, but the lead critics in all but one of these fields have taken buyouts and are not being replaced.”

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