Sony Pictures via Everett Collection
There is a certain level of enjoyment you are guaranteed when signing on for a movie that boasts a cast of George Clooney, Matt Damon, John Goodman, and Bill Murray. And that's the precise level of enjoyment you'll get from The Monuments Men — that bare minimum smirk factor inherent the idea that your favorite stars are getting to play together. In FDR-era army helmets, no less. But what we also get from the film is an aura of smug self-confidence from project captain Clooney, who seems all too ready to take for granted that we're perfectly satisfied peering into his backyard clubhouse.
So assured is the director/co-writer that we're happy to be in on the game that there doesn't seem to be any effort taken to refine the product for the benefit of a viewing audience. An introductory speech from art historian Frank Stokes (Clooney) sets up the premise straight away: the Nazis are stealing and destroying all of Europe's paintings and sculptures, and by gum we need to stop them! The concept doesn't complicate from there, save for a batting back and forth of the throughline question about whether the preservation of these pieces is "really worth it." Stokes rallies his own Ocean's Seven on a fine arts rescue mission, instigating an old fashioned go-get-'em-boys montage where we learn everything we need to know about the band mates in question: Damon has a wife, Goodman has gumption, Murray doesn't smile, Bob Balaban is uppity, and Jean Dujardin is French.
The closest thing to a character in The Monuments Men comes in the form of Hugh Bonneville, a recovering alcoholic whose motivation to take on the dangerous mission is planted in a festering desire to absolve himself of a lifetime of f**king up. When we're away from Bonneville, the weight disspears, as does most of the joy. Without identifiable characters, even master funnymen like Goodman, Murray, and Balaban don't have much to offer... especially since the movie's jokes feel like first draft placeholders born on a tired night.
Sony Pictures via Everett Collection
But wait a minute, is this even supposed to be a comedy? After all, it's about World War II. And no matter what Alexandre Desplat's impossibly merry score would have you believe (coupled with The Lego Movie, this opening weekend might be responsible for more musical jubilance than any other since the days of "Make 'Em Laugh!"), warfare, genocide, and desecration of international culture all make for some pretty heavy material. But The Monuments Men's drama is just as fatigued as its humor, clumsily piecing together a collection of mini missions wherein the stakes, somehow, never seem to jump. We're dragged through military bases, battered towns, and salt mines by Clooney and the gang — occasionally jumping over to France to watch Damon work his least effective magic in years on an uptight Cate Blanchett, who holds the key to the scruffy American's mission but doesn't quite trust him... until, for no apparent reason, she suddenly does. We never feel like any of these people matter, not even to each other, so we never really feel like their adventures do.
The Monuments Men doesn't have much of a challenge ahead of it. Its heroes are movie stars, its bad guys are Nazis, and its message is one that nobody's going to refute: art is important — a maxim it pounds home with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, through countless scenes of men staring in awe at the works of Michelangelo and Rembrandt. And in this easy endeavor, Clooney decides to coast. How could it possibly go wrong? Just grab hold of the fellas, toss 'em in the trenches, and let the laughs and danger write themselves. "This is what they came to see," Monuments Men insists. "Just us guys havin' a ball." But we never feel in on the game, and it isn't one that looks like that much fun anyhow.
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It’s getting really hard to be a Disney kid these days. Don’t get me wrong, I still religiously see the movies they crank out and some of them still get to me (I legitimately shed a tear when Toy Story 3 was on in our offices the other day and it wasn’t my first viewing). I still get a little too nostalgic when I see commercials for Disneyland and no matter what my experience with the last two Pirates of the Caribbean movies was, I still hold out hope that this one will be better. I love Disney whole-heartedly, but if things are going to stay that way, they need to chill out on the theme-park-attraction-to-Disney-movie game plan.
Sure, it worked for Pirates; but that was an easy transition. They started with a simple boat ride through caves and pirate-infested waters and added Johnny Depp and it worked. Now they’re attempting to make it work (with a second try) for The Haunted Mansion, The Tiki Room, and The Jungle Cruise. I’m pretty sure a time will come when adventure rides like Space Mountain and Thunder Mountain breed tandem films, but there are some attractions that really, really, really need to stay nothing more than park attractions. Need I remind you what happened when they made The Country Bear Jamboree into a movie? Yeah, I know. I try not to think about it, too.
Disney, as a life-long fan, I beg of you, for the love of Mickey, please stop turning attractions into rides and if you must, dear God, don’t let it be these ones.
Attraction to movie mistake #1: Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln
What it’s like now: It’s a pretty building on Main Street where an animatronic Lincoln delivers speeches, but mostly it’s where tired moms and dads take their cranky toddlers to nap in a shady, air-conditioned space without enduring the constant temptations of churros and cotton candy.
How it would probably go: It’s Weekend at Bernie’s meets a less-terrifying version of Chucky. Two young dudes find a discarded Lincoln statue in a dumpster behind the movie theater where they work only to find that it’s actually animatronic and periodically spouts iconic Lincoln speeches. They end up carting him around town, pretending it’s their ailing uncle in hopes of impressing girls with their sensitivity, it all starts to go a little too well until Lincoln starts to show he’s got a mind of his own.
Attraction to movie mistake #2: Storybook Land
What it’s like now: It’s an adorable little boat ride that takes passengers through a maze of miniaturized versions of towns and sites from countless classic Disney movies.
How it would probably go: Storybook characters are all living happily ever after in their magical lands, but an evil sorcerer strips them of their homes when he miniaturizes them and their towns and transports them to his massive private island for his own amusement. A young hero emerges, probably aided by Merlin or Jiminy Cricket or some other magical person, and must break the spell before all the storybook creatures become permanent fixtures of the madman’s island. On second thought, this doesn’t sound that unlikely as a Mouse House movie. I’ll be waiting for my paycheck, Disney.
Attraction to movie mistake #3: The Mad Hatter Hat Shop
What it’s like now: It’s a lovely little cottage where kids can find every silly Mickey Mouse hat, princess crown, or Donald Duck-billed cap that Disney makes. It’s even got a bench out front that’s shaped like a teacup.
How it would probably go: This spinoff of the live-action version of Alice in Wonderland would find the Mad Hatter finally following his dreams, but not in Wonderland. He’s taking his mad style to a true shopping mecca: Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. But in his success, he steps on some touchy designer toes and they’re determined to get rid of him at any cost. Betsy Johnson is sure to make a cameo and utter the fashion equivalent of, “You go, girl.”
Attraction to Movie Mistake #4: Mark Twain’s River Boat
What it’s like now: It’s a big, white river boat just like many you’d find down in New Orleans. It’s a lovely, relaxing way to spend time at the park when your feet are getting a bit tired and it offers views of the Pirate’s Lair on Tom Sawyer Island.
How it would probably go: It’s a lovely summer day and a group of tourists is enjoying a routine Mississippi River boat ride when The Mark Twain is hijacked by a mad man and his band of brutes hell bent on crashing (the incredibly slow-moving) boat. But this is no ordinary river boat (except that it’s super slow and crashing it is harder than it looks). The magical boat actually conjures the spirit of the American writer, now armed and adventurous and together with a few brave passengers, they take down the evil tyrant and save the boat (which they’d have plenty of time to do, since the boat is so dreadfully slow).
Attraction to movie mistake #5: It’s a Small World
What it’s like now: Inside a giant, air-conditioned warehouse is an attraction that once debuted at the New York Worlds Fair. Since transported to Disneyland, these little, international puppets sing that oh-so addictive (and slightly terrifying) theme song over and over in different languages.
How it would probably go: A young, idealistic college freshman dreams of a world in which there are no wars, no rivalries, and all the world’s people coexist in absolute peace and harmony, that is, until she accidentally opens a portal to a world that promises that exact thing. In this alternate universe, there is absolute peace, but the people all resemble little dolls and sing all day long (which doesn’t get annoying at all). At first she thinks she’s found her Utopia, but she finds that even in Utopia, there is evil afoot. (The dolls are rightfully creepy. They may or may not try to kill her.)