Name the last great puppet show you saw.
And I’m not talking about “Avenue Q” or “Hand to God” or the various Muppet movies or anything else in which the idea of the puppet is as much a part of the joke as anything else.
No, I’m talking about an edge-of-the-seat puppet adventure that feels like a white-knuckle thrill ride.
Yeah, me neither.
Which is why I remain mystified by the generally positive reception accorded “Jurassic World” last week. I found it lackluster — like a bloated rehash of the first film, minus the sense of amazement and despite the difference that 20-plus years means in the technology producing the images. The 70-percent-Fresh rating it received on Rotten Tomatoes included many half-hearted, hold-your-nose reviews that wound up in the Fresh column because the system offers no middle ground.
As I thought about why I felt less than fully engaged, it finally came to me:
The climactic scene features a battle between very large dinosaurs while the puny humans cower at the edge of the frame and, occasionally, in close-up.
Except that the dinosaurs are computer-generated fictions, without character or personality beyond whatever lazy stab the writers made at anthropomorphizing them as good or evil.
Here’s the thing: I don’t care about who wins in a battle to the death between two CG monsters.
I might as well be watching exceptionally well-crafted puppets battle each other. Which, in essence, is what I’m doing.
Instead of having a hand inside the puppet to control it or to manipulate its strings, the puppeteer is a guy in a dark room somewhere, sitting in front of a computer screen. Is he the director of the film or the technician inputting the code and wielding the mouse? Does it matter?
I don’t care if it’s Godzilla or King Kong, it’s hard to get excited about nonverbal puppets battling each other as the climax of a movie.
Obviously, movies are about creating illusions. I’m not suggesting I want to believe movies literally.
I’m saying there has to be something more than a meticulously detailed creature – there also has to be an emotional level, a human level if you will.
That’s why I struggle to stifle a yawn watching the Hulk battling robots in “Age of Ultron” or the ending of any “Transformers” movie that features giant CG robots having fistfights.
Yet I was caught up in Guillermo del Toro’s “Pacific Rim” because those robotic fighting machines were operated from inside by human characters you cared about. Seth McFarlane’s Ted is a CG creation – but he has a personality, a story, some depth beyond the urge to destroy cities and mangle humans.
We live in the era where the mega-million puppet-show movie is king. Most movies the size of “Jurassic World” – and it seems the studios only want to push out these oversized, pre-sold sequels, remakes and TV shows – don’t care about making any sort of human connection. Humans are there to give the special effects something to mess with.
There’s a 1969 animated short, “Bambi Meets Godzilla,” which spends most of its 90-second running time watching an animated fawn graze on a patch of grass while the credits roll. Then a giant reptile foot stomps Bambi flat. The end. It is virtually the entire idea of “Jurassic World,” encapsulated with breath-taking precision.
We are a nation of crows, attracted to whatever shiny bauble the media universe has the money to place in front of us, from “San Andreas” to “Jurassic World” and beyond.
Or perhaps a nation of children, eager for whatever the next puppet show might be.