DreamWorks Animation, as a company, is poised at a precarious juncture. The animation studio, founded by former Disney exec Jeffrey Katzenberg and, at one point, a genuine challenger to their throne, has been crippled by a string of financial disappointments which have led to a dramatic corporate restructuring, consolidation of efforts. There is talk that, if things continue like they have, insolvency by 2019 will ensue. Last year DWA released three movies. This year, they’re releasing one – “Home.” This was a film that was supposed to open last fall, but at the last minute Katzenberg swapped its release with “The Penguins of Madagascar,” hungry for a fourth quarter smash. That didn’t happen and now, justly or not, “Home” carries the weight of an entire studio on its back. But if DreamWorks Animation is hoping to get back on track with this movie, a lavish sci-fi comedy based on a recent children’s book, they’re pretty much doomed.
Almost from the opening seconds of “Home,” you get the feeling that things are amiss. The central plot, a loose adaptation of “The True Meaning of Smekday” by Adam Rex, concerns a group of aliens called the Boov who are looking for a new home. They’re squishy and cuddly and totally clueless and when they land on earth, they think they’ve found their new home. It’s just, you know, there are tons of people there, too. So the aliens round up humanity and stick them all on Australia. The first act of the movie follows Oh (Jim Parsons), a hapless Boov who stumbles upon Tip (Rihanna), a human who has somehow escaped relocation; together the two search for her missing mother Lucy (Jennifer Lopez) and learn a thing or two about each other.
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Now, there are some things that are inherently wrong about this set-up. First off, no matter how cute the aliens are (and they really are – they look like gummy tree frogs and are the color of grape soda), they’re inherently villainous and unlikable. They took over Earth and shoved the entire human race into Australia, a country known more for its poisonous spiders than hospitable environments. And what’s worse, director Tim Johnson (a DreamWorks Animation vet who has been with the studio since their first release “Antz“), asks you to compassionately care about one of the aliens. It just doesn’t work.
Secondly, Oh is insanely annoying – and from a narrative standpoint makes very little sense. There’s a running joke that he’s called Oh because the other aliens dismissively utter “Oh…” every time he pops up. And after that initial act, where he’s basically the only character on screen, it’s hard not to sympathize with those aliens that wanted nothing to do with him. Parsons’ voice is grating and Oh speaks in a weird pidgin dialect that is almost instantly recognizable as being Jar Jar-like. The other defining characteristic of Oh is that he’s a fuck up. He doesn’t fit in because he always makes a mess of things, which is part of the reason he was able to bond with a marooned human. But at some point the narrative momentum runs out (we’d argue that this happened about five minutes after the movie started, but hey), so Oh is called upon to retrofit an Earth car with all of these fantastical, futuristic gadgets that he’s cribbed from a local convenience store. How does he do this? Why isn’t he seen as a genius scientist to his native people? Like the rest of “Home,” it makes no sense whatsoever.
This kind of otherworldly friendship dynamic is something that has been successfully attempted in the past, most notably with “E.T.” and is uniquely suited to animated features (“The Iron Giant” and “Lilo & Stitch” immediately come to mind). But these movies require a delicate touch, and for a number of specific elements to be in place, and “Home” just doesn’t get the formula right. It’s all over the place, tonally, with a number of DreamWorks Animation hallmarks, including crude bathroom humor, reinforcement of tired gender tropes, and pop culture ephemera (this time, a fixation on EDM-influenced pop music), colliding into one another loudly, instead of synthesizing smoothly. At one point it was announced that Rihanna, whose vocal performance is nearly robotic, would have an entire album’s worth of material based on the film. That ambitious plan didn’t pan out and instead we’re left with three songs that barely pass as B-side curiosities, augmented by other, lesser pop songs and a dubstep-inspired score by Lorne Balfe and Norwegian producing team Stargate. That should make it pretty clear how much of a staggering miscalculation “Home” is.
If there’s one ray of sunshine in this rather dreary production (save for a jaw-dropping and undoubtedly expensive sequence involving oversized bubbles), it’s Steve Martin, who plays the leader of the Boov, Captain Smek. Martin’s elastic vocal performance is more impressive than any bit of animation in the film and his ability to craft a fully formed character, both hugely optimistic and wildly misguided, is something that deserves attention and respect, especially given how little is going on in “Home.” Every time Martin’s character appears on screen, a mustache of little tentacles hovering above his lip, “Home” is enlivened and given the heart and complexity it so desperately lacks elsewhere (the main emotional thrust of the movie is a nonstarter). Sadly Martin’s role is little more than an oversized cameo and the rest of “Home” is not the kind of place you want to stay for very long. This is not the hit film that DreamWorks Animation was hoping for; if anything it will only signal more trouble for the studio. Hopefully they’ll get back on their feet but “Home” certainly isn’t going to help accomplish that. [D]