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What Went Wrong? Vol. 20
December 3, 2012Posted by on
In last week’s installment of our regular What Went Wrong? feature here at the Culture Cast blog, I wrote on two wildly different movies on the opposite end of the critical spectrum. Red Dawn, it seems, will follow the trajectory I laid out for it at the box office, while Silver Linings Playbook may end up overcoming the odds against it (odds stacked by its own distribution company no less) and wind up a modest commercial success just yet. The film I’m going to document today is more like Red Dawn, in that it was a fairly established box office disaster remade from an earlier product. Let’s get to it!
Land of the Lost (2009)
The summer of 2009 seemed kind to comedies on the surface, but that’s only because The Hangover did massive box office numbers when it was released in June of that year. Pretty much every other summer comedy film (Year One, Funny People, Land of the Lost) ended up being a box office loser. Even modest hits like Night at the Museum 2 (a good companion piece to Land of the Lost actually) saw diminishing critical and commercial success that year. Despite these misfires, the summer of 2009 was fairly strong over all, and will be remembered for films like Up, Star Trek, and District 13 which were all massive hits for their respective studios. I like each of those films just fine, but since this is a column about failure, I’m contractually obligated to write about Land of the Lost, which was perhaps the biggest money-loser of the summer.
Land of the Lost was based on the kitschy children’s television show of the early 1970s (which was then re-made into a Saturday morning children’s program starring Timothy Bottoms in the early 90s). Developed by Sid and Marty Krofft, the Canadian duo responsible for such terrors as H.R. Pufnstuf, Land of the Lost is the story of Dr. Rick Marshall and company, who are exiled to a land resembling prehistoric times on earth (complete with dinosaurs and such). The big budget Hollywood film adaptation largely keeps the surface stuff in while simultaneously eschewing the cheapness and kitsch factor of the original. Featuring a well-cast Will Ferrell as Marshall, the movie version sees our hero, joined by a British doctoral student played by Anna Friel and a back-country tour guide played by the always welcomed Danny McBride, whisked away to an alternate dimension courtesy of a “tachyon” device (which Ferrell constructed and which is never adequately explained) where the three must face off against the villainous Sleestaks as well as dinosaurs and various other sinister creatures roaming the alternate prehistoric countryside.
Universal seemingly spared no expense in the production. Poised as a big summer event film, Land of the Lost was directed by Brad Silberling with a script from frequent Ferrell collaborator Chris Henchy. Budgeted at a ludicrous 100 million dollars (approximately five billion times what the 70s TV series cost, I imagine), Land of the Lost opened to absolutely disastrous reviews and extraordinarily weak box office numbers, particularly for a summer Ferrell movie. Ferrell had seen success the past few years with hits like Step Brothers, Talladega Nights, and Anchorman. He had also fared well in family comedies like Elf, which was a smash hit for New Line Cinema and essentially Ferrell’s first big commercial hit. Land of the Lost wound up grossing a scant 69 million dollars worldwide. So, what exactly went wrong?
Despite character similarities, Land of the Lost is a remake almost in name only. Yes, Ferrell plays Dr. Rick Marshall, a paleontologist who winds up in an alternate dimension populated by dinosaurs; that much is true. However, the film itself definitely doesn’t fit the mold for what a remake entails. The film uses the Land of the Lost name as merely a reference point for a series of increasingly dumb jokes, riffing on the cheesiness of the 70s original while delivering rapid-fire quips (some of which actually land hilariously), gross sight-gags (most of which do not land hilariously), and the occasional reference to some form of outdated pop culture (A Chorus Line, Hummer-brand vehicles, etc). Land of the Lost isn’t like Dawn of the Dead (2004), The Karate Kid (2010), Footloose (2011), or even Red Dawn (2012). The film could still conceivably exist without the existence of the property it is based on. Sid and Marty Krofft’s “beloved” children’s television show is merely a vessel for crude jokes and one-liners – not that there’s anything wrong with that (if the jokes work, that is). Unfortunately for Land of the Lost, audiences soundly rejected this.
It doesn’t help that nearly every advertisement I ever saw for this movie made it seem like a kid’s film. Surprisingly, however, Land of the Lost is rated PG-13, and gets good mileage out of its more ribald rating. Danny McBride is particularly raunchy, making lewd comments and gestures throughout the film. There are even a few gross-out scenes which stretch the PG-13 limit considerably, many of which include the film’s version of Jar Jar Binks, the ape-like Cha-Ka (a creepy Jorma Taccone). Cha-Ka may have conceptually been a fine character (though probably not) but on screen he just doesn’t work. Children’s films aren’t immune to coarse potty humor and gross-out gags (see: the Shrek film series). They just don’t usually contain them in the way that Land of the Lost does. A gigantic mosquito sucking blood from Will Ferrell’s back is a good sight gag, just probably not for what many thought would be a fairly neutered children’s comedy. Additionally, Ferrell burn-out hit around the time Land of the Lost debuted. His previous summer film, Step Brothers, while a hundred million dollar grosser, did not seemed to be as beloved as some of his earlier, more commercial properties. Like Seth Rogen during the same time period, Ferrell just kind of wore out his welcome for about a year or so.
Land of the Lost is certainly an odd film. What’s ultimately funny to me is that it seems like Ferrell and company are just basically screwing around with a hundred million dollar summer tent-pole film. It is almost as if they’re making it this way on purpose. The constant references to A Chorus Line, for example, have to be almost deliberate. Chris Henchy’s writing in particular feels as if it’s coming out of a different Ferrell vehicle altogether (in a good way). It should be noted that director Brad Silberling hasn’t made a film since Land of the Lost, so someone at least paid career-wise for the disaster this movie turned out to be. I can’t imagine Universal giving the keys to the car to this group ever again. Thing is, I don’t really think that the end product is that bad of a movie. It definitely wasn’t my intention to damn Land of the Lost with faint praise when I decided to write about it for this column, but I found a lot of its stupid comedy to be actually quite smart. Again, critics and audiences vastly and obviously disagree. In the end, Land of the Lost ended up as one of the biggest flops of 2009 – unfairly so says I.