By James Hancock April 21st, 2016
With a cast of extraordinary comedic talent and the promise of a wild, irreverent trip through the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles, I had very high hopes that Nerdland would be one of those rare animated films that breaks free from the confines of the family friendly content that dominates so much of what we see in animated movies today. Strictly speaking, Nerdland accomplishes this feat with a story overflowing with foul humor, over-the-top violence, bare breasts, close-ups of assholes, etc. all the things one would expect to see in an R-rated comedy. The problem is that in spite of the outrageous content on the surface of the story, the movie is not nearly as scandalous as it pretends to be. The reality is that Nerdland is an average, conventional story about slackers trying to make it in Hollywood with the occasional flare of humor that never quite succeeds at making the audience laugh out loud. The screenplay fails to take any genuine risks beyond a little gross out humor but even more troubling are the two central characters who, in spite of being voiced by Patton Oswalt and Paul Rudd, end up being the least interesting characters in the entire story. It is a shame really. As much as I enjoy seeing an animated film like Zootopia, I don’t want those kind of movies to be the only option out there for lovers of animation. I want insanely imaginative animated movies like those directed by Ralph Bakshi in the 1970s. In television, animation has been the driving force behind some of the best comedy and social satire of the last few decades but in film, for reasons that escape me, American animation rarely attempts anything other than predictable coming of age stories typically starring talking animals. My hope is that one day a wild animated film will come along and reinvent the existing model that Pixar and Dreamworks so religiously adhere to but for now Nerdland sadly is unlikely to be that movie.
What’s frustrating about Nerdland is that all the ingredients were there to make an amazing movie, all the ingredients except for a brilliant screenplay. The music is outstanding from start to finish, the animation has a distinctive unusual style, the cast includes phenomenal performers like Hannibal Buress, Riki Lindhome & Kate Micucci, even filmmaker Mike Judge. It all boils down to the story. Although the movie is called Nerdland, the central characters aren’t nerds at all, Elliot (Patton Oswalt) and John (Paul Rudd) are generic slackers who dream of stardom in Hollywood by any means necessary. When their screenwriting and acting careers don’t pan out, they vow to achieve fame within the day through a variety of scams including heroic deeds, getting beat up by cops and finally a murder spree. Nothing quite works out the way they expect it to and along the way the film misses every available opportunity to become an enjoyable satire about show business and our celebrity obsessed culture.
I should say that I applaud director Chris Prynoski and Titmouse Animation for at least making the effort at breaking some new ground in animation. They tried to give us something new that doesn’t look and sound like the majority of mainstream animated movies which is more than Disney and Dreamworks can lay claim to. I also absolutely loved seeing the comedy duo of Kate Micucci and Riki Lindhome playing the objects of Elliot and John’s affections. In the few scenes they have on screen I realized that a movie about the two of them would have been a far stronger, funnier movie. The main problem facing this movie is that on any given night, animated television shows like Archer take far more risks and generate far more laughs, which begs the question of what would motivate your typical animation fanatic to make the effort to see this in the theater. Nerdland is neither outrageous enough for maniacs who enjoy subversive entertainment nor is it mainstream enough to win over moviegoers who like and enjoy like Zootopia. The movie feels as if someone high up in the chain of command was tapping the brakes on concepts that were too out there in the erroneous belief that in doing so the movie would be more accessible. So I’m going to chalk this one up as a very well-intentioned missed opportunity that tried something bold and original, but failed to stick the landing. Tithouse Animation’s heart is clearly in the right place and if that studio ever gets its hands on a truly outrageous screenplay, something like Ralph Bakshi’s Coonskin (1975), they very well might reinvent the world of independent animation.
I am one of the Co-Hosts of Wrong Reel.