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Courtesy of Sony Pictures

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December 14, 2016

GOULDTHORPE | What’s In a Teaser?

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In the strong professional and career-centric atmosphere here at Cornell University, one piece of wisdom has become common knowledge: first impressions matter. Anyone who’s walked into career services, trained for interviews or opened a self-help book on the topic can tell you that. First impressions are important for impressing those internship recruiters, and also for winning over audiences.  Hundreds of films come out every year; every single one has to sell itself to us.  Their first impressions matter so very much, and they usually come in the form of teaser trailers. Teasers carry more weight than other promotional items, in my opinion, for this exact reason. Animated film teasers carry even more on their shoulders: besides presenting a brief story hook, and perhaps some soundtrack, they have to prove that the animators did their jobs well. The past couple of weeks have seen some interesting teasers, and I want to use them to unpack just how much these short previews can tell us.

First of all, I gotta catch up to the crowd and talk about the Cars 3 teaser. Like many others, I was not too thrilled about the third entry of the Cars franchise. I don’t necessarily view Cars 2 as a “bad” movie, but it is certainly Pixar’s weakest work. I didn’t see any real need to return to the universe or continue the story, and as much as I love Disney, I cynically chalked it up to a need to sell more toys.

Then they dropped this teaser.

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Courtesy of Pixar Animation Studios

And boy, did the Internet explode! Videos scream with titles like “Cars 3 – Too Adult For Pixar?” and “Is CARS 3 a DARK SEQUEL?” Social media is flooded with jokes revolving around a scheming John Lasseter (“Please John just kill the Cars franchise… wait, no NOT LIKE THAT PLEASE —” ).  Cutting through the clickbait and the humor, we can be assured that Lightning McQueen is not actually going to be killed. At the same time, concerns that it’s merely a dream sequence seem unfounded: the synopsis given with the teaser states that the injured Lightning McQueen has been “blindsided by a new generation of blazing-fast racers” and “is suddenly pushed out of the sport he loves.” So something dramatic is going to hit McQueen for sure.  So, why is this teaser so shocking that it’s driving people to disbelief? Probably the greatest shock stems from the fact that this is a Cars movie! The first was an inoffensive movie, plenty of charm but very much a G-rated feature that’s noticeably tamer and less profound than some of Pixar’s other fare. Cars 2 carried a “James Bond for kids” kind of vibe to it, silly and fun but certainly not of the usual Pixar caliber. And so we figured Cars 3 would continue that trajectory. Honestly, if this were an entirely original movie, we would not be nearly as shocked.  And to be honest, I’m actually glad this teaser came out about the time I could do this column, because it is perhaps the most successful teaser ever. Most other trailers face an ambivalent audience, with few preconceptions about the movie. Cars 3 had a strong backlash already, with many writing it off as unnecessary and sub-par. I have to admit, I fell into this trap too. But in forty-nine seconds, Pixar has transformed the entire atmosphere around the movie.  Look at the muted color palette, it’s like DC Comics took over! Notice how no faces are shown, nothing too humanizing or comforting. And finally, the beautiful effects of embers, sparks and twisted metal flying by the screen. The technical visuals look remarkable, and we may have an exceptional story to go with it. So again, fantastic teaser that will sit me in the theater on June 16!

Now, two other trailers have dropped in the past week that I will… not be so kind to. This next trailer comes from Brazil, the first teaser for Pica-Pau, a new iteration on Woody Woodpecker. For those not in the know, Woody Woodpecker is an iconic cartoon character dating from 1940, although he didn’t hit the big-time as well as Mickey or Bugs did. You can see one of his shorts, “Pantry Panic”, for free in the public domain. Over the years he’s seen different interpretations, and now he’s getting another one. At the moment, it’s unclear whether Pica-Pau will see an English translation; Brazil apparently has a stronger affinity for Woody Woodpecker than the United States.  Truth be told, from what we’ve seen, I don’t want an English translation.

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Courtesy of Universal Pictures Brazil

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Courtesy of Universal Pictures Brazil

With this kind of animation, Woody looks like he belongs back in the aughts! I get that companies are trying to capitalize on nostalgia by bringing CG characters into a real-world setting so they can wreak their wacky hijinks on all. We’ve seen that with Alvin and the Chipmunks in 2007, Yogi Bear in 2010, The Smurfs in 2011, and so on.  Except, here’s an industry secret that I’ll share with you: these movies were all TERRIBLE! Woody’s animation isn’t even that good, and it’s very clear he’s not supposed to be in this world.  Perhaps the most telling feature of this teaser, however, is the fact that Universal didn’t even bother to give us an HD trailer. If Pica-Pau is only worth a 480p teaser in 2016, that does not bode well for their attitude towards the film. If they don’t care, why should we?

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Courtesy of Sony Pictures

And finally, the last teaser I want to examine, Surf’s Up 2: Wavemania. It’s been a few years since I last saw Surf’s Up, and to be honest I don’t remember it very well. But from what I can refresh, it’s a decent movie that tried some interesting stuff with its visuals, trying to replicate a handheld-shot documentary. I’m not sure if there was a fanbase clamoring for a sequel, but we’re getting one direct-to-DVD, and… it doesn’t look impressive.  I’ve watched it five times, and I cannot tell you what happens, because very little does happen. Apparently, they’re rehashing the “falling for an idol” plot from the first movie (and many others), but bogged down with empty buzzwords. “My one big chance…” “…ultimate challenge…” I think they’re going to some new place with new people? The harder I rack my brain, the less I seem to recall. Plus, the animation looks like it belongs back in 2000. I know it’s direct-to-DVD, and I know the bar has to be lowered, but usually I can glean something from the teasers. One half-decent joke, one bit of animation, anything! Sony has given us nothing in this teaser. It’s a shame, the studio desperately needs to hit upon something good. Alas, it won’t be found here.

Now, are my judgments here set in stone? No, of course not. Am I guaranteed to be accurate? Heavens, no! This February, I was certain that Zootopia would be average at best, and Batman v Superman would be fantastic. First impressions may deceive us, as much in movies as in social interactions. One may even say it’s unfair to judge a film based only on its teaser, and I would agree. But the reality is, that first impression makes so much impact. Once those initial opinions are formed, they’re very hard to fight against. A bad teaser can turn off thousands of people from sitting in the theater, and cost hundreds of millions of dollars down the line.  So what’s in a teaser? Possibly the very fate of a movie.

David Gouldthorpe is a junior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at dgouldthorpe@cornellsun.com. His column Animation Analysisruns alternate Tuesdays online this semester.

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