This summer, theaters were graced with Battleship, a movie based on the classic board game. While this crazy adaptation didn't work out so well, it hasn't stopped Hollywood from pursuing other silly ideas, including Ouija boards and Tonka Trucks. We’ve seen strange movies come and go, and sometimes those odd premises pay off in ways we just didn’t expect. They might not all be critical successes, but they will at the very least become cult classics.
So before we write off all these movie premises as Hollywood running out of ideas (again) let’s look at some other movies that had people scratching their heads until they saw the finished copy.
The Premise: A movie based on the board game Clue
Why it was silly: It’s a movie based on a board game. How could it possibly be any good?
Why it worked: Because it was less about the mystery (who killed Mister Boddy?) and more about the characters. Each one was quirky, funny, and played brilliantly by the cast. From Tim Curry to the late, still great Madeline Khan, we got over the top performances in what is really a murder-mystery farce. If you think of the movie as more of a play, a satirical send-up of traditional mysteries, then you’ll see why this movie works.
The best part about Clue, when it came out, was the fact that there were three different endings to the movie, and you had to see it multiple times if you wanted to see all the endings. Theaters advertised which ending they were showing, and each ending resulted in a different murderer and changed the story entirely. Given that this was in the A.B.Y. (Age before Youtube) you didn’t have the option of just going online and watching the other endings.
While this movie didn’t break box-office records, it’s become a beloved cult classic that’s perfect for a family movie night, though some of the more grown-up references may go over your kids’ heads. Or not. We are living in an age with Youtube.
The Premise: Michael Keaton as Batman.
Why it was silly: You’re going to have Mr. Mom and Beetlejuice play one of the most iconic heroes of all time?
Why it worked: It was directed by Tim Burton, and it was the 80′s. Also, Michael Keaton is under-rated as a performer and was able to carry off dark and brooding quite well. yes, he got a little campy at times, but the live-action Batman everyone was used to was Adam West, so it was definitely an improvement. The Tim Burton directed movie was both dark and stylized, something he’s very good at, and Keaton fit right into that universe. (Especially since Tim Burton also directed Beetlejuice.) True, Michael Keaton not the most intense Batman, but we didn’t have to suffer through “Batman voice” like we have in the Nolan films.
Of course, this kind of questionable casting is still a part of the Batman franchise. Heath Ledger didn’t exactly scream “Joker” when he was cast in that iconic role, and many fans complained loudly about how he’d ruin the movie. Tom Hardy also has his doubters as a credible Bane, but given that Nolan has yet to steer us wrong, I think we’re in for a treat that will finally erase the awful, awful Bane in the 1997 Batman and Robin.
What definitely helped the film was Jack Nicholson as The Joker. While not thin and wiry like his comic book counterpart, Nicholson brought a sense of lethal camp to the role. Paired with Keaton, the two foils had a lot of chemistry that made this movie into an instant classic.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl
The Premise: Let’s make a movie out of a theme park ride.
Why it was silly: It’s a movie based on a theme park ride.
Why it worked: Johnny Depp. While it’s now hard to imagine a Halloween without running into someone sporting “Jack Sparrow Beard,” we have to remember that prior to this movie’s premiere, a lot of people thought the entire concept was silly. Pirates weren’t exactly a huge draw to the box office, and basing a movie on a theme park ride seemed like Disney was trying to lose money on purpose. What made this movie special was Depp’s portrayal of Jack Sparrow as the 18th Century version of a rock star, basing the character in large part on Keith Richards.
When a movie created an instantly iconic character, you know you’ve got a hit. Depp stole every scene he was in with his bouncy swagger, drunken shenanigans, and being slapped repeatedly. It’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role now, but in the 1990′s people tried to get this movie made with either Steve Martin or Robin Williams as the title character. Disney squashed that idea, and I think the world is better for it.
You might argue that this movie’s success led to (at least) three more movies that didn’t live up to the high bar set by this one, but you can’t deny that they made Disney boatloads of money.
The Premise: Let’s make Bruce Willis an action star
Why it was silly: You mean the guy from Moonlighting? Him?
Why it worked: Have you actually seen Die Hard? If so, you know why it works so stop asking pointless questions. Die Hard is quite possibly the greatest action movie of all time, and it works because of Willis. This movie is why Willis became a giant action star. Before Die Hard, he was seen as a comic leading man, and the studio had serious doubts that audiences would find him believable in that role. (I know.) He was mainly a heartthrob in a will-they/won’t-they television show, famous for inspiring the term “Moonlighiting Effect.” He was funny, and he could do witty banter, but no one saw him as credible when it came to being a cop fighting terrorists led by Alan Rickman.
But that’s what worked in his favor. John McClane is a character who needed to play off good supporting characters (like Reginald VelJohnson’s Al) and he needed to have a sense of humor as he tried to deal with running around a skyscraper controlled by terrorists and having no shoes on. It wasn’t as dark and gritty as some of Willis’ later movies got, including future Die Hard entries. It had just enough camp and light moments to make it far more fun than your normal action movie.
When you think of a muscle-bound hero diving away from an explosion in slow-motion, you think of Bruce Willis, and this movie is why.
The Lord of the Rings Trilogy
The Premise: Let’s make three epic movies about elves, dwarves, and hobbits all chasing after a ring.
Why it was silly: Hollywood had tried and failed to make the movies for years, and Lord of the Rings was seen as having a small, nerdy fanbase that wasn’t nearly strong enough to justify the cost.
Why it worked: Peter Jackson is one of the greatest visionaries of our time. (At least where Hobbits are involved.) He started with perfect casting, from
Ian McKellen as Gandalf, Elijah Wood as Frodo, and introducing the world to the greatness that is Andy Serkis. We instantly fell in love with these characters and were willing to spend a good nine hours with them as they went on a long journey to return a faulty piece of jewelry. (12 with the Extended Editions.)
It was more than just the characters but the world of Middle Earth. From the inviting hills of Hobbiton to the deep mines of Moria, every inch of the world was real and credible. The creatures in the world were brought to life by WETA, who was able to create vast armies with the clicks of a few buttons. (Well, it took a little more doing than that, but the point is they made it happen.) Every moment in the movie was believable and Peter Jackson succeeded in bringing Middle Earth to life in a way that fans had been dreaming about for years and years.
What’s more, Jackson made a movie about dwarves, orcs, and elves that mainstream audiences wanted to see. This was no longer a nerd movie, this was an event movie that everyone needed to watch. The Lord of the Rings quickly became a pop culture staple, and Gollum became a huge fan favorite. But in the end, it wasn’t a CGI creature that brought the crowds, it was an elf played by Orlando Bloom who was the big draw. Since Bloom helped bring in the “girlfriends who at first weren’t so keen on the movies but now love them” demographic, the movies were not such a silly idea in the end. Especially since the third movie, Return of the King, took home 13 Oscars including Best Picture.
The Premise: A movie based on a 15-second MacGyver spoof on Saturday Night Live
Why it was silly: Each skit ends with MacGruber being blown up. Plus, it’s a movie based on an SNL skit.
Why it worked: Believe it or not, SNL movies aren’t all horrible. Blues Brothers is still, hands-down, the best movie based on an SNL sketch and one of the greatest 80′s movies ever. Wayne’s World is a classic, and they even spoofed the Clue “3 endings” bit. Coneheads and A Night at the Roxbury have their moments, so it’s no surprise that MacGruber holds it own. However, what really makes it work is that they make the movie into a spoof/tribute to every 80′s action movie ever made.
Rather than have MacGruber (Will Forte) be an incompetent version of MacGyver, they go with the old “retired supersoldier gets called back on for one more mission” plot, which is every other 80′s movie ever made. (I’m probably wrong about that.) Anyone who watched any 80′s blockbuster will recognize all the elements, from the over-the-top action and violence, to the obligatory montage This is every Stallone and Schwarzenegger movie rolled into one, along with a stalk of celery that you don’t want to eat afterwards.
The humor, of course, is top notch. Whether it’s the spoofs, the banter, or the gross-out moments that you can’t believe are happening, this movie is a lot funnier than the previews led you to believe, namely because there were too many jokes they could never get away with showing in a preview. This movie fits right into the ranks of The Hangover and Tropic Thunder, and it becomes easy to foget that it started out as an SNL joke that got old after 15 seconds.