If you’ve seen a Hollywood movie this spring, chances are it was made from recycled material—a sequel, a prequel or a remake. The tally so far: Alice in Wonderland, Clash of the Titans, Robin Hood, A Nightmare on Elm St., Iron Man 2, Sex and the City 2, Shrek Forever After. Next up are The A-Team, The Karate Kid, Toy Story 3 and The Twilight Saga: Eclipse. It’s hard not to get cynical about this glut of born-again blockbusters.
But what’s most irritating is not the slavish cloning of brands; it’s the contortions filmmakers go through to give them a novel twist. Do we really need to see a pre-Sherwood Forest Robin Hood defend Britain from an armada of medieval landing craft in a war movie that plays like Saving Private Ryan unplugged? And do Sex and the City fans really want to see their post-feminist icons recast as Barbie-doll drag queens, mocking Islamic dress codes while being pampered by Arabic slaves on a sheik’s junket?
Inbreeding has become Hollywood’s preferred business model, and the progeny just gets more and more grotesque. But on rare occasions, in the desperate effort to reboot old brands, filmmakers actually improve on the original. Notable examples are Daniel Craig’s Casino Royale and last year’s Star Trek. That’s also the case, in some respects, with The Karate Kid remake and Toy Story 3.
The ingenuity of The Karate Kid, which opens this week, lies in the casting. Ralph Macchio, who starred in the 1984 original and two sequels, was already in his 20s when he was first cast as the Kid, a New Jersey teen who moves to California with his mom and trains like a mini-Rocky to defeat a gang of blond bullies. The remake stars Jaden Smith—the son of Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith—who is a mere 12 years old. He plays Dre Parker, a mouthy brat from Detroit, who moves to Bejing with his mother (Taraji P. Henson) when she’s transferred to a new job.
Shot in China, the fable plays out against a much broader cultural divide than the original—a breakdancing African-American child with cornrows is persecuted by Asian thugs twice his size. And the spectacle, fortified with Chinese pageantry, unfolds on a grander scale. It’s a virtual helicopter tour of breathtaking locations, from the Forbidden City and the Great Wall to the monastery peaks of the Wudang mountains.
Smith’s tender age makes his character’s romance—with a Chinese violin prodigy—painfully precocious. But it also makes his eventual prowess as a fighter more miraculous. And this impudent kid with charm to burn has an ideal foil in martial arts legend Jackie Chan—the remake’s other casting coup. There’s no karate in this Karate Kid, just kung fu.
Which is cooler. Taking on the role of the wily teacher created by Pat Morita, Chan not only proves himself as a character actor, he raises the bar for the fight scenes, which are tougher, more dazzling and more convincing than before. Chan rebrands the role with deadpan wit from his first appearance, as he tries to catch a fly in mid-air with chopsticks. The scene is almost identical to the one in the original—until he nails the bug with a fly swatter. A textbook case of creative cloning.
Toy Story 3 is a sequel, not a remake. But each movie in the Disney-Pixar franchise conforms to a strict narrative template: led by Woody (Tom Hanks), the vintage cowboy doll, a clan of animated toys get separated from their beloved master, Andy, and have to fight their way home. In Toy Story 2, the enemy was a venal collector. In Toy Story 3, Andy is off to college and his toys are once again playing dodgeball with oblivion. Will it be the attic? A yard sale? No, they’re donated to a daycare centre—a prison camp ruled with an iron paw by a strawberry-scented stuffed bear.
While the franchise’s sentimental mould is inviolable, this sequel has a darker, more satirical edge. Some of the Orwellian daycare toys are quite scary, like the mad-eyed, cymbal-crashing monkey on surveillance duty, or the big, blank-eyed baby doll. And in an apocalyptic set piece, the toys are sent on a harrowing flume ride through trash shredders to landfill hell. Of course, this Toy Story, like the others, ends happily. Some things will never change.