UNIVERSAL CITY, Calif. — If you're the parent of a preschool-age child, you may have noticed the colorful ads in recent weeks for "The Oogieloves in the Big Balloon Adventure" and thought to yourself: "God, I hope my kid doesn't insist on seeing that movie."
If you're not a parent, but have even a passing interest in pop culture, you may have heard of "The Oogieloves" anyway: It's making news, and for all the wrong reasons. The G-rated, live-action family film had a historically abysmal opening: $443,901 in its first weekend in theaters (the movie had opened on 2,160 screens the previous Wednesday). That averages out to $206 per screen. Both figures are record-worsts for a wide release.
Suddenly, the word "Oogieloves" was right up there with "Ishtar" as a shorthand for film failure. But a morbid fascination with the movie seems to have developed over the past week. Jen Chaney wrote in her Washington Post blog: "The massive floppage of 'The Oogieloves' has only made me feel more compelled to see it." Arts writer Dave Itzkoff of The New York Times joked during the Democratic National Convention on Twitter, where he's @ditzkoff: "Clinton's speech so good he convinced me to see that Oogieloves movie. #DNC" And Nick Robinson, a fixture in film circles who describes himself as an "award-winning festival bumper creator" went so far as to attend a Labor Day matinee and live-tweet the whole thing. Among the many funny @NickRob tweets: "To be fair this movie does a good job of portraying proper bicycle safety. #OOGIELOVES"
So naturally, I had to witness this for myself. And I just happen to have a preschool-age child: my son Nicolas, who's almost 3. Now, Nic has never been to a movie in a theater before, despite what his mom does for a living. He slept through a lot of Mommy & Me showings when he was an infant, but this would be his first time sitting in a big-boy seat and actually paying attention to things like plot and character development and mise-en-scene.
You may wonder who goes to a 4:05 p.m. matinee of "The Oogieloves" at the Universal City Walk on a Thursday. The answer is ... no one. We were the only ones there. Which was cool, because we had the whole place to ourselves. But the staff hadn't even cleaned the auditorium from the previous showing, so there were cups sitting in the drink holders and, on one seat, a cardboard container with a few random popcorn nuggets and a wadded-up dirty diaper.
Little did I realize when we sat down that this would be the perfect metaphor for the next 88 minutes of our lives.
Allow me to try and explain the plot of "The Oogieloves" to you now:
A trio of oversized, pear-shaped, brightly colored weirdoes named Goobie, Zoozie and Toofie are throwing a birthday party for a pillow named Schluufy. J. Edgar, a vacuum cleaner, was supposed to bring five magical, golden balloons as a gift, but he lost them along the way. So now the Oogieloves, with the help of Windy Window (who inexplicably speaks with a Southern drawl), must track down the balloons, which have scattered far and wide and fallen into the hands of a bizarre cross-section of people. They're played by Cloris Leachman, Chazz Palminteri, Toni Braxton, Christopher Lloyd, Jaime Pressly and — in the most unsettling performance of all — Cary Elwes as a bouncing cowboy named Bobby Wobbly. He wears a deranged smile on his face the whole time, as if he were a character in a David Lynch film.
Also? The Oogieloves play in a band. So every time they perform, they encourage the kids in the audience (or kid, in my case) to get up and sing and dance. That's actually a very clever idea, because anyone who has been around children this age knows they can't sit still for long. My son is by no means a quiet, shy or low-key creature — he's actually kind of a nut — but he had no interest in singing and dancing along with these Oogiepeople. When I got up to dance a couple times, hoping he'd join me, he reached over and shouted, "No, Mommy, don't dance!" and pulled me back down to my seat. That's probably going to happen again at some point in our lives, I'm guessing.
Nic pretty much sat there, staring ahead, clutching the red glow wand the nice ticket-taker handed him when we entered. Every once in a while he'd notice something on screen and shout out what it was: "Clouds!" ''Drums!" ''Bicycle!" I sat there wondering whether these actors knew what they were getting into when they said yes to this clunky, punny, unfunny film. There is a high cringe factor in watching these performers working so hard with such odd, weak material. But "The Oogieloves" is also a mess from a technical standpoint, with harsh lighting, uncomfortable close-ups, and costumes and effects that look like something out of a Sid and Marty Krofft TV program from the '70s.
(Producer Kenn Viselman, the marketing mastermind behind "Thomas the Tank Engine" and the "Teletubbies," has said he's happy the film has achieved such notoriety, because it's drawn more attention than it would have with just an average opening. He's also said he'll go ahead with a couple of planned sequels, even as this first film drops 1,879 screens in its second weekend to just 281.)
After about an hour, Nicolas got bored and started doing laps around the theater. He'd run up the stairs and then hop back down them. He'd sit in various seats, look back at me and wave, "Hi, Mommy!" He never seemed truly engaged like he is when he watches "Yo Gabba Gabba," his favorite show these days, but he wasn't miserable either. And as we were walking back to the car, he gave me a hug around my legs and said, "Thank you for taking me to the movies, Mommy."
So I guess we had a happy ending after all.