Friday, July 09, 2004

Sequels on an upswing

—Originally published on 7.9.04

Something must be amiss in Hollywood because there are way too many quality sequels at the cineplex these days.

In the last month and a half, we've seen "Shrek 2," "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" and now "Spider-Man 2." In my reviews, I'm running out of ways to say "so much better than the original."

Sequels have a bad reputation, and deservedly so. For a sampling of why, check out E! Online's list of the 10 worst "suck-wells" of all time. (Hint: No. 1 includes the most annoying character ever generated by a computer.)

Instead of focusing on negatives, though, let's deal with the positives (as much as possible, anyway). Just what does contribute to making a successful sequel?

• Planning -- While some may lambaste the "franchise" mentality of a film series as simply reusing brand-name characters to make a quick buck, there are several instances where committing to a succession of films yields incredible results. It can allow filmmakers the opportunity to flesh out backstories, create overarching themes and hone their craft over a number of years. Look no further than the "X-Men" and "Spider-Man" franchises which, so far, have gotten much better with time. And there's always "The Lord of the Rings," but it's hard to consider those sequels, rather than one 10-hour movie cut into three parts.

• Continuity -- It is absolutely ESSENTIAL to bring back all the principle characters each time. Can you honestly imagine anyone other than Mike Myers voicing Shrek, anyone other than Tobey Maguire playing Spidey or anyone other than Al Pacino in the role of Michael Corleone? Just look what happened to the "Batman" franchise. An exception: James Bond, a truly serial character that lives separate from time and continuing plotlines.

• Innovation -- I don't want the same ol' thing every time. If I'm plunking down another eight bucks, there better be some new stuff to see. The best sequels, even though I know the characters well, still make my jaw drop. The bad ones, like "Bad Boys II," simply rehash tired material.

• Commitment -- It's easy to tell when actors are going through the motions just for the paycheck. Typically, this occurs when the original went big and the studio said, "Oh boy! Let's make another!" (I'm still not convinced "The Matrix" was meant to be more than just one film.)

• Leave 'em wanting more (but not too much) -- This only applies to the franchises, which typically use the current movie to set up the next installment. This is a delicate situation, though, because if the filmmakers spend too much time in this area, it feels like simple shilling. "Spider-Man 2" director Sam Raimi nailed it this time around, using just one brief scene to hint at things to come in 2007; "X2," on the other hand, spent several minutes setting up No. 3 (due in 2006), which was way too long.

• Oh yeah, that little thing called STORY -- Just slapping our favorite characters back on the screen doesn't do it. Case in point, both "Star Wars" prequels, "The Godfather, Part III" and any number of good ideas gone bad. There needs to be something for the players to do -- other than make money for the production company.

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