I've always been a big fan of the Dreamworks Animated movies. They may not be as heavily imbued with the kinds of soul-wrenching deep tissue thematics that Pixar is known for, but at their best they can deliver the purest of fun along with powerfully resonant messages that children and adults alike can enjoy. Home ends up being one of the lesser Dreamworks films in that regard; it doesn't aim for the uproariously clever comedy beats of Shrek or Madgascar, nor is there much emotionally exhilarating adventure like Kung Fu Panda or How to Train Your Dragon. The film is modestly agreeable and inoffensively pleasant (one might go so far as to say forgettably so), and doesn't have any intentions beyond that. However, its reception and some deeper implications in regards to its diverse casting make a more profound statement than anything said within the film itself.
The story begins with Oh, played by Jim Parsons, a member of the technologically superior but supremely cowardly extraterrestrial race known as the Boov. Oh is annoyingly clumsy and the odd man out compared to the rest of his homogeneous species. Constantly on the run from a more hostile alien species known as the Gorg, the Boov now arrive on Earth and go about colonizing the planet in what might be the most non-hostile alien invasion ever (don't mind the takeover, humans; here's a new home on the other side of the earth and some ice cream!). Even so, not everyone has taken kindly to the unwelcome occupiers, and thus we are introduced to Gratuity Tucci -her friends call her "Tip"- voiced by the Rihanna. Tip is a spunky and clever 13-year-old girl who managed to avoid the initial body snatching, but when the Boov begin moving in close to her hiding spot, she decides it's time to head out in search for her abducted mother Lucy, voiced by Jennifer Lopez. Oh and Tip's paths cross when Oh becomes a fugitive from Boov justice after being accused of inadvertently alerting the Gorg to their presence on earth. After an awkward run-in, the two agree to a truce in order to escape the alien patrols after them.
What follows is a road trip movie where the human and alien encounter harrowing and zany situations, overcome their differences, and develop a symbiotic kinship as Tip and Oh relate to each other as outsiders. I was expecting the typical kid/alien friendship storyline walking in, but I wondered if there was a deeper subtextual meaning in regards to the invasion and forced relocation; I was initially thinking something along the line of a gentrification metaphor. I also wondered if there was going to be a heavy emphasis on the feeling of being different and diversity, as one of the key points mentioned considerably in the press leading up to this release is the fact that the lead character for a big budget animated kids movie is black.
I discovered that this film is based on a children's novel called The True Meaning of Smekday, published in 2007. After a small bit of research, I was somewhat surprised to learn that the original story was in fact a deliberate allegory about the European colonization of America and the tragedies inflicted upon the Native American people. However, despite one moderately startling scene showing the abduction of Tip's mother, nothing more is really made of the forced human relocation in Home. Additionally, the road trip in the book spans a wide swath of America and involves encounters with multiple diverse people through which the issue of racism is directly addressed. In the film, the road trip is decidedly linear with no other human interactions throughout. Although her diverse heritage is addressed in the film (Tip's mother is lighter in complexion than her, and she speaks briefly of growing up in Barbados, likely a decision to incorporate Rihanna's real life upbringing for some extra pathos), no other mention is made of her feeling different because of her race. Her outsider-ness is a product of more common childhood anxieties such as moving constantly and being made fun of for being a geek.
There is nothing overtly groundbreaking throughout the proceedings of Home, nor is their any particularly noteworthy comedic or emotional revelation (although Rihanna proves to be surprisingly emotive and the chemistry produced bouncing off of Jim Parsons' comedic timing works well). A few jokes, some chase scenes, a couple heartfelt moments and a dance number at the end into the credits: a very typical run of the mill modern CG animated movie, it would seem. Knowing then what is layered in the source material, one could actually go so far as to say that Home has shamefully wasted the opportunity to tell a meaningful and socially relevant tale for the sake of keeping things clean and inoffensive. This is the most damning criticism of an otherwise solid if unremarkable film.
But you know....I think there is relevant merit in that unremarkability, as well. This will sound weird, but this experience reminded me of a conversation we had some time ago regarding Machete Kills. A lot of critics and movie-goers alike harshly criticized the film for being a nonsensical schlock fest of no immediate consequence, compared to the original Machete which had a powerfully relevant core theme about immigration and border policies underneath all the gunfire and gallons of fake blood. One commenter, I believe it was Wushuliu, then said something that I thought was very astute. To paraphrase, his point was that Latinos/minorities are under-represented when it comes to dumb action movies as much as weighty, serious films; we take it for granted as a genre to roll eyes at, but if you're a minority that rarely gets your own stupid Hollywood popcorn flicks, then something like Machete Kills means just as much, if not more. I concurred with his sentiment, and agreed similarly to the gaudy home invasion thriller No Good Deed. In that one, people complained that the material was beneath the noble Idris Elba, his talents wasted when he could be doing a "more important" black male role. I countered by saying that having this stock role was just as important for him because it truly expressed diversity; the cheesy psycho serial killer role is predominantly played by white actors, and he showed he could handle it and make it work as easily as anyone. Keeping him pigeon-holed to "important black roles" was a type of segregation and misrepresentation in and of itself.
It's not just about representation; it's about normalization. The box office results are in, and Home proved to be a resounding success, earning $54 million on its opening weekend. Although there was no competition from other children's films or even teen-oriented fare, it still performed well above its expectations of $30 million. There has been a substantial outcry against the other big opening this weekend, Get Hard, which has been heavily criticised for its overbearing homophobia and racism. Some might worry that the success of that comedy further propagates tired stereotypes and promotion of otherness. However, when you see that a children's movie starring a black woman, a gay man and Jenny from the Block is hitting big on all audiences, I think it makes the case that progress is indeed forging ahead. Home doesn't have any big controversial or emotionally powerful ideas behind it, but it doesn't have to. That people of all walks of life enjoy it is just as meaningful to the fight for diversity as a movie that directly addresses it and tries to beat you over the head with the message. Inclusivity counts for the simple stuff just as much as the profound stuff. After all, it's simple joys like what you see in the picture below that can have the most profound impact of all: