Supermarket Brands Sponsored Case File #34: Foodfight!
My World Of Flops is Nathan Rabin’s twice-monthly survey of books, television shows, musical releases, or other forms of entertainment that flopped financially, were critical failures, and lack a substantial cult following.
We as a culture feel the need to protect children because they lack the bullshit detectors necessary to see loveable cartoon mascots as ad-agency-generated shills designed to sell products in a ruthless marketplace, and not as magical friends whose incredible products will fill the holes in their lives that they didn’t even know existed. Children, God bless them, possess open minds that can also be unoccupied trash receptacles for the clattering, cacophonous detritus of consumer culture: commercial jingles, innocuous pop songs, catchphrases from asinine movies and television shows, and above all else, advertising in all its myriad forms. We feel the need to enforce laws attempting to separate advertising and content in children’s entertainment because if left to their own devices, the airwaves would be flooded with shows like The Simpsons’ Mattel And Mars Bar Quick Energy Chocobot Hour.
Hell, many of my favorite shows growing up were episode-length advertisements for action figures—The Transformers, Gobots, G.I. Joe—intermittently broken up by bona fide commercials for other action figures or sugary cereals. We pretend to deify the innocence and youth of children while callously exploiting their naïveté and suggestibility. Corporations think of children the way drug dealers do: It’s essential to hook ’em young, then make sure they don’t wriggle off the hook. They hope the seed of early affection planted by a child’s fondness for Charlie Tuna or Chester Cheetah or any other distinguished spokes-animal will bloom into a lifetime of unwavering brand loyalty.
Marketers of the world have ominous designs on children’s fragile minds, but there has never been a conspiracy to colonize the fertile imaginations of the young people quite as elaborate or misguided as Foodfight! I write that as someone who has previously devoted 1,600 words to chronicling the crimes—aesthetic and otherwise—of Mac And Me, a film that dared to ask the question, “Why can’t E.T. be a feature-length advertisement for McDonald’s and Coke?”
Foodfight! is the product of deluded visionaries who attempted to reinvent children’s entertainment in ways that would seem audacious and refreshing if the results weren’t so hilariously, surreally misguided. Only deluded visionaries have the mindboggling chutzpah to ask questions no one in their right mind would think to ponder. Previous Case File The Oogieloves had the gumption to finally inquire, “Why attend a children’s film with your toddler that you might both enjoy in relative silence when you can bring your tot to a movie that angrily demands that children scream, sing, and generally behave like migraine headaches with limbs?” Delgo, meanwhile, foolishly yet bravely inquired, “Why bother creating feature-length animated films through an expensive studio with a costly infrastructure when you can create community-college-level animation independently?”
Foodfight! asked a question even more idiotic and offensive than the ones posed by Mac And Me, Delgo, and Oogieloves: Why can’t a movie be a feature-length advertisement for every brand? Forget limiting it to McDonald’s and Coca-Cola, like those small thinkers over at Mac And Me, or making a film a 90-minute ploy for those Oogieloves plush dolls the film-marketers forgot to actually produce. Foodfight! features appearances from the mascots of no fewer than 80 iconic brands, including Charlie Tuna, Mr. Clean, Mrs. Butterworth, and plenty of other beloved corporate stooges designed to create the illusion that there’s somehow a substantive difference between nearly identical brands (even if the only real difference is that one brand is generic and less expensive, while the other is represented by, say, a cartoon cheetah and consequently more expensive and by definition, better).
Foodfight! set out to do for supermarket brands what the Toy Story trilogy did for toys, what Who Framed Roger Rabbit did for classic cartoon characters, and what Wreck-It Ralph has done for videogame characters: harness the intense nostalgia audiences feel for the pop icons of their youth, creating a vibrant comic universe populated by unforgettable characters driven by their all-too-human impulses and desires. If the universally beloved Toy Story movies occupy the main floor of Mascot Mansion, Wreck-It Ralph the lavish second floor, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit the penthouse, then Foodfight! is the inbred, drooling, poor relation handcuffed to the boiler in the basement for the good of himself and humanity. Thematically, these films have a lot in common. Artistically, they occupy different worlds. Toy Story, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and Wreck-It Ralph are Rhodes Scholars; Foodfight is still trying to figure out how to read without moving its lips.
Yet in a state of manic delusion, a pair of seemingly sane human beings had the unmitigated gall to compare Foodfight! to Pixar in a May 17, 2004 article in The New York Times documenting the film’s curious birth. In the article, a gentleman identified as “Mark Mills, president of Motion Picture Magic, a product placement company in Encino, California,” is quoted as saying, “The movie looks wonderful. Threshold [the animation company behind the film] will be considered to be the new and upcoming Pixar.”
The article ends with noted cultural commentator Amy Donges, who in her perch as marketing specialist at Procter & Gamble is in a rare and privileged position to judge the state of contemporary animation, enthusing, “The Foodfight! graphics are absolutely amazing, comparable to Pixar’s. It’s even more real life.”
Why stop there? I’m surprised the journalist couldn’t find some marketing goon to breathlessly enthuse, “The quality of the writing, animation, and technology in Foodfight! takes a monster dump on the sum of Disney’s oeuvre, then wipes its hairy ass with the entire canon of Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies!”
This article describes Foodfight! as the product of plucky dreamers who began making a potentially paradigm-shifting animated film without full financing or a distributor. But, in The New York Times’ estimation at least, the filmmakers had “a clever script, some Hollywood heavyweights, high-powered technology and a widely, even globally known cast. In the movie, Charlie, Mr. Clean, the Coca-Cola polar bears and other well-known product icons come alive at night after the customers have left. Joining with characters created by Threshold—among them Dex Dogtective, who runs the Copabanana nightclub in the produce section, and Daredevil Dan, a chocolate squirrel—they try to save the store from the evil Brand X.”
Printing that Foodfight! has a “clever script” ranks among The New York Times’ worst transgressions. In fact, the piece feels more like a press release than a work of journalism as it cheerfully describes how Threshold won the rights to use 80 “name-brand products and their associated characters” and was planning to use said products as the foundation for a $50 million animated film. The plan was for this concoction of internationally known corporate mascots and icons to net somewhere in the area of $100 million worth of promotion and cross-marketing during the film’s international theatrical release.
In the article, Larry Kasanoff, the chairman of Threshold entertainment, is keen to point out that the film technically doesn’t feature product placement, since no company paid to have its product or icon featured, and the film largely relegated well-known real-world corporate mascots to the margins so that it could focus on riveting new characters like Dex Dogtective, his love interest Sunshine Goodness, and sidekick Daredevil Dan. In spite of Kasanoff’s protestations, Foodfight! reeks of commerce, exploitation, and greed. But its moral sins pale in comparison to its creative ones.
Foodfight! opens with the severely sclerotic proprietor of “Marketopolis” saying goodbye to an elderly customer before reflecting, with just a hint of irony, “Nothing much happens around here after dark.” As the lights go down in the supermarket, our world winds down and a new world begins, one where corporate icons known as “Ikes” frolic about in a secret capitalist wonderland.
It’s tempting to say that something is off from the very start here, but it would be more accurate to argue that everything is off. The grotesque ugliness of the animation alone would be a deal-breaker even if the film weren’t also glaringly inappropriate in its sexuality, nightmare-inducing in its animation, and filled with Nazi overtones and iconography even more egregiously unfit for children than the script’s wall-to-wall gauntlet of crude double entendres and weird intimations of interspecies sex.
Foodfight! might profess to take place in a supermarket where all the corporate icons frolic about every night after the lights go down, but its true home is the uncanny valley. The characters, especially the human or humanoid ones, look just enough like living things to reveal the gulf between the level of realism the filmmakers aspire to and the pathetic level of their actual achievement. Forget Pixar: The backgrounds here are blurry and incomplete. The characters move with the halting jerkiness and artificiality of background characters in 8-bit video games. The character design alternates between nightmarish and hopelessly generic. The pastel colors induce the visual equivalent of an ice-cream headache. It’s as if Threshold somehow ventured back in time, snagged the very first computer-animation program, then used it to send the art form spiraling back decades, to an uncertain time before animators had worked out any of the kinks, let alone all of them.
As an early indication of the film’s bizarrely divided sensibility, the first proper joke of the film is a clumsy reference to Midnight Cowboy’s famous “I’m walking here!” line delivered by a cartoon vampire bat. Boy, there’s nothing children enjoy more than winking nods to X-rated films from 1969 involving male prostitution. Not much later, a villain voiced by Harvey Fierstein tumbles off a hot-air balloon while whining, “I just want to be loved! Is that so wrong,” an even more left-field reference to Jon Lovitz’s impersonation of Fierstein on Saturday Night Live in the late ’80s.
And once the bewildering pop-culture references start, they don’t stop. In the film’s most bizarrely incongruous nod to cinema’s past, there’s a scene late in the movie that involves the good guys drowning out the anthem of villainous occupiers Brand X with the stirring sounds of their own rival anthem. It’s an elaborate and direct homage to the “La Marseillaise” sequence in Jean Renoir’s classic 1937 anti-war film La Grande Illusion. The screenwriters want to remind us that they know and appreciate great art, even while churning out soul-crushing product, that their artistic hearts cry out for beauty even as they acquit themselves doing the devil’s work.
The film’s infatuation with cinema history extends to a canine detective hero dudded out alternately like Harrison Ford in the Indiana Jones movies and Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, presumably because it’s easier to put a new character in an iconic, familiar costume and then coast on the audience’s affection for that familiar iconography than to create an actual personality for a protagonist. Charlie Sheen brings his eyebrow-wiggling leer of a voice to the central role of Dex Dogtective, a beloved hero in Indiana Jones’ leather jacket who puts away bad guys with ease, yet trembles with anxiety over proposing to longtime girlfriend Sunshine Goodness (voiced by Hilary Duff), the “Ike” (short for “Icon”) for a raisin brand.
Duff’s Sunshine Goodness (Christ, that sounds like a double entendre) is one of the more vexing and troubling elements of a botched experiment that’s nothing but vexing, troubling elements. She’s a buxom spokes-figure with the body and face of a human being, the ears and whiskers of a cat, and the mind of either an unusually naïve adult or a mentally challenged woman-child. Sunshine Goodness looks like an anorexic sex-doll version of Duff following an unfortunate The Fly-like experiment with feline DNA gone horribly awry.
One of the other vexing elements of Foodfight! is that it doesn’t have much use for the corporate mascots that are its ostensible reason for being. They tend to linger in the background or pop up for a line or two rather than play central roles in the narrative. The film’s attempts to integrate corporate icons into the story are beyond unwieldy. Early in the film, for example, Duff’s Sunshine Goodness guilelessly enthuses to Sheen’s Dex of their options for the day, “How about we get Chef Boyardee to make us a huge, feastamongous dinner? Or we could play stickball with Mr. Clean!”
Before the central couple can play stickball with Mr. Clean or enjoy a huge, feastamongous dinner courtesy of Chef Boyardee, Sunshine Goodness disappears and Dex throws himself into running the Copabanana, which is Foodfight!’s answer to Rick’s Café Américain from Casablanca. At the Copabanana, The California Raisins, OGs of the product-placement game, perform “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” for an audience of adoring mascots. For the branding-crazed folks at Threshold, this is tantamount to quoting scripture, paying reverent homage to the fountainhead from which it sprung.
Yet looking closely at the California Raisins sequence, there’s a troubling anomaly: The Raisins are supposedly performing live music in front of a bandstand, but there’s no one manning the drum set or any of the other instruments. I strongly suspect that the filmmakers—who were forced to put the film up for auction in 2011 after running out of money—never got around to finishing the background animation. That’s true of many of the backdrops, which are blurry to the point of abstraction.
With Sunshine Goodness out of the picture, a mysterious femme fatale enters Dex Dogtective’s life in the form of Lady X, a voluptuous sexpot usually clad in a skintight catsuit, though she’s not averse to slinking about in thigh-high sheer white stockings, a tiny flannel miniskirt, and a tight white blouse and tie combined to form some sort of naughty-schoolgirl/stripper ensemble. As Lady X, Eva Longoria coos seductively, flirts outrageously, and grinds relentlessly against Dex in an attempt to seduce him.
Lady X’s outfits and “fuck-me” coo alone would seem to merit at least a PG-13 rating, but the film’s smuttiness isn’t limited to her fetish-friendly outfits and double entendres. Early in the film, Daredevil Dan flies over a buxom human woman in a low-cut blouse and shouts boorishly, “Oh Mamacita! Yo, sweetcakes! Ooh, Nice packaging! How about some chocolate frosting! I’d like to butter your muffin!”
Foodfight! was apparently made for a very strange, very specific audience of small children, branding super-freaks, furries, perverts, and people who’ve always fantasized about fucking Mrs. Butterworth. This would be creepy and leering even if the parties involved weren’t from different species. It’s a testament to how shockingly lascivious and sexual Foodfight! is that an actor synonymous with violent, cocaine-fueled orgies with high-end prostitutes being cast as its dashing hero actually represents one of its less sketchy and offensive aspects.
Lady X isn’t just an insatiable sexual creature; she’s also the dominant power behind sinister Brand X, a malevolent new force in the secret supermarket world intent on overturning the peaceful established order and replacing it with supermarket fascism (which we can all agree is the best and worst kind). And so, just when it appears Foodfight! cannot fly any more flamboyantly off the rails, it hauls out the Nazi iconography. The sinister minions of Brand X are stylized like the upper brass of the Fourth Reich; their foot soldiers goose-step down the empty aisles of the supermarket while doling out Hitler salutes. Foodfight! pits capitalism at its most un-tethered and child-pandering against the black-hearted forces of fascism.
Much of Foodfight’s third act is devoted to an endless war between the good guys and Brand X that does little but pad the film’s glacially paced 91-minute running time. Honestly, if any film begged to be cut off after 70 minutes, it’s this grotesque exercise in commerce masquerading as entertainment. The writers write themselves into such a corner that a major plot point involves Dex Dogtective having to make a perilous trek through the supermarket during daytime so that he can send an email alerting corporate headquarters of the evil that has been unleashed in the supermarket. Dex’s exact words are, “If we could just get this info to our market’s corporate headquarters, they’d have to recall Brand X!” What is an epic adventure without a heroic quest to send an email to corporate headquarters?
Like the films of the deluded visionaries I mentioned earlier, Foodfight! ended up being a revolution that wasn’t. It began production in 2001 with an eye toward a 2003 release, only to miss its intended release date by close to a decade. Then the filmmakers ran out of money. Then their technology was stolen, forcing them to start from scratch. The $100 million worth of cross-promotion from brand partners never materialized. That massive worldwide release—complete with ancillary merchandise and fast-food tie-ins—never happened. After a tiny theatrical run in Europe, Foodfight! received a discreet Stateside direct-to-VOD burial on February 12, capping off a run of incredibly bad luck that could not have happened to more deserving parasites.
Recoiling in horror at Foodfight!, which somehow manages to be even worse and more insane than I’ve made it sound, I was reminded of the famous Bill Hicks line, “If you work in advertising or marketing, kill yourself.” I’ve always found that quip unconscionably cruel and unfair, yet funny. Delving deep into this progressive nightmare and free-market wet dream, I began to suspect that maybe old Bill was onto something after all. Foodfight! doesn’t just represent one of the entertainment world’s most appalling lapses of taste, restraint, and judgment in recent memory; it’s one of those fall-of-civilization moments. Only in this case, the world ends not with a bang, nor with a whimper, but rather with a deranged push from a suicidal, apocalyptic Twinkie The Kid.
Failure, fiasco, or secret success: Fiasco