Thursday, November 21, 2013

A victory for intellectual property rights

Christmas cinema is a genre that's been done ad nauseam (did we really need The Santa Clause 3?), but for my money, there's no better than the classic It's a Wonderful Life.  James Stewart, of course, plays George Bailey, the everyman, the dreamer, who's thrust into a life he didn't want, running the family Building & Loan, by his father's untimely demise.  The film covers an amazing swath of a lifetime of giving to others--the saving of George's brother from drowning, catching the pharmacist's mistake, fending off a bank run by pledging his honeymoon cash, and running his business for the good of the community instead of for big profits.

George is living a blessed life until a mistake brings him to the brink of losing everything.  At the end of his rope on Christmas Eve, George treads out onto a bridge, intent on throwing himself into the icy water below.  But Clarence, an angel seeking to earn his wings, is looking out for him.  When George confesses that he wishes he'd never been born, Clarence arranges for him to see what his little town would be like without him.  When he sees the impact of his life on others through the prism of his absence, George realizes that he does indeed have a wonderful life, too precious to throw away because of some financial trouble.  In the end, the friendships he's made save him.

It's a great film--funny, romantic, dramatic, emotive--and although it's the product of a different, less cynical, more credulous time in American history, it's still among my favorites.  You don't have to believe in angels to get the message.

Earlier this week, it was announced in Variety that a sequel is in the works, this time featuring George Bailey's grandson (also George Bailey, and as-yet uncast) as the near-suicidal man on the brink, and Karolyn Grimes, who played Zuzu in the original, as his guardian angel.  In a twist, the younger George is unloved and unlikable, in contrast to his universally acclaimed grandfather, and the alternate reality he sees will show him how much better the world would be if he'd never been born.

Presumably the goal would be to reform him, although the AV Club--a project of the satirical newspaper The Onion--suggested that the message might be, "Go ahead and kill yourself, the world will be better off."  Not exactly a fine Christmas message.

I happen to think that this is potentially the biggest sequel-related Hollywood atrocity since The Lion King 2½, and maybe since Another Stakeout..

It may well be that It's a Wonderful Life story needs refreshing.  I wasn't happy when they re-booted Star Trek, but I have to admit that the franchise has been re-energized by the process.  The recent Batman films have far exceeded the Michael Keaton original as filmcraft.  And remakes are hardly a new concept.

But I'm concerned that producing a sequel to It's a Wonderful Life will almost certainly lead to a cotton-candy sentimental story that lacks the emotional depth of the original.  Bringing back Zuzu--which means she's dead, by the way--strikes me as a gimmick staged to make a buck rather than to craft an enduring film.  It cannot help but cheapen the original.

To put it another way, this is a stunt you could easily see on the Hallmark Channel.

Fortunately, Paramount Pictures, which controls the rights to the original, has stepped up to indicate, if somewhat obliquely, that this project will not go forward.  Paramount made it clear that any sequel would need official licensing and that it would vigorously defend its rights in the original.  That's code language for "over our dead bodies."

So, intellectual property rights to the rescue.  The world is saved from this hideous barbarity.

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