March 2021 Forecast

By Michael Lynderey

March 7, 2020

Godzilla vs Kong

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Dinner time at the movies looks normal again. Giant lizards and marauding ape men, broken-looking young people living in a sad future (heyyyy!), Eddie Murphy hogging every role on screen, and the tragic dilemmas of animated mice and violent men. Here we have enough big movies to match 2019's March, even if a few of them will not, or in some places can not, be seen in their natural habitat on the big screen. Is that the future, or just a 2021-era waystation?

You will decide.

1. Godzilla vs. Kong (March 31st)
In a world that's feeling a little down, what's more inspirational than a pair of monsters, created an average of 76.5 years ago, thundering down from the mountain and up from the depths of the deepest sea... and destroying vast masses of land, city, suburb, and pristine forest setting, all in the name of settling their inconsequential personal differences?

What's roughly the 36th Godzilla film is also the approximately fourteenth King Kong picture (catch up there, big buddy!), and about the second film in which the two monsters have battled each other face to gnarly, screaming face (normally, I would offer a detailed listing and analysis of all 48 films in this one forecast, but I'm feeling a little nippy).

In 1962 in King Kong Vs. Godzilla, an (evil) pharmaceutical company engendered the battle of the two titans, for reasons that made perfect sense to them at the time; the mighty battle went long and forth before culminating on Mount Fuji in Japan, back when practically only the Japanese were making and giving the world these wonderful motion pictures.

Decades later, American studios have long been turning micro-budget foreign monster fight films (kaiju!) into mega-budget English-language extravaganzas, and the current re-match is a culmination of a decade-long global effort to build up expensive giant creature movies into one big franchise, in the (evil) tradition of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Now, unlike Marvel, of course, this monsterverse isn't evil, so deserves the benefit of the doubt. In a break from all those superhero movies, here is a franchise that still believes in the little people, the character actor, the stacked cast full of normal humans who don't much get leading roles but make the most of their material in exactly films such as this, banding together to see if mortals can still save the world again without super-men help. I say they can.

And who are these valiant men and women, these scientists and experts and their strangely plot-relevant children? The cast includes both survivors of previous monster attacks (Millie Bobby, Kyle Chandler, and Zhang Ziyi) along with some new faces to regale in the carnage above them (Alexander Skarsgård, as adept at anyone at running from explosions, and also Rebecca Hall, Brian Tyree Henry, and even that explody kid from Deadpool 2, Julian Dennison).

Adam Wingard (horror! he directed Death Note, Blair Witch '16, and You're Next) is given the reigns here, and it is intriguing to see what someone who has a lot of experience with low-budget style and tension can do with such grandiose material, taking a $160m-$200m budget, and tasked with molding it into coherent fight scenes that simply must be justified by a story, somehow. And who will win?

As I recall, the 1962 monster match-up ended with King Kong walking out of the lake carrying Godzilla's head, which winks at the camera, and gives a malicious off-screen laugh (that sounds right). What will a rematch bring? To steal from another horror film logline, who will survive and what will be left of them?

Opening weekend: $24 million / Total gross: $63 million

2. Coming 2 America (March 5th)
Canny spelling, but that's still the same title.

After thirty two years, Eddie Murphy's King Akeem returns from his self-imposed exile of wedded and happy bliss in fictionalest Africa, in a sequel whose initial December 2020 date was deemed... problematic. Now, it is one of a number of films that Paramount's gone off and sold to Amazon Prime like they were going out of style (wait... ARE THEY?). Tom Clancy's Without Remorse will likewise stream in April, while Tom Cruise in Top Gun: Maverick, true to its flying form, has managed to out-maneuver the chopping block, for now (a number of drive-ins are playing Coming 2 as well, out of general courtesy).

Having tried to re-watch the original several times, I can't ever seem to get past the first half hour without being distracted by something or other (not the movie's fault, more my own insolence or intemperance), but I will take the sequel at its word that enough plots points from the original were not satisfactorally resolved.

It is probably unwise to discuss either Coming to America nor Coming 2 America without placing them firmly in the almost unbelievable streak committed to film history by a young man in his 20s, who debuted on SNL at 19, had his first film 48 Hrs. gross $78m in 1982 (we can surely syphon off a few million to co-star Nick Nolte's credit, if you like), and who proceeded to outgross all three (four) Ghostbusters put together in 1984, when Beverly Hills Cop won the year with $234m (though various Ghostbusters re-releases have since gone and settled that score. Hmph).

Question: when was the last time a 23 year-old starred in a film that made $600m (today's money), and which also was not a previously established, and irritatingly popular, franchise? Answer: I don't know. But it was probably Eddie Murphy in 1984.

So, by the time Coming to America, the story of an African prince who for some unbeknownst but totally plausible reason searches specifically for an American bride, was released in the summer of 1988 to the tune of $128m, it was just another day in the park for its star. A mere 128 million, you say? Why not 129? And after a decade, the 2010s, whose box office highlight was probably Tower Heist (though Dolemite Is My Name was quite good), Murphy had obviously seen the Coming franchise and its millions of devoted fans awaiting King Akeem's next step, as the right comeback on the biggest screen. But the world had other plans.

Craig Brewer, who helmed Murphy's Dolemite but has never quite directed an outright comedy, was chosen to shepherd this adventure, and the supporting cast is so numerous as to inspire multitudinous character posters, none of which were fated to adorn the musty, refrigerated walls of U.S. theatres - Arsenio Hall (!) returns as Murphy's trusted confidante, Jermaine Fowler is the king's illegitimate son, James Earl Jones is the royal-father (shades of The Lion King...), and Wesley Snipes leads some rival nation, probably wearing very dark sunglasses, which makes him evil. I knew I spotted Louie Anderson on one of those character posters, so I won't double-check.

Funny people. And there's no doubt the film will probably be quite successful on its platform, though this is another set of numbers moved out of our jurisdiction, box office grosses we shall never see.

Opening weekend: $45,000 (drive-ins)

3. Raya and the Last Dragon (March 5th)
36 years after Berry Gordy and the Last Dragon, comes...

another original idea, actually. One might guess that you've heard of Raya the legendary warrior somewhere in time, but this Disney Studios animated film is not based on a pre-existing goodie or ancient Asian legend, rather tracing its origins to just a thought, inside a kernel, dug out of a grain, from a pair of weary screenwriters bustin' it at a late-night brainstorming session.

And with all the release dating chaos around us, Disney delivers this film just three months later than expected, but with a slight change to account for 2020s-era strategy: while Mulan bypassed North American theatres (... noooooo) alltogether and was immediately offered at exorbitant premiums on Disney+; and Soul was presented as a sort of lovely Christmas gift for subscription-price only (a gift I've yet neglected to open, of course); Raya and the Last Dragon gets more of a grab-bag free of all, though free is not the appropriate word, as the film both opens in theatres and then sells itself for premium charges again the very same day on the plus. In the tradition of HBO Max. Choose your own adventure here.

The story is about a fictional Asian land beset by strife that only the title pair can restore, provided they ever find each other (and then work out a really good battle plan. seriously). As usual with tales of Asian-set warrioresses, there is indeed a dragon among other magic paraphernalia, familial intrigue and pooh-pooing, and lush and very green landscapes animated to the tiniest blurt and better viewed on the big throbbing screen (which your home theatre may well have achieved status of by now, I don't know. Due to the evolutionary process, the living room will soon outsize the cinema hall, I expect).

The cast is led by quirky actresses in voice-over mode - the title roles are respectively Kelly Marie Tran of Star Wars and Awkwafina of everything else - putting on the CGI goggles in life and coming out a mighty and unbreakable being bound into cinematic eternity, basically the same process depicted in Ready Player One, or the one that created Stunner (google her).

Other mighty warriors and mythical beasts open their mouths and sound just like Gemma Chan, Sandra Oh, and Daniel Dae Kim, not to mention uh, Alan Tudyk, whose voice at least is usually invited to any country's party (hear him in Moana or Aladdin). And the direction is by Don Hall of Winnie the Pooh and Big Hero 6 and Carlos López Estrada of the seemingly unrelated Blindspotting (Disney always has a pair co-direct these things, in case one proves disloyal). The film seems ready to open in the high single digits, and the lack of direct competition for a few good weeks should triple or quadruple its share, especially as the sun gets brighter and many more mighty theatre doors spring open once more.

Total gross: $25 million


4. Nobody (March 26th)
Bob Odenkirk, who has worked in film and television just one way or another since 1991, gets his first lead role on the big screen in 2021. From the fact of his age, you can surmise that he is playing either a struggling suburban resident undergoing the moral and social terror of that socio-economic designation; or some kind of retired former member of an elite murder-for-profit (or murder-for-good-deed) organization who tries to restrain his violent urges for his neighbors' sake but then simply must go back into action oh just that one last t---

Ilya Nashuler (who starred, and as, the man known only as Hardcore Henry) directs from a script by Derek Kolstad (the writer who gave John Wick all those great lines), and the film's R-rated, with MPAA warnings and promises of "strong violence and bloody images" among other goodies, so which way the film is going there with Odenkirk is now self-apparent.

The villains are Russian mobsters (say, how many of those really are in America right now, apparently always so willing and ready and able to supply themselves as potential body counts for retired, violence-prone Americans?); Connie Nielsen is the suffering wife, though not for long, and poor Christopher Lloyd plays Odenkirk's father, all the better to also be placed in harm's way for motivation. In fact, I just don't see the wife and father and, and, and both of Oden's kids making it all the way to picture's end, so it's a rational conclusion that at least a handful of members will be culled from the family tree.

It was old hat when Taken did it, but action-enthusiastic audiences always seem to like that urban legend of an expert with particular skills being presented a coincidentally appropriate occasion to exercise his craft, as long that involves a lot of copious, excessive violence and taught action, stylishly done if ultimately futile to achieve the goals of anyone but the lead character.

Like every film on this month's schedule, Nobody was pushed from its original release date, twice, three times, whatever. And then like a few others, it was actually moved up, ready to face the music. I think that's a good sign. It means cinema is on the way again.

Opening weekend: $5 million / Total gross: $20 million

5. Tom & Jerry (February 26th)
Here is another battle over New York that promises an epic scale and more unnecessary human casualties than even the monster mash opening on March 31st, as the rodent and feline created by William Hanna and Joseph Barbera in 1940 returned again to the big screen from which they hath borne, where they continue their ancient blood feud from which there can be no winner (I would have personally preferred another Freddy vs. Jason movie, but my opinion was overlooked). And per Warner's 2021 rule, as the film opened in wide release, HBO Max began streaming the titans on the same day, at no extra cost to subsc..., etc.

Tom & Jerry has done well at the box office - $14.1m opening! - a figure that certainly puts to quiet shame Tom & Jerry: The Movie, which grossed $3m in July 1993, the same month that Hocus Pocus and Free Willy offered children much more edgy and mature entertainment (no, really). In fact, that $14m take is actually somehow the second biggest post-March 2020, coming in just under Wonder Woman's $16m (darn that Chloë Grace Moretz and her incessant starpower! [imitating William Shatner in Wrath of Khan] CHLOë!).

Critics didn't go raving about either version of the duo's hateful, violent exploits, but the 2021 iteration expands the scope a little in the search for grandeur: Tom and Jerry are, as always, quite animated in the literal sense, CGI be darned, but while 1993 was a wholly animated film, the new edition places the cartoon characters in a live action bustling cityscape with horrified humans who earn actual paychecks to co-star amongst them.

Tim Story, who directed Fantastic Four (does it really matter which version?), handles those duties here, while Tom and Jerry grunt and squeak with archival vocals by legends like June Foray, Mel Blanc, and William Hanna, along with current great Frank Welker (the guy who's voiced Fred Jones of Scooby-Doo since 1969, and still sounds 20 enough). And joining the profitable Ms. Moretz in the arena are Michael Peña, Colin Jost, Rob Delaney, and Ken Jeong, all the better to supply more of the film's comedy; the cast list goes on from there, for some time.

There are a couple of reasons that may explain the film's totally inexplicable success - "the only game in town" factor, the first big children's movie since The Croods 2 in November (and that, in itself, has grossed $50m), the preponderance of recent straight-to-video Tom and Jerry titles warming up the ground, and the sense, perhaps, that the unfortunate global situation is coming to an end. 2021 gives us Tom & Jerry as the first of many much larger steps.

Opening weekend: I'm sure I would have predicted $14.1m / Total gross: $41 million

6. Chaos Walking (March 5th)
Here is the month's first theatrical-only wide release. You couldn't see it anywhere else. Ever.

Action thriller director Doug Liman handles a younger and less obviously beefy cast than the type he usually puts through the ringer (Tom Cruise, Matt Damon, Brad Pitt), this time plugging Tom Holland, Daisy Ridley, and Nick Jonas into another science fiction story, the kind of YA that their presence might already imply, though the material is quite a bit unusual. Yes, Chaos Walking was a young adult trilogy that both began and ended about a decade ago, but the premise: a planet where all women have vanished, until just one happens to magically appear - seems quite a bit more... mature.

There's lots of other cast, mostly male: Mads Mikkelsen, Demián Bichir, are elsewhere on the roster. Would naming any female co-stars be a spoiler? And the film was a serious investment, costing $100m that it will have to spend a lot of the coming months in theatres to recoup. Lot of time.

This potentially X-rated environment (in the 1970s, it would and should have been) is by all accounts explored in a tasteful and non-too-gutter-minded matter (so nothing I would've been involved in); all the more appropriate for the star of many PG-rated escapades, Holland, who is often described as boyishly charming (so claim the editors of this site, although I'm not sure what evidence they have for this exceptional statement) (also also, is it just me or has Tom's career really gone downhill since he wrote and directed Fright Night and Child's Play in the '80s? Someone had to say it).

Anyway, I've long tried to compare Tom to Josh Hutcherson, who also began acting as a young child, then starred in acclaimed indies (Holland in The Impossible, Josh in The Kids Are Allright), and then, then, was a focal centerpoint for a major, decade-defining, if ultimately somewhat unnecessary, franchise (Hutcherson was Peeta in The Hunger Games, Holland does something for Marvel). After the Games ended, Hutcherson's delved into some voice roles and largely eschewed the big screen. Holland has so far fulfilled part of that outline: right before Our Troubles hit, he gave some very uplifting work in two excellent animated films, Spies in Disguise and Onward, and also in Doolittle, which was decidedly not (an excellent animated film). In fact, the man's vocals should be very familiar by now to children who've spent a lot of time vociferously consuming any and every entertainment option over the last year; they could pick that voice out of a line-up if so summoned (very useful).

While not likely to be blockbusters, Chaos Walking on screen and the bloodier Cherry on TV are some intriguing change-of-pace projects for the actor. Let's see if he can revisit his Fright Night/Child's Play-era highs.

Opening weekend: $5 million / Total gross: $15 million



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