Nine Cinematic Copycats

We’ve seen it many times before – two (and sometimes more than two) studios first developing films with a similar story and then rushing to be in theaters first, hoping that no matter which project started first, the initial one to hit movie screens will be considered “the original” while any ones to follow will look like attempts to cash in. It doesn’t matter if the competing projects were developed spontaneously and separately from each other or if one was started after a studio exec heard about a project at another studio and wanted his own version, these cinematic copycats represent rather unique specimens for those who study the creative side of the movies.

This weekend sees the release of the second half of three sets of cinematic copycats that have come our way in 2013. The World’s End, much like the earlier, Seth Rogen-starring This Is The End, centers on a group of friends whose night of hanging out together is interrupted by some potenta=ially world-ending events. Earlier this year we had dueling White House under siege films White House Down and Olympus Has Fallen and the post-apocalyptic science-fiction flicks After Earth and Oblivion. All of these films have gotten us a bit nostalgic for other cinematic copycats that we’ve had come our ways over the past several years.

 

Like Father, Like Son/Vice Versa/18 Again!/Big/Dream A Little Dream

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Ah, the body swap comedies. Perhaps the most famous of all the Cinematic Copycats. Between 1987 and 1989 there were five tales of adults and kids/teens switching bodies. I know the 80s were the height of the VCR boom, but you’d think that Hollywood executives would rent something other than Freaky Friday, wouldn’t you?

Here is the rundown:

  • Like Father, Like Son (Released: October 2, 1987): Dudley Moore plays Jack, a surgeon who wants his son Chris, played by Kirk Cameron, to go to medical school. Chris wants to follow his own path. He can’t think of a way to make Jack understand until an uncle of a friend of Chris gives him a body-switching potion.
  • Vice Versa (Released: March 11, 1988): Judge Reinhold plays Marshall, a president in charge of buying at a major department store. When his ex-wife goes on vacation, he has to watch his son, Charlie (Fred Savage), for a few days. Charlie can’t understand why the business orientated Marshall refuses to spend time with him. Each wishes the other could spend some time in the others body so they can understand each other better. Luckily, when they made that wish they were holding onto a mystical skull (yes, skull) that allows them to swap places. Fun fact: This film was actually the fourth or fifth film based on 1882 British novel of the same name.
  • 18 Again! (Released: April 8, 1988): A rich octogenarian played by George Burns is envious of the youth and vigor of his 18 year old grandson (Charlie Schlatter). At his 81st birthday party, he makes a wish that he could spend some time in his grandson’s body. What do you know? It happens.
  • Big (Released: June 3, 1988):  A 12-year-old boy (David Moscow) is sick and tired of being so small. So he makes a wish at a fortune teller electronic game to be become big. He wakes up in the morning in the body of a 30-year old Tom Hanks. When he goes back to find the fortune teller game, he finds it gone. He tries to make due as an adult until the machine is found. The film was inspired by the 1987 Italian film Da Grande, which means that there were actually six body swap films in three years.
  • Dream a Little Big (Released: March 3, 1989): An elderly couple played by Jason Robards and Piper Laurie are performing a meditation experiment to try to have their souls live together forever. Their experiment is interrupted when two teenagers, played by Corey Feldman and Meredith Salenger, collide while using the elderly couple’s backyard as a short cut. This causes the elderly couple’s souls to get trapped in the teenager’s bodies.

The Winner: Well, only one of these films received two Oscar nominations, jump started Tom Hanks’ career, and, frankly, is still remembered fondly today. That would be Big.-William Gatevackes

 

Dante’s Peak/ Volcano

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Seven years after the Tom Hanks comedy Joe Versus The Volcano failed to erupt at the box office, Hollywood tried again. This time movie goers were given the choice between Federal Marshall Samuel Gerard versus a volcano or James Bond versus a volcano as both Tommy Lee Jones and Pierce Brosnan squared off against magma-spewing geological events.

Each are fairly entertaining films, and manage to offer something a different for their audiences. Tommy Lee Jones’ Volcano features an eruption that emanates from the famous LeBrea Tar pits and sends a wave of lava across Los Angeles, incinerating everything in its path, including Jones’s attempts to stop it. It is big on spectacle, making it somewhat akin to the Irwin Allen disaster pics of the 1970s.

Meanwhile, Dante’s Peak is a little more intimate and a lot more scientifically accurate. Once Brosnan has managed to get a small Pacific northwest town in danger of being wiped out by a pending eruption evacuated, he and Linda Hamilton race against time to save her character’s children and mother who are still trapped on the mountain. Dante’s Peak takes a little more time with its characters and concentrates on their attempts to survive, recalling older Hollywood fare like 5 Came Back or Flight Of The Phoenix.

The Winner: Dante’s Peak comes out on top if you’re looking to invest in characters, while Volcano is the one for big goofy fun. – Rich Drees

 

K-9/Turner & Hooch

K9TurnerHooch

Stories about police detectives being saddled with partners they don’t want? They are a dime a dozen. Having that unwanted partner be a dog? That was practically unheard of until 1989, then we got two within months of each each other.

K-9 got the jump as it was released on April 28th of that year. It starred Jim Belushi as a gruff detective marked for death who is given a drug-sniffing dog as a partner. Turner & Hooch, which was released on July 28th of the year, applied an Odd Couple-esque spin on the concept as the Felix Unger-like Turner (Tom Hanks) must work with the Oscar Madison dog-surrogate Hooch in order to solve the murder of the dog’s owner.

The Winner: Both films were box office successes and both had spinoffs (K-9 two made-for-video sequels, Turner & Hooch a TV series adaptation), but Turner & Hooch, with its downer ending and all, was the better film in my opinion.-WG

 

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves/Robin Hood

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Oh, the joys of the public domain. Since there is no rights to pay for the centuries old tale of Robin Hood and his Merry Men, it has been adapted into just about every media at one time or another. And in 1991, we almost had two Robin Hood films in our local cineplexes.

Both these films were intended to be shown in theaters in the United States. But Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves had a bigger budget ($48 million to Robin Hood’s $15 million), bigger stars (Kevin Costner, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Morgan Freeman, and Alan Rickman to Patrick Bergin, Uma Thurman, and Jurgen Prochnow) and more of a media push behind it. Robin Hood lost the game of chicken, and only received a theatrical release in Europe. It did however air on the FOX network for free a month before Prince of Thieves hit theaters. Can’t help but think that was a bit of thumb the nose at its competition.

The Winner: The winner in this contest comes down to what you consider “winning.” Some might say that Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves won simply on the fact that it got a theatrical release in the US (and made a bu8nch of money in the process). But Robin Hood did get better reviews overall and was viewed as being the more authentic of the two, especially when it came to the British accent of its lead actor. -WG

 

Mirror, Mirror/ Snow White And The Huntsman

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And speaking of public domain, last year saw the release of two different tellings of the classic Grimm’s Fairy Tale “Snow White.” Both versions had some things that looked good on paper. Mirror, Mirror had the great stylist director Tarsem Singh (The Cell, The Fall) on its plus column while Snow White And The Huntsman had a screenplay that had landed on the 2010 Black List going for it.

So what happened, as both films faceplanted with critics while doing respectable business at the box office?

Mirror, Mirror did come out looking great. Perhaps not as visually sumptuous as Singh’s other films, but still much better than a film that was ostentatiously aimed at family audiences usually is. Unfortunately, it is in part torpedoed by a performance from Julia Roberts that wavers from shrill to archly silly, eclipsing the more subtle work of Lilly Collins.

Meanwhile, Snow White And The Huntsman script was rewritten a number of times, blunting whatever edge the original drafts may have had. Equally dull was Kristen Stewart’s performance, with the actress being upstaged by most of the action as well as the sets and costuming. Meanwhile, Chris Hemsworth, in the film’s other titular role, delivers something only slightly different than we’ve seen him do as Thor over in the Marvel Studios’ movies.

The Winner: Mirror, Mirror by a hair but only because Snow White And The Huntsman is just a tad too grim (no pun intended) for its own good. – RD

 

Capote/Infamous

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If you had to pick a true life story spectacular enough that it would warrant two separate film adaptations, let alone two a year apart, I’d doubt anyone would pick the years  that Truman Capote spent researching his landmark “non-fiction novel,” In Cold Blood. But in 2005 and 2006, that’s exactly what we got.

Both films had spectacular casts. Both were well received by critics. And both told the exact same story, with the only difference that Capote focused more on the author’s process and Infamous devoted more time to the social circles Capote traveled in.

However, Capote was nominated for a boatload of Oscars, winning one for Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s portrayal of the title character and made about 25 times as much at the box office as Infamous did. That’s a pretty big difference.

The Winner: It has to be Capote. It came first, it made more money, it received better reviews and it garnered more nominations. -WG

 

Armageddon/ Deep Impact

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Released just two months of each other in the summer of 1998, apocalypse dramas Armageddon and Deep Impact served for a brief time as a symbol for creative bankruptcy in Hollywood, at least until the next thing came along for pundits to latch onto. Michael Bay’s Armageddon is the 800-pound gorilla in the room, throwing its cinematic weight around in the form of testosterone-fueled, bombastic spectacle. With Deep Impact, director Mimi Leder instead chooses to focus more on the characters who find themselves in the path of an Earth-smashing asteroid and scrambling to figure out a way to survive. When Bay takes a moment with his characters we get an embarrassing scene involving Ben Affleck, Liv Tyler and a box of animal crackers. Leder gives us something as moving as the embrace between Maximillian Schell and Tea Leoni as a tsunami comes crashing down on them.

The Winner: Bay’s Armageddon is loud, brash and ultimately a bit boring, so Leder and Deep Impact gets the win for making us care about its characters before wiping them out. Also, Deep Impact has Morgan Freeman as the President of the United States. – RD

 

Antz/ A Bug’s Life

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The rivalry between A Bug’s Life and Antz is more than just two similar film projects racing to be the first in theaters.  Disney studio chief Jeffrey Katzenberg had jumped ship to help found Dreamworks and to specifically oversee its animation division. While still at Disney, he had been part of the discussions with Pixar chief John Lasseter over the development of their follow up to Toy Story, so imagine Lasseter’s surprise when the first project to come out of Katzeberg’s new start up bore a striking similarity to one he had been discussing with the studio chief. The last thing that Pixar needed while trying to prove that Toy Story was no one-hit-wonder from the studio was an upstart coming along with a similar storyline.

But Antz was never going to win over the animation work that Pixar was doing, so they put an ace in their sleeve in the form of Woody Allen. As Allen seldom takes work outside of his own projects, the fact that he was voicing a character for an animated film was enough for people to sit up and take notice. And when they did they found a script that turned out to be smarter and funnier than the one Pixar had for A Bug’s Life.

The Winner: A Bug’s Life may have the better animation and out grossed Antz by almost two to one, Antz manages to be a better exploration of the films’ shared theme of asserting one’s individuality within a conformist society. – RD

 

Flight 93/United 93/World Trade Center

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Some might say that there was no right time to make a film dramatization based on the 9/11 tragedy. Some might say that the five years Hollywood waited was showing remarkable restraint. But in 2006, we received three films based on the events of September 11, 2001, two features released in theaters, one made for television.

Flight 93 and United 93 both told the story of the doomed flight of the same name that crash landed in the fields of Western Pennsylvania that fateful morning. Flight 93 first aired on the A&E network on January 30, 2006 and United 93, directed by Paul Greengrass, arrived in theaters on April 28th of the same year. Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center, telling the true story of two NYC Cops who were rescued from the ruins of the Twin Towers, hit theaters four months later, on August 9th.

The Winner: I’m not going to pick a winner in this contest. I just doesn’t feel that it’s right. Some might say that all of these films honor the heroes of that day. Other might think it is a travesty that any film was made profiting from the tragedy, let alone three. I have yet to see any of these films. I likely never will. I moved up to just outside the city three years after the Towers fell, and the wounds from that day were still raw. There was still pain and grief in my town and neighboring communities when the films were released. In all honesty, it will never go away. So, that’s why I’m not picking a winner. Feel free to pick one for me. -WG

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Damon C.
Damon C.
August 22, 2013 9:40 pm

The only thing I’d add is that the Fox version of Robin Hood had bigger named actors in it originally. Then after Costner announced his version and Fox saw that it was going to hit theaters in the US earlier than they could get it out to the movie plex they did a 180. While not unknowns both Patrick and Uma weren’t A list movie stars at the time.