Remember Jack-Jack, the troublemaking, superpowered scamp from the Incredibles movies? So do the makers of Netflix’s new animated feature Fearless. The film’s premise is basically, “What if an ordinary teenage gamer had to babysit Jack-Jack, but instead of one uncontrollable superpowered baby, it was three?” Add on a few lessons about spending less time in front of a console and more time planning the future and enjoying the outside world — while still affirming gamer culture as the path to real-world heroism — and that’s pretty much the film. It isn’t particularly sophisticated either about its messages or the action it wraps them in. But it does feel carefully calculated about sandwiching its scoldier messages between praise and affirmation for a gamer mentality.
Reid (Miles Robbins) is a high school senior who hasn’t spent much time focusing on school or his offline social life. But he has spent a ton of time playing Planet Master, a video game so legendarily difficult that he’s the first person to ever reach the final level. In the game, a superhero named Captain Lightspeed (Jadakiss) fights the evil would-be space overlord Dr. Arcannis (R&B singer Miguel) and his squishy, slug-like flunky Fleech (SpongeBob SquarePants himself, Tom Kenny). Captain Lightspeed has a wide array of powers, and his infant children seem to have inherited them; Kira hasn’t manifested her abilities, but Xander can create any physical item he can imagine, Green Lantern-style, and Titus has super-strength and can channel it into concussive fields. None of them are very powerful — they can’t even walk or speak yet — but they’re more than enough to challenge an average human babysitter. Fortunately, Captain Lightspeed lives in a world where alien super-sitters are available.
At least, until Planet Master sends the kids through a wormhole to Reid’s world for some unarticulated reason. Fantasy stories where fiction bleeds into reality are common enough, and the crossover is usually driven by some form of magic, technology, prophecy, or fate. Fearless doesn’t bother with even the vaguest of explanations about who built universe-rupturing capabilities into Planet Master and why, or how the video-game world, where Captain Lightspeed fights his battles, interacts with Reid and his controller. Films like Tron and Wreck-It Ralph posit complicated dependent relationships between onscreen avatars and users, but Fearless covers the same interaction without once considering any of the engaging fantasy elements involved in game worlds being physical places full of strong-willed people. It amounts to this: The Planet Master world is real. Reid’s world is also real. And then out of nowhere, he’s dealing with super-babies, and so is his brainy science-project partner Melanie (black-ish’s Yara Shahidi).
It feels like a boon to the story that Reid and Melanie don’t waste more than a few seconds on pondering how Planet Master breached the barrier from the game world to their own, and they accept the “super-babies from another dimension” development pretty readily, without the endless “But this can’t be happening!” circling that keeps this kind of story from getting to the action. Similarly, when Dr. Arcannis also finds his way to Earth, the tough Army general (Gabrielle Union) in charge of response treats the whole thing like a crisis requiring many important-looking files, barked orders, and clipboards, but not particularly like a surprise or an opportunity. (Union telling a soldier, “I want a clipboard handed to me every two minutes!” is almost certainly the funniest gag in the entire movie.)
But director and co-writer Cory Edwards (Hoodwinked!) doesn’t seem to have given the movie’s science-fiction and fantasy elements any more thought than the characters do, and the approach takes a lot of the potential thrills and intrigue out of the story. Maybe the characters aren’t excited about alternate dimensions, alien invasions, and fictional overlords threatening Earth, but in theory, the creators and audience should be. Instead, after a certain point, the narrative just consists of Melanie and Reid logging time with the super-babies until Captain Lightspeed can come help Earth fight off Dr. Arcannis.
And part of that time-logging is spent on a rapid-fire, halfhearted deconstruction of gaming obsessions. Inevitably, Melanie is an uptight grind who needs a little loosening up, but she’s also a driven super-student who lectures Reid about his life, leading to an epiphany where he triumphantly proclaims that it’s time to stop hiding behind his gamertag, Fe@rless. “You know what? I’ve been living my whole life through a screen,” he tells Melanie. “What good is it being Fearless in a fake world? It’s time to start being Fearless out here, where it counts.” “Wow, somebody just got off the couch,” Melanie says, admiringly. Then they go use his video game knowledge to help save the day.
It’s one of many halfhearted story beats that don’t get much setup or thematic weight, but are presented as if they’re life-changing emotional payoffs worthy of Pixar’s best stories. Fearless overall feels like a post-Pixar project, an attempt to fuse big action and humor with a voyage of personal self-discovery, as a gamer learns to get off the couch. And it does one-up Pixar in one regard: where Pixar has struggled to get characters of color onscreen in meaningful roles, all the significant characters in Fearless are Black except Reid and Arcannis. The racial diversity doesn’t make any significant difference to the story — apart from some music cues from Black artists (and a minor recurring DJ character voiced by Fat Joe), nothing in this film meaningfully touches on Black culture or character specifics. Melanie, the general, and even Captain Lightspeed himself are as thinly drawn as any generic heroes in past low-budget cartoons.
That competent-but-unexceptional tack is typical for Fearless’ studio, Canada’s Vanguard Films. Vanguard, the home of middling-to-awful animated movies like Space Chimps, Valiant, and Happily N’Ever After, is known for keeping its budgets low and its turnarounds quick, which shows in the easy shallowness of films like Fearless. It also shows in the animation, which is simplistic enough to look like a Pixar first pass. Some smaller studios compensate for lack of funding by stylizing the animation to create deliberately flat but distinctive looks. Fearless just fills the screen with copy-pasted trees and generic buildings. It’s a detail-light world to go with a detail-light story.
Even as a low-key Netflix time-waster, Fearless isn’t that much fun, except for people who really, really like the idea of super-babies. The babies are cute, and it’s mildly entertaining to watch them wreak havoc on teenagers and soldiers who aren’t prepared to deal with them. But the Incredibles short “Jack-Jack Attack” managed the same thing in less than five minutes, without self-important speeches and with a better sense of humor. Fearless isn’t terrible, but no one involved seems to have put in a level of effort that feels like they got up off that imaginary couch.