Friday, May 23, 2014

'Waterloo,' By APBA

Ohmigosh. I have been gone forever.

I’ve been writing this column for almost four years (not this particular column; it just seems like it), and it didn’t strike me until today that this is essentially a chronicle of perpetual and perpetuated failure coated with a veneer of snark ‘n’ giggles.

Look at the survivors left standing – okay, swaying – in the trading-card business; based on their healthy pallor they could pass for the cast of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

Somewhere in amongst these nearly fallen flags is the sports-game manufacturer APBA. I can’t call APBA dead yet, because there is still an APBA company turning out game cards for a dwindling number of baby-boomed traditionalists and electronics deniers, but APBA ain’t exactly cracking off 4.4 40-yard dashes and scoring 7 on the Wonderlic.

If we follow the logic of a previous column where we compared card sets to cars, APBA’s trading cards are the International Scout and Travelall. These vehicles weren’t really cars, because they were made by a truck-‘n’-tractor company and looked it (the outsides were designed with a T-square and the insides featured the unmistakably luxurious touch and texture of painted metal, with accents of opulent cream-colored plastic), and they weren’t really trucks the way International made TRUCKS. They were bastard children, ahead of their time in one respect and belonging to no time in another respect.

They’re also basically indestructible. You remember those Nissan commercials of a couple of years ago that had Nissan Frontiers doing patently impossible things, like pushing a dune buggy up a gigantic sand hill and serving as a surrogate landing gear for a 747? If Nissan had used an International Travelall it wouldn’t have had to stage anything. And the driver could have done it all one-handed while chugging a Hamm’s.

APBA cards were built to be used to play a game, and they were built to last. They’ve never gone out of style because that would require style, and they’ve never gone out of use because the game play hasn’t changed in more than 50 years. You can throw a 1966 Matty Alou into your 2012 Pittsburgh Pirates deck and it’ll play just fine. It might even win a batting title. The problem with APBA cards – and this is only a problem if you look at baseball cards solely from the collectible, fancy-pictures-on-fancy-cardboard angle – is that they’re just a bunch of numbers on a piece of heavy paper with a name attached, and if you don’t play the game the numbers are meaningless. Never mind that if you played the game you can do more with those numbers on paper than you could ever hope to with your garden-variety Topps Stadium Club common. (You could even build a card house with APBA cards, if you were so inclined.) Taken as a group, APBA cards were as sexy as a bunion.

APBA’s lack of sexy scarcely mattered in the mid-90s. As Pokémon rose in the east and sports-card games that were more card than game sunk in the west, some investors alighted on APBA, which at that point was strapped for cash (like it almost always was) and going through a transition after the death of its inventor and the estate sale of the kitchen table that served as its manufacturing and packing facility.

The investors purchased the company’s assets and hired Bill Bordegon, late of Fleer and SkyBox, to supervise the transformation of APBA from a game company that used cards in its games to a game company that used CARDS (nudge nudge) in its GAMES (wink wink).

The master plan was impressive: launch kids’ games first, then a simplified version of the APBA baseball game with photo cards, then do the same thing in football, then roll then out the 600-plus-card master set in baseball, then do a master football set, and relaunch the hockey and basketball games along the same line. The horse-racing set would continue unchanged, to the relief of the four people outside the company who had actually heard of it.

We were brought in to help, and we did a lot: We drew up player lists for the kids’ and all-star games, reworked the basketball game to make it more playable, smoothed out game play for the all-star game, came up with a way to sell booster cards in packs, worked on packaging, wrote rulebooks, helped line up distributors, created collateral materials, and flew up to Buffalo, met Canadian card-and-hockey expert Baron Bedesky, and spent a weekend creating an amazing APBA hockey game, eating fried-baloney sandwiches, and watching the Buffalo Bisons. (I expensed the flight to Buffalo. The fried-baloney sandwiches were on me.) PR person extraordinaire Doug Drotman was engaged to generate press coverage for the new venture.

Everyone connected with the new APBA was dead-set convinced that this Dream Team of card-creating talent was going to revolutionize sports games for all time. And it would have, if it wasn’t for two small bumps in the road: the leagues wouldn’t license APBA and the company out of money (again).

Neither was that unexpected, in retrospect. The licensors could see perfectly well what we were doing, and while they were willing to let APBA make cards for a self-contained kids’ board game in return for an obscene pile of cash, it was not willing to accept a quadruple-X-rated pile of cash in return for a license to make a 660-card set of GAME (wink wink) CARDS (nudge nudge) sold in PACKS (know what I mean know what I mean).

There was a feeling within APBA that our position was sound and we would eventually wear down MLB – and we might have, had we not run out of money.  Seems the investors, in the manner of almost all investors everywhere, had underestimated the amount of money necessary to bring this project to fruition by somewhere between 99.5 percent and 100 percent. The checks were barely printed before they started doing their Flubber act.

The upshot was that Bordegon left APBA after a year or so, the investors bailed, we were off the case, and precious little was left of the expedition save for two kids’ games and a handful of baseball and football all-stars sets.

So let’s start with the kids’ games. SuperStar Baseball and Football play great, if a little quick. If the cards break right you can play a game in less than five minutes, including setup time, making them the perfect games to play if you want to spend quality time with your children, but not too much. (There’s even a shortcut on both game boards, and these games need a shortcut like the NFL needs another mock draft.)

The photographs could use some work; as I recall, we hired good photographers but got their leftovers. The player lists aren’t bad, though like everyone else we believed the Tim Couch hype. Obviously there are no statistics or descriptics on the cards outside of the most basic dimensions, but anything more than that would clutter up the card. Plus there’s that age-old APBA dictum that knowing a player’s height and weight and what sides he throws and swings from helps you as a manager make strategic personnel decisions. Knowing what he did for the Richmond Flying Squirrels in 2011 is not quite in the same league.

The All-Star Baseball and Pro Bowl Football sets were meant to be pared-down versions of the big APBA game, easier to learn and play. They succeeded in that regard, but the scope of that success depends on your attitudes toward sport-simulation board games. If you believe that 32 minutes is not too much time to spend for simulated Joe Grzenda to throw a slider to simulated Cap Peterson, the APBA All-Star Baseball game will leave you nonplussed. If you place a value on little things like seeing the sun a couple of days a week, All-Star Baseball may be just your thing.

The hope and expectation was that the game cards would have photos on one side and game stuff on the other. Since one entire side of an APBA card is wasted space, photos wouldn’t compromise game play in any way. If you were planning on spending 32 minutes having Mark Brunell throw an incomplete pass to Keenan McCardell, having McCardell and Brunell’s pictures on their respective cards might even make the time pass a little more quickly.

However, the photo deals fell through at the last minute, either through lack of permission or lack of wherewithal, so the result is a set licensed by the league and the players’ association that lacks the stuff you get licenses for – namely, player images and team logos on its most important pieces. I hope APBA got its money back on that one.

APBA never got its money back on anything, and there’s the final problem. Games are even nastier than trading cards in the cutthroat business of finding shelf space. (Makes sense: The larger the item, the more it has to be a guaranteed sale for the store in order to justify its position on the shelf.) APBA, for all its reputation within the sub-hobby of game-players, had no name recognition or brand equity on the outside. Some hobby stores carried the game, but not many more than had carried it back in its ugly days. And hardcore APBA players didn’t want their game in a fancier box with nicer graphics and stylish cards. They wanted to roll their clunky old dice and read codes off of their ratty old cards.

So as it turned out, the redesigned APBA was a cure in search of a disease. It was a better product for a world that didn’t want a better product but the same product over and over again, or failing that, no product at all.

Like most other efforts at making collectibles where collectibles had not existed previously, APBA failed. It popped out of the sump for a brief moment, sniffed the air and went right back. But in terms of what could have been, ah, there APBA was something special. APBA was just a half-circle away from ABBA and just a couple of breaks away from something big.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Top of the Order … Bottom of the Barrel

So I was watching X Games Aspen the other day and it struck me how impertinent it is to have a made-for-TV competition featuring largely made-up sports so close to the Winter Olympics. It’s like running a “Mythbusters: David Blaine” episode right before Blaine vanishes Wichita. After four score and seven years' worth of coverage of obviously made-up X Games events, people might think there’s no purpose to biathlon and team handball and yachting and short-track speed-skating and rhythmic gymnastics and all the other, older made-up events that comprise an Olympics. I realize there was a time when shot-putting got soldiers ready for war, but those were the days when warfare consisted of lobbing pots of boiling oil onto hordes of Gauls trying to scale the walls of a dung-daubed castle. Now, of course, drones do it.
It also marginalizes snowmobile-flipping. Call me revisionist, but I maintain that cranking a Ski-Doo up to 90 miles an hour, propelling it off a ramp and spinning it three complete revolutions before landing is every bit as much of an athletic feat as sliding on your belly down a glorified toboggan run. The only difference is the motor and the three complete revolutions, and those are way cooler than anything the luge track has to offer unless A) you really like the sound the word “luge” makes in the back of your throat or B) you like plastic-coated Austrians.
(I sent this to Jim McLauchlin because I was kinda proud of what I had written, and as always he had a retort. It goes like this: “My favorite sport is always biathlon, which should be retitled, ‘What The Finns Have To Do Every 40 Years When The Russians Invade.’ In fact, I'd be willing to bet that EVERY biathlon medal ever has been won by a Finn, with the exception of like, maybe one by a Russian who was a particularly good shot and was kinda hungry. Here's an idea: Loose three Ivans and three Finns in the woods with rifles and skis. The three who make it out get medals.” So naturally I went back and checked. A Finn has never won gold in the biathlon, but a lot of Russians have – and the Russians have dominated the pursuit competition. McLauchlin might want to double-check the over-under on the Ivans.)
I don’t know where exactly I’m going with this, other than back to sport. The Olympics and the X Games remind us what the Super Bowl doesn’t: all sports are made-up. No sport serves a purpose other than to institutionalize play. Nothing wrong with play, by the way; I’m a huge play fan. My life has been spent making everything seem like play and so far, so good.
Taken from that standpoint, though, sports cards are sort of ridiculous. Why would you take a picture and put it on a piece of cardboard to heroify someone playing a game? My kids built an igloo over the weekend, and I didn’t feel like I had to put them on a card for that, even though igloo-building shares its chassis and other important bits with playing in the Super Bowl.
(I’m allowed to say “Super Bowl,” right? Super Bowl Super Bowl Super Bowl Super Bowl. I guess I can.)
I never knew a single person in the trading-card industry who wrestled with this ethical dilemma any more than they wrestled with Hacksaw Jim Duggan. They would have let Larry Zybysko put them in a figure-four deadfall in return for a baseball license, but alas, Zybysko was all tied up with Gorilla Monsoon, and the licenses were all tied up with Upper Deck.
However, a few enlightened trading-card folks did realize that as the price and sophistication of sports cards increased their play value decreased. They also saw their lunch being eaten by Starmies and Hitmonchans and all the variegated witches and wizards of Magic: The Gathering. These were cards you could play with; they were cards you had to play with, because taken at face value they were as engaging as a subway pass.
And they sold. God they sold, and they cost next to nothing to make. Some cardmakers got mad at their success; others tried to get even. If they can sell the excrement out of made-up-cards of made-up things used to play a made-up game, they reasoned, we should be able to sell quadruple the excrement out of made-up cards of real players used to play a made-up game. And so it came to pass that Topps, Donruss, Fleer, and Upper Deck, in addition to longtime baseball-game maker APBA, came out with sports cards that were gamified to one degree or another.
Of course, these days everything from your colonoscopy to your taxes are gamified, and we expect it. Figurative millions are buried casketless each year because online casket sites don’t give out extra lives. Well, 20 years ago sports cards were being gamified, and no one found it novel. Or compelling or entertaining, either, but we’re getting to that.
Upper Deck affixed sort of a game border to the Special Edition chase in its 1995 baseball. The game was of the one-action-per-card variety, meaning it would take a whopping pile of cards to play and the desire to crease and dog-ear to death what ostensibly were added-value cards. It was a half-hearted nod in the direction of games, and it couldn’t have been less of an empty gesture if it had been endorsed by Joe Montana and Martha Stewart.
(Conceptually the Upper Deck game was identical to the winner-and-still-champeen of baseball-game trading cards, the 1968 Topps Baseball game set, albeit at 400 times the per-pack price. The ’68 game cards were awesome. The art was spectacular, the player roster couldn’t be beat, and the game played like butter. I played the World Series over and over with those cards for years afterwards, almost always pitting the Phillies against the Brewers. The Brewers usually won, in spite of the heroic efforts of Phillies pitcher Ron Diorio. I had a Ron Diorio thing going on for years, and I have no idea why a Alaskan kid transplanted to Wisconsin would get so far behind a Philadelphia pitcher with a whopping 25 major-league games and no decisions.)
Donruss’ contribution to playtime was a full-blown game called Top of the Order. It was one of two sports games the cardmaker produced in 1994, the other being Red Zone football. The game cards shared the same basic layout and structure – 80-card base set, booster packs, similar-looking quasi-design -- but game play between the two games was like the difference between reading this column and my master’s thesis. One is light and fast-paced; the other is formulaic, plodding, and sort of pedantic. (Yeah, my master’s thesis was that good.)
I guess you could say Top of the Order was realistic in that regard, but I’m not looking for realism when I sit down to play a baseball card (or board) game. I’m looking to have fun playing a game. Any resemblance it bears to real baseball is a bonus.
That may be why the ’68 Topps baseball game is so much fun. It follows the basic rules of baseball – three outs, nine innings, team with the most runs wins – but doesn’t go much deeper than that and doesn’t care to. It’s made for nine-year-olds. You just flip cards and let wang chung. Sometimes it chungs your way and sometimes it doesn’t, and there’s nothing you can do about it. I don’t mind that lack of control; it makes me feel like I’m nine years old again, and any sort of caloric intake I can dream up is A-OK.
Back to Top of the Order. The cards were color-coded with actions that came into play when you spun a play wheel. Dice were involved, too, and I believe a specially licensed magic 8-ball. In the end, taking a turn involved implementing an action, spinning a wheel, drawing a card, implementing another action, consulting the magic 8-ball, doing a couple of battements, and pinching yourself hard to wake up.
Realistic, right? The only thing missing that would make this just like real baseball is the hot dogs. And the baseball.
Top of the Order plays only slightly less ponderously than Pursue the Pennant, the sports-simulation game most popular with tree sloths and woolly mammoths, though PtP rewards the extremely patient and clinically dead with some highly realistic outcomes.
We’re going to be spending some time with these sports-cough-simulation games over the next several weeks, and we’ll come back to this point many times, but just to get this out there, the reason why something like Pokémon got the popularity and sports-simulation card games didn’t is because there are no preconceived notions in Pokémon and baseball is nothing if not preconceived. There was no way Kevin Stocker could be the big hero in Top of the Order because we already knew Kevin Stocker the human being from his performance in Major League Baseball: Human Being Edition, and he was no hero. And if he perchance was exposed to a special Top of the Order chemical cocktail (including gummies) that transformed him into the TOTO version of Elastic Man and he took Eric Gagne deep downtown and became the hero of heroes, we’d say the game’s wacked. On the other hand, your Venusaur can play Vine Whip for 25 straight turns and no one thinks it’s a flaw. It’s what Venusaur does – and even though it’s just freaking Vine Whip, it’s still more compelling in the artificial realm of the game table than a 100-mile-an-hour Randy Johnson fastball.
That’s the long, master’s-thesis way of saying that baseball simulation games that try to simulate too much are a bad idea, though so are baseball games that don’t simulate enough. We’ll look at another failure to learn that lesson next time.

Friday, January 24, 2014

All Talking! All Singing! All Cockroaches!

If we’re going to discuss the modern cinema with any degree of intelligence we need to distinguish between stoner movies and stoned movies.
Stoner movies are movies made by people who aren’t on drugs for people who are. You can trace them from the Salvador Dali sequence in Spellbound through Lost Weekend and The Fly to The Trip to Up In Smoke and (N)Ice Dreams to the various Harold and Kumar flicks to Jack-in-the-Box ads.
Stoned movies are made by people who are on drugs for who the hell knows, because they’re made by people who are on drugs. Flying-day-glo-unicorn drugs.
It’s hard to tell the difference between a stoned movie and a really bad one, but it seems pretty obvious to me that Joe’s Apartment is the No. 1 stoned movie of the ‘90s.
I don’t know what was being ingested by the creative-so-to-speak forces behind Joe’s Apartment, but Jay-Z has to take out a title loan to afford an ounce of it.
Right now I’m sure of two things: you’ve never seen Joe’s Apartment because you’re a person of taste and refinement, and you’re dying to know the plot. I use hand sanitizer every time I call this burrito filled with random events a plot, but here goes: A country boy named Joe moves into a big-city apartment and finds it inhabited with cockroaches.
So far so good. It’s not really a plot, but it’s plot-like. It has some plotness and a little bit of plotitude, and its plotivity displays a tenuous connection to reality.
Let’s not get carried away, though, because shortly after Joe rents the apartment and finds it infested with cockroaches he discovers that A) he hates cockroaches and B) the cockroaches can talk. ( I realize it would make more sense if B) came before A), but not in this movie. Never in this movie.) And not only can they talk, they sing and dance and display the highest level of human intelligence: They do standup comedy. With matches for microphones. Because they can’t do Kafka.
You can pretty much guess where the movie goes from here. Joe starts a comedy club under his sink for other insects and becomes filthy rich, only he can’t spend any of it because insects pay for tickets using small bits of rotted flesh, dandelion pollen, and the carcasses of other insects, even when they use PayPal.
Actually, that would be a better plot than the plot-burrito that is plopped on this movie’s dirty plate. You can figure it out, if you promise to use no imagination whatsoever: Joe meets prospective girlfriend. Prospective girlfriend is grossed out at first but then comes to respect  the talking cockroaches.
(Because the way for people to respect gross, disgusting insects is to give the insects the power of speech. I suppose. It worked for Chris Christie.)
Throw in a couple of bumbling crooks that are conquered by Roach Power and everybody lives happily ever after, including the bugs, because you, like, can’t kill cockroaches.
Like it? If you don’t you need to cozy up to your friendly neighborhood pharmaceutical representative right this minute, because that’s all the ploticity this puppy can deliver.
It also doesn’t star anyone, with a Subway-style capital “ANY.” The lead is Jerry O’Connell, the love interest is Megan Ward, and the crooks are led by Robert Vaughn (long way from The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Bobby). This cinematic turd-de-force is on its knees begging for Daniel Stern, George Wendt, Abe Vigoda, Al Lewis, Harvey Fierstein, Classy Freddie Blassie or anyone with a dram of charisma to camp it up, but no one shows. They were all at a David Hasselhoff celebrity roast.
Even with all its negative castification Joe’s Apartment might have been able to pull itself out of the sump by its bootstraps, but then you listen to the lyrics the cockroaches sing and you’re right back in the septic soup again.
Here’s a sample: “Garbage, garbage, garbage, garbage, garbage/Garbage in the moonlight gives off a lovely smell (lovely smell)/Sipping sewage with my baby in our little roach motel (please don't tell)/zum zum zuma zum zum zum/doot de doot doot doot de doo doot de doot doot doot de doo doot de doot doot doot de doo doot de doot doot doodly doo/Take an ocean trip on our garbage ship with the cockroach I adore/We'll take a taste of the medical waste that washes up on shore.”
“Positively 4th Street” it ain’t. Or “Mairzy Doats and Doazy Doats,” either.
There’s only one more thing to be said about this celluloid angel-dust aftereffect: Donruss had the trading-card license.
Of course Donruss had the trading-card license. How the heck else could it follow up Kazaam?
You ought to be getting the message that Donruss’ ear for trading-card licenses was crafted of the finest tin, but it’s not all Donruss’ fault. In the pop-culture licensed-product market at that particular time Joe’s Apartment  had multiple positive attributes: It had a soundtrack, the card license was available, and it was made by MTV.
The history of MTV and trading cards as I remember it goes something like this: First the Yo! MTV Raps! Cards from Pro Set (memorably profiled here), then Beavis and Butt-Head sets from Fleer (including – unless I’m hallucinating again – a Flair/Ultra-ish version, since the one thing B&B-H fans want to do is pay more for trading cards), an MTV Toons set that showed all the shows that weren't music videos and weren't as good as Beavis and Butt-Head, and the MTV Films/Joe's Apartment set, and then everyone said, "Uh, I think we’re good."
So the big problem for Donruss wasn’t that it had a bad eye for licenses; it picked a good(ish) license, only at a really bad time.
(Okay, so it picked a really bad license. As former Cards Illustrated editor Don Butler remarked when he heard I was writing about this set, “Yeah, unbelievably a card set about an agoraphobe and talking cockroaches did not become the next Mars Attacks.” He also dismissed its wretched sales by saying, “It came out about the same time as the Flipper set.” Because a card set for a dog movie featuring a semi-talking dolphin takes down a card set for a dog movie featuring talking cockroaches any day.)
The set didn’t do buyers or collectors any favors, though it has about as much fun with the material as your average Project Runway All-Star, with nary a Heidi Klum or Alyssa Milano in sight, sorry to say. The set is pitched in terms of “Etymological Order & Phyla,” making it the only trading-card set ever to be categorized the same way as dung beetles or, yes, cockroaches. (Can’t say these guys didn’t know their subject matter.) Chases include seven Roach cards, because 10 would be too many, and every pack has a free tattoo – yet another reason why tattoo removal is the growth industry of the twenty-teens.
In case you’re curious, the cards were advertised with the line, “The TRADING CARDS crawl from behind the fridge into stores everywhere.” It’s no “He's A Rappin' Genie With An Attitude ... And He's Ready For Slam-Dunk Fun!”, but it’ll suffice. At least it didn’t kill any sales that weren’t dead already.
At one point in the classic screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby Katharine Hepburn is trying to explain to her aunt why Cary Grant is standing in front of them in a peignoir. Her aunt says, quite sensibly, “Why, that doesn’t make any sense,” to which Cary Grant replies, “And take my word for it, madam: It never will.”

The Joe’s Apartment set is like that. The difference is that in Bringing Up Baby you get Cary Grant in a peignoir, and in the Joe’s Apartment set you get talking cockroaches. It doesn’t make any sense, and it never will.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Wham! Bam! Damn, Kazaam!

George Santayana never worked in the movie business, and that’s a good thing for all concerned. Instead of “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” we would have had, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to remake it.”
We’re plagued with remakes as it is. New movie versions of Annie, Robocop, Godzilla, and Gilligan's Island are coming in 2014, along with TV-series versions of everything from Fargo to The Road To Bountiful.
Fortunately, the search for new stars for these new/old shows has shifted from athletes to rap artists to internet sensations and reality-TV stars. While this hasn’t brought us to the point where Phil Robertson stars as Miss Hannigan (“Scrub them floors, girls; you’re a-gonna be married in a couple months!”), it has upped the thespian quotient somewhat. I don’t know what kind of acting chops you need to star in Something Borrowed, Something New or get thrown by a Sit ‘n’ Spin through a plate-glass window, but it has to be more than what it takes to drain stepback three-pointers. And more importantly, it’s quelled the clamor to remake Kazaam.
You’ve probably forgotten Kazaam; I had until I stumbled upon this promo card this morning, and I’d really liked my life up to that point. But Kazaam brings back memories I’m not sure I want to remember.
For those of you who are not completely up to speed on pooch-screwing, shark-jumping, egg-sucking movies of the late ‘80s and ‘90s, Kazaam was a thinly veiled (no pun intended) remake of Aladdin, with Shaquille O’Neal in the Robin Williams role.
Shaquille O’Neal as a seven-foot-one, three-hundred pound genii that grins a lot, wears size-18 curly-toed velvet slippers, sports a Superman tattoo, talks like a cement mixer full of stove bolts, raps with the rhythmic sensibilities of Flo, and can’t shoot free throws: Why didn’t I think of that? And better yet, why didn’t I think of throwing myself on top of that puppy of a license like a Sgt. Rock hero flinging himself onto a live grenade to save the rest of his platoon?
I couldn’t do that last thing, because Donruss beat me to it.
When I think of non-sports cards, I don’t immediately think “Donruss.” And when I think “Donruss non-sport cards,” my mind trips back pleasantly to Odd Rods and images of Bill Spaceman Lee lookalikes stuffed into GTOs with engines the size of the Sears Tower protruding from the hood. I had actually forgotten that Donruss, just like every other cardmaker flush with sport-card loot, had gamboled barefoot through the poison ivy of the non-sport market in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
A smorgasbord of licenses and properties were laid out before these rich, innocent cardmakers. Some of the properties were jewels, some were paste, and some were the toneless, plotless brainchildren of committees of bean-counting corporate yes-men doing their best Wolf of Wall Street impersonations, movies that made Ishtar and Heaven’s Gate look like Seven Samurai and The Seventh Seal.
And then, underneath those, was Kazaam
It's no My Giant, that's for sure. And acting-wise, Shaq is no Georghe Muresan.
Since I had to read the copy on the promo card, you need to share my pain. “This summer, Shaquille O’Neal materializes into theaters in Kazaam, a major motion picture featuring Shaq in his first movie role as a wise-crackin’ Genie for the ‘90s,” the card reads. “And you can collect all of Shaq’s magic in Kazaam Trading Cards exclusively from Donruss this summer!”
And then, underneath this deathless prose, lest you get any ideas to the contrary, the card sports another big “Exclusively from Donruss.”
No problem, dude. You got this one all to yourself, free and clear.
You can see what Donruss was thinking. It couldn’t be any more transparent if their corporate skull was made out of cellophane. Shaq sells. Shaq sells. Anything Shaq sells. A Shaq movie’s gonna sell. And a Shaq card set of a Shaq movie has to sell. Right? RIGHT?
Amazingly, Shaq is not the worst thing about Kazaam. (He’s not the best thing either, but only because there is no sense in using the word “best” around Kazaam.) The worst thing is the slogan: “He's A Rappin' Genie With An Attitude ... And He's Ready For Slam-Dunk Fun!” The second-worst thing is the plot, which was fished out of a dumpster behind Nickelodeon’s world headquarters. The third-worst thing is the kid lead, Francis Capra, who is so one-dimensional that he makes the Sprouse twins in The Suite Life on Deck look like they’re going to jump out of the screen and plop in your lap. The fourth-worst thing is Shaq’s outfit. His Laker warmups would have been a far better choice than the neo-Babylonian tunic with cardboard bracelets. (The slippers are cool, though. They are without question the best part of the movie. In fact, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and Kazaam are the only two movies where the best thing about them is the shoes.) The fifth-worst thing is Shaq.
Given the essential dreckiness of the movie, could there be any hope for the cards? Of course not. Kazaam the card set is even more formulaic than Kazaam the movie. There actually was trading-card potential here; a bad movie does not automatically translate into a lazy, indifferent set. Donruss could have cut up the slippers and made SlipperCards, or donated Shaq’s pants to a family needing emergency shelter. But Donruss was too far removed from its Odd Rod days to have any ideas on how to fun up a set of cards where the major characters are a basketball-star-turned-cheesy-genie, a nondescript kid, and a boombox. Donruss was just meatballin', trotting out the tired old formula in the service of a movie whose most effective marketing tactic was distracting people's attention from the movie. Uncle Allen Caplan would have known what to do with Kazaam, that’s for sure.
Sometimes we lose sight of the fact that trading cards are a disposable medium. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Fortunately, a Kazaam comes along every now and then to remind us.
Hard as it may be to believe, Kazaam did not represent the nadir of Donruss’ dalliance with the movies. We’ll go there next time.
In the meantime, if you’re an 11-year-old orphan girl, you’d best stay out of North Louisiana and away from strange old guys with beards. Not even Shaq’s gonna help you there.