As television shows continue to leave the exclusivity of the set-top box, heading instead toward the internet, film has begun to join the movement. Beyond issues like the controversial start-up Screening Room, which would bring new movies into consumers’ homes while they would still be showing in theaters, some internet-based streaming services have begun creating new and original films which eschew the standard Hollywood process. Amazon Studios released films including Chi-Raq, Elvis & Nixon and The Neon Demon. Netflix’s releases include Beasts of No Nation, Pee-wee’s Big Holiday and their newest film Mascots.
Sports mascots, at least according to the film, are the unsung heroes of the game. They provide entertainment, under heavy costumes and oversized heads, and are watched by fans, even if the team itself will not be. Despite being watched, mascots are not known out of costume and their contributions tend to go unrecognized. As the movie tells it, there is a point in the year where this ends. The story sounds like the slightly more mature version of a Disney Channel original movie. Contestants from across the United States and around the globe gather to compete in the World Mascot Association championship for a chance to win the coveted prize of the Gold Fluffy Award.
The film is shot in the mockumentary style—that of a fictional documentary, pieced together with interviews of the characters. By now, it will be recognizable to anyone who watches popular shows like ABC’s short-lived The Muppets, The Office or Parks and Recreation. The style leaves opportunity for humor that is unique to the documentary format, though Mascots does not contribute much in the way of innovation. It is funny and entertaining, but it does not provide anything very new. There are many good jokes delivered in deadpan, especially through actor Zach Woods, whose comedic style tends toward that direction. The interviews have moments of silence, providing tense awkwardness, and the pauses evoke laughter tinged with sadness or second-hand embarrassment.
Christopher Guest is the director, this being his first feature film in 10 years. His films usually include certain recurring actors and the use of the mockumentary style. In a 2012 interview with Collider, Eugene Levy, a common member of Guest’s troupe, remarked, “Everybody is doing that fake documentary style now.” He told the website that because “there’s nothing novel about that, anymore,” he and Guest would need to find a project that moved them in order to use the style again. Levy does not appear in Mascots. One of Guest’s most well-known directorial attributes is his tendency to include a lot of improvisation. While shooting on film, he would let the camera roll until the reel finished and then would sift through everything that had been filmed to turn it into a movie. Some referred to his method as a “screenplay without dialogue.”
It is unclear how much of Mascots is planned, but some moments come across as underdeveloped or unnecessary, possibly as pure improvisations which were kept in the movie for the humor they bring to it. The first third of the movie is almost entirely introductions. With six mascots, their families and the characters’ backgrounds as the support of their respective teams, the movie begins with a large chunk devoted purely to meeting everyone. This is not a problem though, as the humor works just as well in the preliminary moments as it does once all the performers are at the competition. Interactions between characters provide pleasant entertainment, especially involving characters who are not competing. Michael Hitchcock plays the president of the World Mascot Association, who is running the championship event.
Some of the best moments are his attempts to weed out the undesirables and get the event to actually be televised. The stakes in this championship are a lot lower than might be expected, but it works to the film’s benefit. With these low stakes, the competition still includes some genuine entertainment. One performance feels particularly real and does more emotionally than all the other acts. Among buffoonery, mishaps and an actual modern dance number, there is a pleasant and powerful scene of a mascot doing something great. Mascots feels like a made-for-TV movie. It entertains in the moment but leaves no lasting impression afterward. It is the kind of movie that does not feel like a waste of time, but provides nothing much in return.
Netflix is such a purveyor of quality productions like House of Cards and their slate of Marvel shows that Mascots feels like an unfair representation of the potential of online content. The recently released Marvel’s Luke Cage can be used as an example of something unique and diverse. Though Mascots itself is not disappointing, the way it is presented creates different expectations by which it can be judged.
Many viewers may find Mascots to be perfectly adequate. However, when movies are becoming increasingly unbound from traditional systems, streaming services like Netflix have more to offer than this.