Small Box to Wide Screen

The first two seasons of the TV series “Veronica Mars” earned the show a rabid fan base. It took the Private Eye genre that was popular before “Law and Order,” “CSI” and their clones dominated the broadcast TV schedules, and turned that genre on its ear by having the hero be a female High School student who helps her P.I. father. It helped that the show had a sharp wit and the sacasm of hard-boiled dialogue rolled well off the tongues of teenagers. The series also blended its humor with a strong dose of adult themes to which teens could relate. One case was broke because of an STD infection. The show ran on the small United Paramount Network (UPN) for those first two seasons, but then UPN and the other small network at that time, the WB, went belly up. The remnants of the two became the CW network. VMars had a lackluster third season after the characters graduated and went to college, and it was canceled following that season. It lived on in DVD sales and reruns that you can still find on some of the cable networks. But the fans, who call themselves Marshmallows, held out hope that the series would make the jump to the big screen.

The two notable jumps have been “Star Trek” and “Firefly.” After its cancelation 1968, after three seasons like VMars, “Star Trek” found a much wider audience through reruns – no DVDs or videos in those days. The conventions began as fans came together, and they later grew into general Sci-Fi and Fantasy gatherings like Comic-con. Thirty-five years ago, with fans clamoring for a movie spinoff, Paramount green-lit Star Trek: The Motion Picture. It had a first-class director in Robert Wise (The Andromeda Strain, West Side Story, The Day the Earth Stood Still) and all the main cast members returned. However, it was not that good of a movie. The script basically was a re-write of an episode from the TV series – and it wasn’t even one of the better episodes. The good news was the fans, hungry for a new Trek, flocked to see it. It was successful enough that the studio green-lit Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, which was written and directed by Nicholas Meyer. That movie secured the franchise, and all the later movies and TV shows in the Star Trek universe owe their existence to Khan’s success.

“Firefly” only lasted eleven episodes on Fox, mostly because the Fox executives bungled the show. They bypassed the two-part pilot which introduced the characters and situation and began with the third episode, leaving people scratching their heads about what was happening (Old West, Spaceships, huh?). They then put the series on the deadly Friday night, and pre-empted it repeatedly before canceling it mid-season. But its creator was Josh Whedon, who’d already become a geek demi-god thanks to “Buffy the Vampire Killer” and “Angel.” When the series was released on DVD, it found its fans. Whedon managed to put together a movie version at Universal and gathered the original cast along with new characters (including one played by this year’s best actor nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor). But rather than continuing the saga, he gave fans a satisfying resolution for the series. At the box office, the film recovered its $40 million budget, and then did well on DVD. Star Nathan Fillion has referenced “Firefly” multiple times on his current hit show ‘Castle’ – in a Halloween episode his costume was a “space cowboy” – but the actors and Whedon moved on. Serenity was the first motion picture Whedon directed; the second one was The Avengers. He’s a fast study.

With Veronica Mars, series creator Rob Thomas was able to convince Warner Brothers of the viability of the project through a Kickstarter campaign for crowd-source funding. Rather than through conventions or DVD sales, fans this time showed their support for the project by ponying up actual money. The goal was $2 million; by the time the campaign ended, they’d almost tripled that amount. Warners took on publicity costs, and rather than an art house release, the campaign convinced AMC Theaters to book the film.

The good news is that, for the Marshmallows, Veronica Mars provides a much better ending than season 3. The movie is set nine years after the last season, so the characters can attend their High School ten-year reunion. Veronica (Kristen Bell), though, has put the town of Neptune, California, behind her. She’s in New York, about to land a job as a lawyer with a major Wall Street firm. Then she gets a call from Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring), the bad boy of Neptune with whom she’d had a close relationship. He’s been arrested for the murder of his current girlfriend, a rock star who’d only recently gotten sober. Veronica comes out to help with selecting a lawyer to represent Logan, but soon she slips into her old P.I. ways.

The bad news is that some of the weaknesses of Star Trek: The Motion Picture are mirrored in this movie. In ST:TMP, there is a long, lllooonnnnggg scene just to show the upgraded Enterprise. For Veronica Mars, the problem is the massive cast from the series that came back for the movie. There are so many that scenes seem to have been written for no purpose other than to give the peripheral characters lines. Also like ST:TMP, the plot feels like a retread. It’s not an expansion on the past episodes, like Wrath of Khan or Serenity. A subplot on police corruption involving the new sheriff of Neptune (newcomer to the series Jerry O’Connell), veers wildly from tension to caricature silliness. It could have helped give the story weight, but in the end it’s simply a distraction.

There are pleasures with the movie, such as hearing Veronica’s inner, snarky dialogue along with the witty banter of the characters. Also, James Franco has a self-parodying cameo that’s fun. Those who are familiar with the series will enjoy Veronica Mars, so in that way it does pay off the Kickstarter campaign. However, those who aren’t familiar with it may want Cliff Notes to help guide them through the Mars-ian landscape. Or they could binge-watch the first two seasons of the series before going out to the movie. If more people discover what captivated the Marshmallows when “Veronica Mars” was first on TV, that would be a pay off as well.

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