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The Welcome Death of 3-D

If you ask me, 3-D can’t die to soon. Slate’s Daniel Engbar is predicting the death of 3-D movies based on decreasing box office numbers for 3-D versus 2-D versions of the same movies (like Avatar and Despicable Me) and even Toy Story 3–which actually made more on 2-D screens than in 3-D. But it won’t die fast enough for me to avoid the pleas from my kids when Tangled (Disney’s version of Rapunzel) comes out in 3-D this fall. Should I put my foot down, and insist that we stick to the flat version? After all, it seems to have worked for hundreds of thousands of parents of young Buzz and Woody fans. Or can I just count on 3-D’s sliding away, and agree to sit through a few more jumpy, blurry movies before it goes?

If Engbar is right, as the novelty of 3-D wears off, so does our willingness, as an audience, to pay more for it and endure its inconveniences. People jumped through hoops to see Avatar in 3-D, but later movies, like Alice in Wonderland and How to Train Your Dragon, didn’t see much gain in their 3-D versions (Engbar analyzes revenues from both 2-D and 3-D theatres). You might argue that those just movies with the same blockbuster caliber as Avatar, but Toy Story 3 is the clincher: available both flat and stereoscopic (sometimes in the same theatre), it actually made more money on opening weekend on the 2-D screens. Given a choice, some people chose flat (and I’d be willing to bet that thousands of them were the parents of small children).
What sucks about seeing a movie in 3-D? Bari Nan Cohen elaborated at length earlier this month on why she hates taking her kids to movies in 3-D, and I agree with nearly everything she said. I don’t like wearing the glasses myself. One of my kids consistently takes the glasses off, and that makes me nervous both about her eyesight, and her sheer willingness to sit and gaze fixedly at a lot of blurry figures wandering around on the screen: how hypnotizing is this stuff, anyway? (Incidentally, at least one optometrist says watching 3-D without the glasses is “probably” harmless, which is “probably” reassuring.)

What I find even more annoying is that 3-D requires you to focus on what the director thought was important–try to look past the protruding figures on the screen at the surroundings, and blurry isn’t even the word. This didn’t matter much with suburban Toy Story 3, but I was curious about the backgrounds and scenes of A Christmas Carol, and looking at them really wasn’t an option in a 3-D screening. 3-D becomes just another way to control not just our attention for a couple of hours, but our actual viewing experience (I’ll resist 3D television for the same reason. Sorry, ESPN, sometimes I’m actually more interested in looking at the crowd.) But my older kids, still caught up in the cool factor, are big drivers of our 3-D over 2-D choice.

We’re not huge movie-goers, and seeing a movie actually in the theatre remains a huge treat for my kids, an outing on par with mini-golf, a once a season thing. (Our last movie was in fact Toy Story 3, and before that, The Princess and the Frog, for big kids only.) Given that, I’l probably accept Tangled in the big, heavily promoted 3-D version. When a movie’s an event, I can see some merit in going big. But I hold out hope that Engbar is right, and instead of seeing 3-D invading more and more movies where an extra visual dimension isn’t going to go very far to make up for the 2-dimensional characters on screen, the studios resist an overall 3-D expansion and go back to making movies that let viewers focus on the whole screen.

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