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Photo: Shawn Levy
Movies That Make You Smile
Part of the reason many of us are fans of film is the distinct variety in types of films being made for audiences to watch. Each year, excluding 2020 of course, there are big summer blockbusters and serious dramatic pieces alike releasing on the silver screen. While many of the films that veer towards the more serious, dramatic side of film are the ones we see popping up at the Academy Awards each year, that does not discount the value of movies that are made to entertain. Speaking for myself, the reason I go to the movies is to be entertained by a great story by great storytellers. Director and producer Shawn Levy is a great storyteller, however does not always receive the praise that his colleagues do; I believe this to be a mistake.
Shawn Levy has spent the better part of the last two decades working on films and television series that have supplanted a special place in both my heart and the hearts of audiences around the world. Levy directs in a particular style; his movies are fun. Levy has a very good understanding of how to craft a movie that entertains while also telling a compelling story. Levy’s lighter style to his films is perhaps why he isn’t talked about more as one of the best storytellers out there, but again this is a miscalculation.
While his films may not be arthouse pictures, they have connected with audiences in a way most filmmakers would only dream of their films connecting. Finding something that will connect with audiences is much more of a daunting task than it would seem to be and Levy has cracked the code. Yet despite this ability to connect, critics of many of his films still ring loudly. As I hold so much admiration and passion for so many of his projects, I cannot help but want to praise Levy’s work amongst many mixed critical receptions of his movies. Through a discussion of some of my favorites of his films, it will be clear to see how Levy and his films have gone under-appreciated throughout his career.
Levy’s first big hits came in the form of films geared towards family audiences. Growing up in the early 2000s, my household had many of Levy’s films on loop playing in our living room. One of Levy’s first films, ‘Big Fat Liar’ was one of my personal favorites. Starring the talents of Frankie Muniz, Amanda Bynes, and Paul Giamatti, ‘Big Fat Liar’ saw a prominent Hollywood screenwriter steal the idea for a movie from a middle schoolboy. The film captivated me as a kid for both its whimsical plot as well as its peek behind the Hollywood curtain; yet, the film received mixed reactions from critics.
Another favorite of mine, and many other film fans of my generation, was the Steve Martin starring ‘Cheaper by the Dozen’. The film has everything a family film should: laughs, fun, and heart. The film keeps you engaged throughout then unexpectedly pulls out the stops, tugging at your heartstrings when one of the children runs away from home. All of this paired with a hilarious Ashton Kutcher performance, there is nothing more one can ask for from an early 2000s family film. Unfortunately, the film received fairly negative reviews from critics despite a strong box office turnout.
Another significant film that has carved out its spot in the history of pop culture was Levy’s film ‘Night at the Museum’ starring Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, and the late Robin Williams. With such a unique concept, the film quickly gained popularity — I remember my Mom taking me after school to see the film and being elated coming out of the theater. The film is jam-packed with fun, wonder, and talent with terrific actors such as Carla Gugino, Dick Van Dyke, Ricky Gervais, and Rami Malek.
Robin Williams’ performance as Teddy Rosevelt is one of my favorite character performances and one that makes me miss the talented actor all the more. The film is another example of Levy pairing laughs and fun with heart as Stiller’s character and his relationship with his son is a large and very effective part of the film. The film, despite receiving mixed reviews critically, blew the doors off the box office spawning two subsequent sequels both of which Levy directed.
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Shawn Levy – Broadening Horizons
In 2011, Levy directed the incredibly underrated ‘Real Steel’ starring Hugh Jackman that saw a near future where professional boxers had been replaced by controlled robot boxers. The film is joyous fun with an excellent performance from both Jackman and co-star Dakota Goyo. The intense and exciting robot boxing scenes are some of my favorite boxing scenes in film. The sound design of the film is also exceptional with the metallic clunking of the robots throwing punches rattling out of theater speakers. As per usual for Levy’s films, ‘Real Steel’ has a compelling character story beneath the rock’em and sock’em, with a sweet bond forming between Jackman and Goyo’s characters. ‘Real Steel’ marks another film that saw a mixed reception.
As a producer, Levy has enjoyed much success with his 21 Laps Entertainment production company bringing his style of entertainment with heart to various projects. A great example of the ultimate Shawn Levy-produced project was the recent apocalypse-comedy, ‘Love and Monsters’ which starred Dylan O’Brien. ‘Love and Monsters’, while unfortunately shuffled around due to the Covid-19 Pandemic, released to critical praise and is one of the sweetest movies of the past few years. With exciting action and great characters, ‘Love and Monsters’ is one to check out if it slipped past you. Some other, perhaps more unexpected, Shawn Levy produced films were the coming-of-age film ‘The Spectacular Now’ starring Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller as well as the Denis Villeneuve film ‘Arrival’ starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner.
Into The Upside Down
Perhaps Levy’s most influential project, the 1980s nostalgic coming-of-age series, ‘Stranger Things’, released to universal fanfare and praise to Netflix in 2016. The show harkened back to the era of films such as Steven Spielberg’s ‘E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial’ with incredible child performances from Finn Wolfhard and Millie Bobby Brown as well as from veteran actors such as Matthew Modine and David Harbour. I remember first watching the show and feeling like I had been transported back to my youth, watching all of the classic 80s adventure movies for the first time. Levy worked with the creators of the show, the Duffer Brothers, to produce and direct the series and has so far directed six episodes and is slated to direct two more in the coming season. Just like his films, Levy brings excitement and an emotional core that resonates to the show helping to create the groundbreaking success that is ‘Stranger Things’.
Shawn Levy’s films and projects have been a part of my life for a long time. While I didn’t realize until later in life that the same man directed so many of my childhood favorite films, it makes perfect sense. My favorite types of films induce a wide range of emotions; they usher in happiness, excitement, and fantasy while also pulling at heartstrings and telling potent character stories. Life isn’t all one emotion and having films that mimic that broad range of feeling is what I have always found compelling about Levy’s films. While Levy may have his critics, I will always be indebted to the laughs, thrills, and inspiration he has offered to audiences.
What’s Next For Shawn Levy
By Sean Aversa
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Sean Aversa is a writer for Hollywood Insider, writing film reviews and features. Knowing from a very early age his passion for the big screen, Sean quickly gravitated towards film writing. He is excited for the opportunity to write about films and filmmakers that share his passion for cinematic storytelling. His favorite films to watch, discuss, and write about are those that are striving to find creative and innovative ways to tell stories.