Revisiting the Collective: Major Hits That Were Critically Panned

(CS: As a follow-up to The Collective Publishing pop culture repost where I looked at flops that are now heralded as classics, I'm going to repost a column where I look at massive financial hits that never were held up as classics.)

Grown Ups 2 made 42.5 million its opening weekend and landed in the number two spot on the box office. This happened despite the fact it currently has a 7% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and it’s a critical success if it gains more than one star in film reviews. This motion picture has been torn apart, just like its original was panned, but this hasn’t stopped movie goers from flocking to the film (despite the fact, one would assume they actually saw the train wreck that was the original).A critic’s job is to be a guide for the viewer or listener, and let them know if a work is worth their time and money. (CS: I don't agree with this definition of a critic now, but I don't think that I really did then either but rather was over-simplifying it for the sake of moving the column along. A critic is someone who is informed due to consuming and analyzing so many movies or music or novels or visual art, but they are less tastemakers than conversation starters.) Some artistic works are critic proof, and their fans will hand over their money to enjoy it no matter how much the critic gags and screams. Here are some massive hits that proved critics can’t always speak for an audience. (CS: And again, I no longer think they should be speaking for any audience, but rather offering their 'informed' insight, 'educated' opinion and 'researched' analysis.) 

All Paintings by Thomas Kinkade: The self-proclaimed “Painter of Light” was famous for paintings about cottages and rural settings that often had a glow. Most art critics dismissed it as kitsch and maybe a small step above a Velvet Elvis. Many art connoisseurs were critical of the fact that much of the artwork was mass produced and though Kinkade likely had a hand in all the originals, most of the paintings sold were produced by assistants. This knowledge didn’t seem to deter his fans, and it is believed that one in every 20 Americans have one of his paintings up in their house. Canada probably isn’t too far from that statistic either, since I know my parents have a small truck load of his works. (CS: To be fair, most homeowners are looking for something pretty but affordable to fill up white space in their house.) 

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen: Roger Ebert in his film review for this big budget motion picture wrote the following to describe his experience, “If you want to save yourself the ticket price, go into the kitchen, cue up a male choir singing the music of hell, and get a kid to start banging pots and pans together. Then close your eyes and use your imagination.” (CS: That actually would be a much more rewarding experience for most.) It appears pot banging and hell music was what the movie going public was demanding, because they happily paid for such a service. Most critics described their experience with this film as torturous, and threw out words like crude, sophomoric, idiotic, and even racist. (CS: Critics threw out those words because they were describing the movie perfectly.)  The criticisms didn’t matter, because people obviously wanted their shiny, smashing robot action, and it was proven by a global theatrical gross of over 800 million dollars. For those that complain that there are no longer any smart and engaging films in mainstream theatres, here is your answer to why. (CS: At least the garbage of the sequels finally caught up with audiences to the point that Transformers: The Last Knight was a big enough box office disappointment that they have retooled the series.) 

Da Vinci Code (Dan Brown): The novel took a critical beating for reasons ranging from the writing style, historical inaccuracies, and attacks on Christianity. There were several harsh reviews that compared the prose to things you often find inside the porcelain throne in your bathroom. The nicest reviews usually compared it to an easy to read generic thriller. The controversy over the revelation that the Holy Grail actually was the child of Jesus and Mary Magdalene, and Dan Brown’s defense that most of his material was based on researched facts was enough to draw in a horde of readers. (CS: Many who I know read the book, were Christians insulted by the premise) It has sold well over 80 million copies worldwide and is ranked as one of the best-selling novels of all time. It is easy to attract an audience through controversy, but there are a great deal of readers who are hooked on his critically derided writing style, because every novel he has written has gone on to be a best-seller now. (CS: As much as I do not like Brown's writing style or how much I get really annoyed that he seems to scream that most of his reveals are steeped in fact despite many scholars arguing otherwise, I do think his success should be seen as an inspiration for all those who have had their writing criticized as subpar.) 

Full House: Critics panned the family sitcom for its entire 8 season run for being overly sentimental, cliché, formulaic, and cheesy. Maybe those are the ingredients that the average American family was looking for in their TV viewing. The series was the lynchpin of ABC’s extremely popular TGIF block of sitcoms. At its peak, the series averaged 15 million weekly viewers, and has continued to be successful in syndication, DVD releases, and book adaptions. (CS: And then Netflix brought it back with Fuller House that they touted as a huge hit too.) You were always able to predict the ending by the first four minutes and everyone was expecting a speech from Danny to one of his girls as sappy music played in the background, but that consistency was likely comforting to countless families. (CS: During the series first-run in the 1980s, for several years we were one of those families that tuned in most weeks.) A critic wants engaging and thought-provoking entertainment, but that obviously isn’t always the case for the average viewer who just wants something light and cheerful sometimes. (CS: A big difference between an average viewer and professional critic is that the viewer is often watching to just pass time while a critic is engaging with a work with the point to be able to analyze and deconstruct it and is doing it with several works in a week thus it makes it much harder for them to appreciate something that is mindless comfort food that is nothing more than an emotional checklist. Though I do believe that a critic needs to be honest in understanding why a certain work may hit that sweet spot for a viewer or listener even if it is not much more than harmless disposable entertainment.) 

All the Right Reasons (Nickelback): I essentially picked an album at random, because every one of them has been critically smacked around. Critics accuse Nickelback of continuously singing about drinking, drugs, and sex; sticking to a formula that causes for repetitive songs; and being derivative of once popular bands like Creed. The funny thing is that many average music listeners claim to despise Nickelback as well, and when All the Right Reasons came out, it was at the peak of apparent Nickelback hate. Despite this universal dislike, the album made the list of 200 best-selling albums of all-time and went 7 times platinum. The tour for this album had sellouts across the world and created 7 chart topping singles. They're one of the top grossing bands of all time, despite the fact that no one seems to admit to actually liking them. (CS: I call this Transformers Syndrome, as I also don't know anyone who admits to liking any Transformers sequels, despite the first few being among the highest grossing pictures of their respective year.) 

Twilight (Stephanie Meyer): Literary critics don’t tend to be 13-year-old girls. This may explain why this novel and its entire series has been a spectacular financial hit that turned its author into a household name while most critics feel the story is cliché, the characters are thinly written and the prose are overly reliant on adjectives and adverbs. Fellow writer Stephen King even slammed Meyer for being a poor writer and feeling the popularity comes from portraying a dark romance in a safe way. Most teenage girls probably don’t care or know about King, and so it didn’t stop the novel from making the list of the best-selling novels of the past 15 years. I keep mentioning teenage girls, but the fact is, I think every other woman I’ve ever talked to has admitted to enjoying it and a few confess an obsession with all things Twilight. I’m also sure that the mountain of money Meyer sleeps on every night makes it easier to swallow all the negativity from critics and her peers. (CS: Meyer's other sin would now be that her series was the inspiration for another apparent literary disaster turned movie franchise, Fifty Shades of Grey.) 

Two and a Half Men: There are some things in life that you can always expect: the sun will always rise in the morning, two plus two equals four, and critics will trash a Chuck Lorre created sitcom. Two and a Half Men is the Lorre series to get the most critical hate, and if you believed a few write-ups, you’d think this series was signaling the end of humankind. It has been one of the highest rated sitcoms since its debut and peaked at 16 million weekly viewers and still consistently lands almost 14 million. The major criticism has been the humour is low-brow and broad, and the show is predictable and simplistic. This series is a perfect example of how many critics expect and watch for very different things than the average viewer who doesn’t care about their comedy being thought-provoking or socially relevant.

Spice (Spice Girls): The debut album wasn’t necessarily panned, but instead was labelled as forgettable bubble gum pop. This is a reminder that critics aren’t fortune tellers, and often can’t predict what will capture the imaginations of the audience. It quickly became the fastest selling album by a British act since the Beatles, and legitimately created some “Spicemania.” They completely took over pop culture for a few years, and almost every young preteen girl seemed to want to imitate them, despite critics believing they wouldn’t make for good role models. Spice ended up reaching multi-platinum in 27 countries and sold well over 28 million records. It was a legitimate phenomenon that no critic predicted and resonated with audiences in an unexpected way during a time that pop music was pretty hot and competitive. I do need to dispel any rumour that I was slated to join the group as Boy Spice.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (Lewis Carroll): Most critics hated this children’s book when it was first released, citing that it was incomprehensible and preposterous. Most children recognized that was the point, and the initial 2, 000 print run sold out immediately. Wonderland is almost every little child’s dream where you’re transported to a magical land with exotic creatures and go on a journey full of adventure. The appeal was that it wasn’t realistic and everything was far-fetched, and critics seemed to miss the point the first time around. Most critics today hold this work in high regard, and it is considered one of the truly classic works of children’s literature. It also had been adapted into animated features, live-action motion pictures, (CS: Which could have also got a write-up on this list) comic books, video games, and theme park rides. It is a cherished treasure and all because people decided to ignore the critics. This is also the only work on this list where I’d side with popular opinion over my fellow critics. (CS: Though most critics today would agree with me that it is a wonderful and imaginative novel.)

Moonraker: James Bond was always a little silly and campy, but it had elements grounded in reality. Well, that was the case until the franchise floated off into space with this picture that was an obvious cash grab during the initial Star Wars craze in 1979. Critics were harsh on this picture for trying to latch on to the success of another franchise and creating a film that lacked the charm of the previous Bond pictures. The reception was so harsh that many pegged this as the worst of the James Bond films, but audiences did not agree with that assessment. It may have been the sci-fi fever that was running about, or they saw something the critics didn’t, but this film ended up being the highest grossing James Bond film until Goldeneye was released in 1995. For 16 years, this movie reigned on top of Success Mountain for the franchise, despite most critics deeming it a cheap knock-off.

It may see like career suicide for me to point out how often the audience ignores critics.(CS: Not if you recognize the critic's job isn't supposed to be about convincing an audience to like a specific thing.)  For the most part, the consensus of the critics still means a lot for an artistic work’s success, but sometimes there are just things that are critic proof. It is a song or movie or book that resonates with a large group in a way that no critic could predict or understand. What is an artistic work that you loved that most critics panned?