Focus on a Franchise – The Cornetto Trilogy

three flavors cornetto

The definition of a franchise may be looser here than I normally would define it within these articles.  The truth is that none of these movies have anything in common other than they have the same director, much of the same cast, as well as reoccurring themes and sight gags.  And yet, the self-proclaimed “Cornetto” trilogy is considered one of the most beloved trilogies of recent years.  The brain child of Writer/ Director Edgar Wright and his lead star and co-writer Simon Pegg, the Cornetto films are three hilarious spoof-movies that perfectly send up different action genres with broad laugh out loud humor and witty, rapid fire dialogue.  Given the sad state of spoof movies today, which are dominated by the horrible Scary Movie (2000) knock-offs, these British imports are a breath of fresh air, and more honorably compliment the genre that was once home to the great minds of Mel Brooks and the Abrams-Zucker team.  In fact, Edgar Wrights approach to genre spoofing is more akin to the Mel Brooks style, in that he’s clearly trying his hardest to accurately recreate his target of parody while also mocking it relentlessly.  As Mel Brooks once said, ” I make fun of the things I love,” and that’s exactly what the Cornetto movies are all about.  Edgar Wright’s trilogy is a love letter to the kind of movies that he himself admires, and while there’s a clear intention to make audiences laugh with each movie, there’s also the sense that the director is indulging himself in the style and excesses of the movies he’s parodying.  Even though there’s a self-aware element to all of the movies in the Cornetto Trilogy, it doesn’t spoil the experience and in fact it’s actually what makes these movies so fun to watch.

Now those of you unfamiliar with the trilogy, you’re probably asking, what is a “Cornetto?”  Well it’s the name of an ice cream cone brand sold in the United Kingdom; think their equivalent to the Drumstick brand found here in America.  So, why use this as the name for a trilogy of movies mostly unrelated to ice cream?  There are two reasons for this.  First, the presence of the ice cream is consistent briefly through each of the three films, which is one of many links that they share.  And second, when pressed to come up with a name for this trilogy, Edgar Wright made reference to famed Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors Trilogy (1993-94) which consisted of three movies each titled and themed around the colors Blue (1993), White (1994) and Red (1994), the colors of the French national flag.  Wright took that same idea and labeled his trilogy around three different Cornetto ice cream flavors.  Sure it was meant as a joke, but the name and the different flavors actually compliment the films perfectly.  You have Strawberry representing the bloody gore of Shaun of the Dead (2004), you have Classic Blue representing the authority of the police in Hot Fuzz (2007) and Mint Chocolate Chip representing an alien invasion in The World’s End (2013).  But, it’s not just the ice cream that brings these movies together.  Part of the fun of watching these movies is seeing all the connecting threads, including reoccurring sight gags as well as where the returning cast members will show up.  Also, Edgar Wright’s distinctive style is as much a part of the trilogy’s character as anything else.  His use of quick, hyper editing for mundane activities in each film is especially hilarious to watch.  The Cornetto Trilogy became a franchise based more around style and content rather than story, but it still works well when viewed as a complete entity.  In this article, I will be looking at each film in the trilogy and show how each one built on the other and enriches the viewing of the whole.

shaun of the dead

SHAUN OF THE DEAD (2004) – “STRAWBERRY”

Before the idea of a trilogy was ever in anyone’s mind, there was Shaun of the Dead.  This marked the film debut of Edgar Wright, who had previously developed the critically acclaimed sitcom Spaced (1999-2001) for British TV along with Simon Pegg.  Anyone who’s seen the sitcom will easily spot the influence that it has on this movie.  Shaun perfectly transplants the duo’s comedic style over the big screen, and Wright and Pegg couldn’t have picked a better genre to spoof than the zombie flick.  Edgar Wright clearly pays homage to the film-making styles of directors he admires in each movie, and in this case it’s the originator of the Zombie genre, George A. Romero.  The movie also begins many of the reoccurring themes and gags that would come to characterize the trilogy in the years to come, in particular the themes of perpetual adolescence and the individual taking on the collective.  Shaun of the Dead centers around Shaun (Pegg) who along with his best buddy Ed (trilogy co-star Nick Frost) must fight to survive a Zombie apocalypse as it invades English suburbia.  The two battle their way across town to save Shaun’s estranged girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield) her roommates Dianne and David (Lucy Davis and Dylan Moran) as well as Shaun’s Mum (Penelope Wilton) and step-dad Philip (Bill Nighy), so that they can go to their favorite pub, The Winchester, and in Shaun’s words, “have a nice cold pint, and wait for all of this to blow over.”  Of course they soon learn that this is easier said than done.

Shaun of the Dead is a classic comedy in every sense of the word.  The gags are rapid fire and it often takes multiple viewings to catch them all.  But, what makes the movie even more remarkable is how well it works as a Zombie horror flick as well.  Edgar Wright does not tone down any of the violence in the movie and some of it does get quite gory.  There is even a scene late in the movie when one of the team members dies and needs to be put down before they turn that is actually quite tense and could easily be seen in a straightforward horror movie.  That shows the effectiveness of Edgar Wright’s style, where he manages to accurately recreate the look and feel of a genre, without sacrificing the comedy.  Wright always viewed his movies in the Cornetto trilogy as “Trojan Horses,” where audiences go in expecting one thing and are treated to something unexpected, and that’s definitely true with Shaun.  But what really makes the movie work as a whole is the chemistry between the two leads, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost.  The funniest parts of the movie always involve these two, whether it’s the scene where they’re deciding which vinyl records in Shaun’s collection to throw at the heads of zombies or when they about whether dogs can look up.  The rest of the cast is also great with their own quirks that perfectly offset the mayhem that’s going on around them.  I especially like the gentile English attitude that Shaun’s Mum and Step-dad have during the chaos that happening around them.  The twists on horror cliches always work in the movie, while at the same time keeping them fresh.  From beginning to end, Shaun of the Dead strongly reasserts how to make a genre spoof work, while simultaneously being a expertly made send-up of the genre on it’s own.

hot fuzz

HOT FUZZ (2007) – “CLASSIC BLUE”

A few years later, Wright & Pegg followed up their debut with another spoof, this time taking on cop dramas in the style of action film directors like Michael Bay and Kathryn Bigelow.  Edgar Wright often cites his two favorite movies as Bigelow’s Point Break (1991) and Bay’s Bad Boys II (2003), both of which are referenced and parodied beat for beat in some of the movie’s most hilarious moments.  But, where Wright and Pegg milk the most comedic potential  out of this style of film-making is by setting it within the confines of a quaint English village.  The movie centers on super-cop Nick Angel (Simon Pegg), who’s reassigned after he becomes so good at his job that he makes all the other police officers in London look bad by comparison.  He transfers far north of the city to the village of Sandford, which Chief Inspector Butterman (Jim Broadbent) proudly proclaims is the safest town in the country.  There, Nick is paired up with Private Danny Butterman (Nick Frost), who’s child-like fascination with policing ends up annoying Nick at first.  But, after a few days on the job, mysterious deaths begin occurring, which are quickly dismissed by the police department as accidents.  But the keen eyed Nick suspects that foul play is involved, which would challenge Sandford’s long standing murder free record, and his chief suspect is the sinister looking grocery market owner, Simon Skinner (Timothy Dalton).

The great thing about Hot Fuzz‘s placement in the Cornetto trilogy is that it really cemented the idea of the series as a whole.  The idea for making a trilogy of spoof movies actually came about during the release of this movie, after many critics and fans noticed the carried over gags and themes between this and Shaun of the Dead.  There are a lot of carryovers from Shaun, chief among them the famous frozen treat, and Hot Fuzz not only puts them to good use, but also expands upon them.  Edgar Wright’s style is also heightened here, perfectly capturing the excess of the Michael Bay style, which contrasts perfectly with the quaint English countryside setting.  Overall, I actually think that Hot Fuzz is the strongest of the movies in the trilogy, just because it is so relentless.  Every gag is aggressively staged and the surprises in the plot are so bizarre that they’re brilliant.  It’s especially hilarious when you learn about the conspiracy behind the murders, and who’s really behind it.  The spoofing of police activity is also hilariously executed, whether it’s the search for an elusive swan, or the epic scale shootout at the end.  Pegg and Frost are of course at their best, especially when they’re delivering snappy one-liners right out of the most cliched action thriller.  But it’s also the supporting cast that really livens up the film, made up of many great British character actors like Paul Freeman, Billie Whitelaw, and Stuart Wilson.  Also, future Game of Thrones Hound Rory McCann makes a hilarious impression as a simple-minded strongman.  Pretty much everything about this movie is perfectly constructed to spoof it’s genre and more than any other movie in the trilogy, it defines the intention that the filmmakers wanted to put into their comedy.

the worlds end

THE WORLD’S END – “MINT CHOCOLATE CHIP”

By the time The World’s End came around in 2013, both Edgar Wright and his stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost had gone on to make other, bigger projects.  Wright worked on a film adaptation of the comic series Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010), while Pegg and Frost worked on their own project together called Paul (2011).  But, throughout their years of success, they still had the intention of completing the trilogy they started.  Thus, after their spoofs of zombie horror and violent cop thrillers, the trio set their sights on science fiction and made their parody of an alien invasion movie.  The film mocks the sci-fi genre as a whole, but in particular, it clearly pays homage to the style of John Carpenter, who covered similar ground in his sci-fi classic They Live (1988).  The plot follows the exploits of Gary King (Pegg) as he seeks to fulfill an adolescent dream of finishing a legendary pub crawl that he attempted with his high school buddies, Andy (Frost) Oliver (Martin Freeman), Steven (Paddy Considine), ad Peter (Eddie Marsan), whom Gary dubs the Five Musketeers.  Gary’s friends begrudgingly accept the challenge, though they all have grown-up lives now and are increasingly frustrated with Gary’s immaturity.  But, their trip down memory lane takes an odd turn when they soon learn that their hometown has been overrun by robot duplicates, all under the control of the alien force known only as The Network (voiced by Bill Nighy).  Gary and his friends ultimately must make the choice, complete the crawl or survive with their humanity intact.

The World’s End was meant to culminate all the themes and gags that Wright & Pegg started in Shaun of the Dead and continued on through Hot Fuzz, and it does an absolutely brilliant job of capping the trilogy.  It may not have the novelty of Shaun, or the rapid fire regularity of Fuzz, but it still is a consistently strong movie in it’s own right.  In fact, it might be the most story driven movie in the trilogy, as each of the characters has a very strong arc that carries them to surprising conclusions.  I especially like how some of the roles are reversed this time around, with Simon Pegg this time taking on the role of the immature man-child, while Nick Frost is given the role of the grown-up, career driven man.  The rest of the cast are also well used here, including Martin Freeman and Paddy Considine who are bumped up to co-star status this time after making only cameos in the previous films.  Gone Girl’s Rosamund Pike also contributes a well needed female presence and there’s even an appearance by another 007, only this time it’s Pierce Brosnan.   The movie hilariously plays around with many sci-fi tropes and some of them are done surprisingly well.  The way that the robots are built like plastic dolls is a really clever visual idea, as well as the way each one glows internally whenever they are ready to attack.  I also like the name Blanks that the characters give to the robots (though I would have preferred Smashy, Smashy Eggmen, which is one of the best lines in the movie).  But, overall, it leaves the trilogy with suitable closure, as the continuing gags and themes in the trilogy come full circle.  Even the Cornetto reference is suitably mocked as just a wrapper caught in the wind.  The World’s End is the most subdued and mature of the movies in the trilogy, and that’s exactly what was needed to lay this series of comedies to rest.

While it wasn’t designed that way, the Cornetto trilogy still represents all the best things that a great trilogy encapsulates.  It builds over time, making each installment bigger and better than the one before it and it stands on it’s own together as well as separated into its different parts.  It’s best to have seen each one individually, so that you can spot all the different overlapping references as you go along.  Usually it takes multiple viewings to catch them all.  Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg are almost always very sneaky with their visual and verbal gags; some even go under the radar for many years.  It took multiple viewings for me to get the Aaron Aaronson gag in Hot Fuzz, but once I caught it I was amazed how subtly it was done.  Even the broader gags are brilliantly done, and most if not all of them still age well over time.  I’m also impressed by the thought and creativity that goes into each film.  Edgar Wright works on many levels as a filmmaker here, as he tries to balance original stories with many inside references while at the same time using every film-making trick in the book and have it all work cohesively in the end.  The end result has made him and his team some of Britain’s greatest and most original humorists of the last decade.  Wright, Pegg and Frost will probably work together again in some capacity, but it’s unlikely that this will become the Cornetto Quadrilogy.  Edgar Wright intended this to be his parody of the Three Colors Trilogy, and it’s meant to stay that way.  It’s hard to argue that there’s any better way to showcase the originality of their comedic talents.  It certainly puts to shame all other recent comedy spoofs.  Top to bottom, this is the King of comedy trilogies, and it shows that a franchise can be built around common themes and jokes rather than a singular plot.  It’s only fitting that a trilogy with so many hidden treats should bear the name of a ice cream in the end.  YARP!!!

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