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Universal Pictures
Taylor Kitsch, left, and Liam Neeson lead a fleet of ships into battle with an armada of unknown origins (aliens!) in “Battleship.”

‘Battleship’: Universal appeal?

Two weeks ago, Universal Pictures walked away from a deal with Hasbro to make movies based on a slew of board games and toys and the world was thereby saved from big-screen adaptations of Monopoly, Stretch Armstrong, Clue, Risk, Candy Land and the Ouija board.

The salvation lasted less than five minutes as measured by the atomic clock at the Opportunism Institute.

Sony quickly stated that it had staked claims on Candy Land and Risk, and Relativity Media reached out and grabbed Stretch Armstrong.

Expect more such announcements.

In a Hollywood that is ever hungrier for ideas, the allure of board games is universal even without Universal.

When this Universal deal was announced four years ago, board game fans were undoubtedly like the wary fathers of popular teenage girls wanting to ask this new suitor what its true intentions were.

Board games are what people turn to when they don’t want to watch any more movies – when they have turned off all the devices on which movies can be watched.

Most board games lack obvious narrative material. Then again, so do most Hollywood movies.

Perhaps some clues might be found in Sony’s decision to install Adam Sandler as the writer and star of “Candy Land,” the sort of clues that – if they were snakes – would have bitten you.

Where casting decisions are concerned, putting Adam Sandler in “Candy Land” is certainly no worse than putting Edward G. Robinson in “The Ten Commandments,” John Wayne in “The Conqueror” or Michael Dukakis in that tank.

But it is hard to see how Sandler’s lazy, crass and sullen comedy stylings could possibly mesh very well with the sweet, simple board game that is most people’s introduction to the whole concept of board games.

Is it possible that executives at Sony, and Hasbro, are more interested in Sandler’s stylings than they are in Candy Land’s stylings?

Such thoughts are doubtless a crime punishable by going directly to jail after having not passed go.

And yet there is the whole matter of Universal’s adaptation of the naval strategy game “Battleship,” which is scheduled to be released May 18.

Universal’s “Battleship” stars Liam Neeson and is about an invasion of space aliens.

Now, before you middle-aged folks conclude that your inability to recall the presence of space aliens in the Battleship game is just another piece of evidence that your mind is failing, let me reassure you that space aliens have never been featured in any Battleship game.

This is not to say that your mind isn’t failing. You will just have to look elsewhere for evidence, which I am sure is ample.

Obviously, Universal’s strategy for adapting Battleship consisted of mashing up elements from two other successful Hasbro-derived franchises: the Earth-invading aliens from “Transformers” and the futuristic soldiers from “G.I. Joe.”

Neeson is the film’s wing man, the guy who will use his gravitas to convince us that “Battleship” is not the flashy hustler it seems to be.

The key to understanding all this comes down to one word: “brand.”

“(Board games) offer an exciting opportunity for us to develop tentpole movies with built-in global brand awareness,” said studio chairmen Marc Shmuger and David Linde four years ago when the ink was still wet on its deal with Hasbro.

“I think it will be a movie for the whole family,” Wayne S. Charness, senior vice president of communications for Hasbro, said recently about the “Candy Land” film. “It’s such a beloved brand.”

The way brand is used here, the meaning is closer to what farmers do to livestock than what manufacturers do to products.

Hollywood is not interested in board games. It is interested in words that are already branded into our brains onto which it can hang generic plotlines.

Remaining faithful to the Battleship game was such a low priority for Universal, I suspect, that the resulting film could just as easily have been named after almost anything we already have positive feelings about. For example, “Spatula,” “Bouffant,” “Pumpernickel,” “Dollop,” “Geegaw,” “Rhubarb” or “Squeegee.”

I might actually pay to see Liam Neeson in an alien invasion movie called “Squeegee.”

But “Battleship”? Not so much.

Steve Penhollow is an arts and entertainment writer for The Journal Gazette. His column appears Sundays. He appears Fridays on WPTA-TV, Channel 21, WISE-TV, Channel 33, and WBYR, 98.9 FM to talk about area happenings. Email him at spen@jg.net. A Facebook page for “Rants & Raves” can be accessed at www.facebook.com/pages.

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