The Wrestlers: Fighting with My Family (2012)

I was initially skeptical of the recent, Stephen-Merchant-directed biopic of WWE superstar Paige, Fighting with My Family, even as someone who’s greatly enjoyed following her pro wrestling career. WWE’s involvement in the production led me to expect the Dianetics-level propaganda of revisionist history & TV commercial production sheen the company always applies to their hagiographic retellings of their own lore, which is more or less true to the film’s aesthetic. There’s just something about the its Disney Channel Original energy that clashes wonderfully with Merchant’s sharp comedic wit and the working-class crassness of the wrestlers it profiles, though, that gives it a surprisingly effective, compelling tone. There’s nothing that could have prepared me for the way Merchant worked that R-rated Disney Channel Original tonal clash to the film’s advantage, but I might at least have been less skeptical that Paige’s life story was worthy of the biopic treatment if I had first seen the BBC documentary that inspired it. Produced as a one-hour special for Channel 4, The Wrestlers: Fighting with My Family is a low-key, made-for-TV documentary that’s just as saturated with the tones and tropes of the post-MTV True Life reality TV doc as its later, fictionalized version is adherent to the safe commercial feel of WWE’s self-propaganda. In this instance, however, the story of Paige’s peculiar family dynamic and inspiring rise to power story is enough to make for a compelling picture against all aesthetic odds – just like in the biopic. The Wrestlers: Fighting with My Family is not quite as great of an achievement as its fictionalized follow-up, but it is the foundational text for that work – both inspiring its title and being included in clips during its end credits sequence for texture. Most importantly, it makes abundantly clear how Paige’s early-career story is fascinating enough to justify two separate, surprisingly successful movies.

The daughter of two Northern English pro wrestlers who once performed on television but now run their own local promotion in VFW hall-scale venues, Paige was groomed since birth to be a successful pro wrestler herself. Named Saraya after her mother’s in-ring character and commercially exploited by her parents as (in their own words) “eye candy” and “a product,” Paige’s traveling carnie lifestyle is fascinating whether or not you have an interest in pro wrestling as an artform. That familial dynamic only gets more bizarre as she emerges as the only breakout star among her inner circle, inspiring frustrated jealousy in her wrestling-nut brother and conflicted sentimental & financial pangs in her proud, but possessive parents. The Wrestlers has the exact opposite problem than the proper Fighting with My Family biopic; WWE’s strict press lockout keeps the cameras away from Paige’s tryout drama & professional training here, whereas the latter film focuses heavily on those backstage details in an image-controlled environment. Instead, the doc gets a more intimate and (by default) more honest depiction of Paige’s domestic life, as well as insight into the personal histories of her family. For the most part, the core story told in this documentary does carry over into its fictionalized follow-up, except the biopic has the advantage of backstage WWE access as lagniappe. However, seeing the 20-something Florence Pugh portray a fictionalized version of Paige does not give you an accurate idea of how much of a naïve baby she was when WWE signed her as a teenager. There’s something about seeing this young child shouldering massive familial responsibility and navigating deep-seated emotional resentments she has no fault in that comes through much stronger in this reality-TV doc than it does in the more convenient fiction, even if The Wrestlers is ultimately relegated to supplementary material for a much better film.

There easily could have been a scenario where Paige’s WWE career never took off and this one-off BBC doc could instead have developed into an episodic reality TV show. The MTV True Life aesthetics & gawking fascination with the wrestler’s peculiar family dynamic makes it feel like that was the original plan, that her WWE signing was a freak occurrence that threw everyone involved for a loop. That kind of midstream surprise (a swerve, if u will) always makes for a more compelling documentary, and Paige’s continued prominence in the WWE (which has not always been smooth sailing, to say the least) has only assured this one a cultural longevity it would not have achieved otherwise. At the end of the film, Paige promises she will change the shape of women’s wrestling in the company into something respectable beyond the T&A eye-candy roles performers had been relegated to for decades. She did eventually play a major part in achieving that goal, an accomplishment that helped justify blowing this story up to a feature-length biopic treatment. The Wrestlers: Fighting with My Family isn’t quite as substantial as that biopic, but it does provide additional, essential texture that only strengthens the biopic in retrospect – so essential that it’s featured in clips in that latter text. It’s especially illuminating in getting a grasp on just how young Paige was when she was trained for this business and was signed by the biggest pro wrestling company in the world, which drastically alters how we understand her accomplishments & her family dynamic.

-Brandon Ledet

Surf’s Up 2: WaveMania (2017)

I might be the most forgiving audience in the world above the age of seven when it comes to WWE Studios’ animated children’s media, having given positive reviews for all four of the pro wrestling empire’s crossovers with Hanna-Barbera so far: WrestleMania Mystery, Stone Age SmackDown, Curse of the Speed Demon, and Robo-WrestleMania. Unfortunately, I could not extend my enthusiasm into the company’s latest animated crossover business venture, a sequel to the long-forgotten CG monstrosity Surf’s Up. Surf’s Up 2: WaveMania picks up the pieces of that middling work, which barely made back its budget, by continuing its age-old story of penguins who love to surf. Whatever conflicts the CG penguin surfers overcome in that first film will forever remain a mystery to me, as I’ve already suffered through one too many Happy Feet films to have any desire to catch up with their knockoffs. Still, there was something oddly appealing about the absurdity of watching a years-late, direct to VOD sequel to that nonsense where recognizable voice actors like Shia Labeouf & Zooey Deschanel were replaced by WWE Superstars. I was willing to give WaveMania a chance solely based on the potential novelty of pro wrestling personalities voicing muscular penguins who get off on the adrenaline rush of X-Games style sports. Instead of the penguin-themed Point Break I was hoping for, however, I mostly got a feature length screensaver, one that couldn’t even satisfy my own notoriously undiscerning tastes.

Jeremy Shada (Adventure Time‘s Finn the Human) replaces Shia Labeouf as a surf-happy penguin & Jon Heder (Napoleon Dynamite‘s Napoleon Dynamite) returns as his stoner chicken friend. They seem to have beef with a bully penguin & funny feelings for a Hot Lady penguin who lives on the same beach. Whatever relationship issues or internal obstacles that were overcome in the first film mean absolutely nothing here. These few holdovers from the original Surf’s Up film mostly just serve to inflate the egos of the pro wrestling Superstars that invade their franchise space. Their never-ending beach party is crashed by The Hang Five: penguin celebrities who have a taste for X-Games style thrills and suspiciously familiar names like Hunter (HHH), Paige (Paige), The Undertaker (The Undertaker), and J.C. (which either stands for Jesus Christ or John Cena; I can’t decide). Besides these sexed up muscle penguins, the crew is also followed by ring announcer Michael Cole in seagull form and lead by a perverted otter voiced by Mr. Vince McMahon himself. How do we know that this silver haired otter-daddy is a pervert? He repeatedly​ fantasizes onscreen about milking a fish’s udder with his mouth. The Hang Five crash the beach scene both looking for a legendary surf spot and covertly sizing up the original Surf’s Up crew for new members to possibly join their ranks. Along the way Shada’s protagonist penguin learns to control his anger in the face of bullies, the crew indulges in some X-treme sports, and McMahon drools over the thought of those sweet, sweet fish udders.

Of course, the real draw here for anyone who’s not a a surfer who’s suffered one too many concussions or a child with early stirrings of a sexual fetish for anthropomorphic penguins is the novelty of seeing pro wrestlers’ in-ring personas adapted to the equally unreal environment of an animated kids’ picture. For the most part, their individual personalities are coded in a fairly rigid, one dimensional way: J.C. is the face, Hunter is the heel, Taker is spooky, Paige is all about Girl Power, McMahon is the boss/sexual deviant. Watching this dynamic play out is especially strange in this particular moment for a couple extratextual reasons (namely Undertaker’s recent retirement at WrestleMania & Paige’s recent sex tape scandal), but the novelty of that context will only fade with time. Besides McMahon’s fish udder sucking, the most notable contribution to the film is made by J.C./Jesus Christ/John Cena. Cena’s an interesting presence here. His penguin surrogate delivers a lot of the child- pleasing buffoonery that keeps unshaved Redditors awake at night: he sports dog tags & sweat bands, shows off his “You Can’t C Me” five moves of doom routine, and makes eyeroll worthy statements like, “Eat right, exercise, and never give up . . . on being awesome!” There’s something a little self-deprecating about doing all this through the mouthpiece of a CG penguin, though, and he occasionally pokes fun at himself with lines like, “Wanna hear about the time I fought off a shark with only my camo shorts?” I don’t know if I’m warming up to Cena because of the excellent in-ring work he’s put in over the last three or so years or his sudden string of top notch cameos in mainstream comedies, but I found him to be the only significantly memorable presence in WaveMania that doesn’t involve sucking off a fish.

Surf’s Up 2: WaveMania‘s main flaw is a structural one, oddly enough. Instead of chasing the over-the-top absurdity of its pro wrestlers as X-Games penguins premise, the sequel attempts to normalize the scenarios by framing it as a mockumentary. Over-familiarity with recent mockumentary-style television like The Office, Modern Family, Parks & Recreation, the latest version of The Muppets, and so on makes the casual interview structure of the film feel stale and oddly forgettable, which shouldn’t be possible in any property where John Cena is a muscular bird who surfs and Vince McMahon sucks down “fish milk” (I refuse to drop how jarring that is). I am typically very lenient with WWE Studios cartoons relying on the basic absurdity of their premises, but the results were just too flat & uninteresting here, primarily due to that increasingly ubiquitous mockumentary style of comedy. If the company’s going to continue down this path of teaming up with financially-shaky children’s properties to promote their wrestlers, however, I’d like to suggest that they hook up with Laika next. Not only could Laika use the money most, but I’d be very much down for the stop motion sequel Kubo and the Two Tickets to WrestleMania. That at the very least has the potential to be a memorable watch.

-Brandon Ledet