Saturday Matinee #143: "Geri's Game" (November 24, 1997)
Published September 28, 2013
by Albert Gutierrez
Chess. Two players. One objective. Multiple strategies. Millions of moves. It's both the simplest game in the world, as well as one of the most complex. Yet, at the same time, could be wholly predictable when played by the most adept of players. One of my favorite "Doctor Who" quotes stems from the 1978 serial, "The Androids of Tara." As the episode opens, the Doctor is playing chess with his robot dog, K9, while companion Romana looks on:
The Doctor: I just feel I deserve a little break. After all, we've got half the segments. I prefer to play chess.
Romana: Really. Materialisation in fifteen seconds. (looks at the chessboard) Mate in twelve.
K9: Correction, mistress. Eleven.
Romana: Eleven? Oh yes. Sorry, K9.
K9: Apologies are unnecessary, mistress.
The Doctor: Mate in eleven? Oh yes, oh yes. Well, that's the trouble with chess, isn't it. It's all so predictable.
After this, they put the chess away and resume their adventure. But the Doctor's line that it's all so predictable is both humorously ironic, and remarkably true. Every game would presumably end the same way, but most amateur players have no way of foreseeing so many moves head (and the many alternative moves one must make if the other player surprises them). I'm rather novice at chess; while I learnt the game when I was very young, I always just play for fun more than for strategy. More often than not, I'll lose matches, but I always find it more fun trying to keep alive whatever players I have left, rather than find ways to defeat the opposing team. Thus, when I first saw the 1997 Pixar short, "Geri's Game," I found myself both immensely amused, and immediately sympathetic towards "Calm Geri."
An old geriatric (get it, Geri's Game? Geriatric?) has come to the park to play a game of chess with the most difficult player he knows: himself. After meticulously setting up both sides of the board, Geri puts on his glasses, studies for a moment, and makes his first move with the white pawn. He then removes his glasses, gets up, and shuffles to the other side of the table. There, he has a bit of a snicker as he grabs a black pawn and strikes it down onto the board with a gleeful, "Ha!" The game's begun.
Geri alternates sides, playing for both the white pieces and the black pieces. His more diminutive side loses quickly towards his aggressive self, as the Pt. Richmond Hand Made Pixar Shorts box gets filled with white pieces, while none of the black players have been taken. By the game's near-end, all but the White King have been taken. The aggressive self laughs at his victory, but the other Geri then fakes a heart attack (!), collapsing on the ground. Aggressive Geri checks his own pulse (nothing to worry about), then bends down to check on his... self? Calm Geri uses this moment to turn the board 180-degrees, so that he now controls the black pieces, and his other self the lone, white piece.
Geri studies the board once more, motioning to his self that he's fine. And he strikes a piece into checkmate with the lone king. Aggressive Geri can't believe it. Calm Geri just smiles. He knows the prize. Aggressive Geri pulls the dentures out of his pocket and places them on the table. Calm Geri grabs them, puts them in his mouth, and smiles. And laughs. And wins. So much win.
Every time I watch this cartoon, I can't help but get caught up in the madcap quickness of the game. It goes by like gangbusters, making us forget that both players are still actually just the one person. But the joy is not in the illogical presentation. Rather, the character of Geri in both forms takes center stage. Playing against himself, he shows the two common sides in sports: aggressive competition, and a defensive calm. Look at this cartoon. You'd be hard-pressed to find another that celebrates both sides equally, while still delighting in causing both a narrative confusion and an in-the-moment glee. The slick camera editing and quick shots do help sell the idea of two separate players, even though we know they are one and the same. Still, be on the lookout for the intentional one-shot with both Geri's present.
I like this cartoon, perhaps more than I let on. Not necessarily for the fun, but for the sentimentality. One of my favorite memories of watching A Bug's Life occurred during a party at our house. All our relatives gathered together to watch the film on VHS, and as soon as "Geri's Game" began, one of the older cousins quipped in the back that Geri looked like our grandfather, which got plenty of laughter from all of us as we hadn't made that connection. He wasn't at that particular party, but since then, every time I'd watch "Geri's Game," I feel like I'm watching my grandfather.
"Geri's Game" made its premiere at the Laemmle's Monica Theatre, although the rest of the nation will always associate it with Pixar's second animated feature, A Bug's Life. It's on DVD for that film, and continued to make the jump to Blu-Ray as well, while also making an appearance in the Pixar Short Films Collection (Volume One), where it's joined by a commentary from director Jan Pinkava.