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Why <i>A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas</i> Is the Best 3D Movie Since <i>Avatar</i>

In just two short years, 3D has gone from being the perceived savior of the theatrical experience to the favorite whipping boy of critics (myself included) and Hollywood analysts. Blame the high surcharge that 3D places on the cost of a movie ticket, blame the glut of 3D movies in the marketplace, but most of all blame the studios for churning out such relentlessly unappealing 3D fare. Terrific examples of the format like Coraline and, of course, Avatar have largely given way to shoddy conversion jobs (Clash of the Titans, The Last Airbender), obvious cash-grabs (the upcoming 3D re-releases of the Star Wars movies) and films that don't actually seem to make use of the extra dimension (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, Captain America: The First Avenger). Since James Cameron kick-started the new 3D boom, the only dimensionally-enhanced movies that didn't feel like complete rip-offs were Jackass 3D and Piranha 3D, neither of which could be accurately described as "artistic triumphs." For that matter, neither could A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas, but that doesn't change the fact that the latest installment in one of the young century's most unlikely franchises is also the first post-Avatar production that needs... nay demands to be seen in 3D for maximum enjoyment.* Here are five reasons why:

1. Most of the Best Jokes Take Advantage of the 3D Format
From almost the first frame of Christmas, in which our favorite White Castle-craving slacker Kumar (Kal Penn) -- still a prodigious stoner after all these years -- tokes up with his dealer (Patton Oswalt in the first of many fun cameos) and blows Mary Jane-laced smoke rings out into the audience, it's clear that director Todd Strauss-Schulson is going to make 3D an integral part of the movie's proudly juvenile sense of humor. Some of the other objects that literally leap off the screen include a Ping-Pong ball in mid-Beer Pong flight, a fog cloud of cocaine and both of our heroes' penises -- one in Claymation form (in a hilarious sequence that owes a sizeable debt to that legendary Community Christmas episode) and the other stuck to a frozen pole, A Christmas Story-style. None of these gags qualify as sophisticated mind you, but they are pretty damn funny and obviously wouldn't work half as well without the 3D boost.

2. Danny Trejo is Three Times as Imposing in 3D
The nominal plot of this new Harold & Kumar outing involves Kumar accidentally setting fire to Harold's (John Cho) Christmas tree, a lovely fir specially grown by his disapproving father-in-law, Mr. Perez (Danny Trejo), who has dropped by with his entire extended family for the holidays. In order to cover up his mistkae , the two estranged friends (they haven't spoken for two years at the time the movie begins) embark on a crazy after-hours trip through Manhattan that takes them from the penthouse of a Russian mobster (Elias Koteas) to an unexpected run-in with the actual Santa Claus (Richard Riehle), whom Kumar stitches up after Harold inadvertently shoots him in the face. But don't go looking for internal logic to the storytelling; like its predecessors, the film is basically a series of sketches loosely connected by a quest narrative. Even though Christmas doesn't hit the comic highs of White Castle, the sketches are consistently funnier than the ones in the last movie, Escape From Guantanamo Bay. Supporting players like Trejo, Oswalt and new-to-the-series Thomas Lennon help with that, but Cho and Penn are in fine form as well. Making Harold and Kumar adversaries (temporarily at least) revives some of the comic spark between the two that was missing from their last outing.

3. Avatar May Have Had the Na'vi, But Harold & Kumar Has The NPH
Just think: Had it not been for his cameo appearance in the first Harold & Kumar waaay back in 2004, Neil Patrick Harris may never have embarked on the road back to stardom. It was his hilariously convincing turn as a womanizing, drugged-out version of "Neil Patrick Harris" that pushed him back into the public spotlight and almost certainly helped land him the lucrative gig of ladies' man Barney Stinson on How I Met Your Mother. His onscreen persona has gotten increasingly unhinged as the series has progressed; in the first sequel, Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay (which has its moments, but was overall a disappointment compared to the original) NPH consumes some psychedelic mushrooms and harasses hookers in a Southern bordello before being brutally gunned down. Here, we learn that he briefly wound up in Heaven, but was ejected by Jesus after he convinced one of Christ's angelic groupies to give him a handjob. Now resurrected and back on Earth, NPH pretends to be gay for the press but deep down remains an unrepentant horndog and drug addict. It's a hilariously gonzo performance and the film rewards Harris' good sportsmanship by letting him show off his superb song-and-dance skills in a lavish 3D musical sequence. Take that, Hugh Jackman.

4. The 3D is Playful, but Stylish Too
Like everyone else, I gaped at the volcano of human feces in Jackass 3D and cracked up when that piranha burped up some poor guy's dismembered member right in our faces in Piranha 3D. In both of those cases though, the filmmakers used 3D primarily for shock value rather than artistic value. Harold & Kumar has its fair share of raunchy 3D gags, but it also demonstrates a certain visual flair that those other movies lacked. While Strauss-Schulson would never be confused with James Cameron (or Martin Scorsese, for that matter, whose own upcoming 3D vehicle Hugo is almost certain to use the format to its full creative potential), he does compose some stylish images for the 3D cameras. (A scene in which Harold and Kumar flee a hail of bullets in slow-motion is particularly well executed.)

5. All Hail the Wafflebot
I'm not going to say anything more about this waffle-making bundle of robotic joy -- arguably the movie's breakout star -- except that I left the theater wanting one of my very own. And those waffles looked extra tasty in 3D.

[* It should be noted that we're talking exclusively about mainstream studio releases here. Werner Herzog's documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams makes terrific use of 3D, but while it's a blockbuster in the art house world, its total grosses would barely cover a week of catering on Avatar.]

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