Thursday, November 21, 2013

Osmosis Jones (Warner Bros., 2001)

So after one bad movie that did poorly, and one great movie that also did poorly, you’d think Warner Bros. might look at their recent decisions and spot some patterns. See, the film that was made with little involvement from the executives was critically successful and hailed by many as brilliant. The film that they poured the marketing into, though, did better financially, despite being the worse movie. Clearly, the key to getting a good movie would be to stay very hands-off and trust the creative team, and market the hell out of it. So they did the exact opposite. Perhaps they thought that since their instincts had been 100% wrong so far, they should forego the obvious decision and instead do the bad idea, and micromanage a movie into mediocrity and then not tell anyone they made it? Solid choices, folks.





Monday, November 11, 2013

The Iron Giant (Warner Bros. 1999)

The Iron Giant (Warner Bros., 1999)

In 1968, Ted Hughes wrote a short, somewhat hippieish novel called The Iron Man.

In 1986, Pete Townshend used it as the basis for a Tommy-style song cycle/rock opera/concept album.

In 1993, Warner bought the rights to this song cycle and started developing it as a movie.

In 1996, skilled animator and former Simpsons director Brad Bird was hired to direct the film.

In 1998, Quest for Camelot made no money.

Those five events are what led to what I feel comfortable calling, without hyperbole, the greatest animated film of all time.





Thursday, November 7, 2013

Quest for Camelot (Warner Bros. 1998)

When putting together the list for this volume of the blog, I pretty quickly decided that I would arrange it by film studio, rather than chronologically. And which studio to start with was a no-brainer. Warner Bros. and Disney were rivals going back to the short subject days when Warner’s Merrie Melodies  and Looney Tunes began wiping the floor with Disney’s Silly Symphonies (I’m sensing a naming theme). As Fleischer Studios passed into memory, Warner became Disney’s most heated rivals in the cartoon short game. But feature animation was pursued by Warner more cautiously, until the early 1980s, when they started to distribute animated films produced by other studios, and met with modest success. After the smashing victory of The Lion King, Warner kicked up their distribution game into high gear, and started preparing their own animated films. The first of these was Space Jam, a live-action/animation mix that we’ll get into later, but by 1998, they were ready for the first fully animated prong in the Warner Bros. Feature Animation attack.





Who wrote your tagline, Leo Tolstoy?

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Announcing Volume 2!!

Throughout the (ahem) year of Disney, I noticed an trend of people recalling the nostalgic Disney films from their childhood - A lot of them weren’t by Disney. They were by Don Bluth, by Warner Bros., by some independent company, etc, but people remembered them in the broad mental category of “Disney Movies”. And that does make a bit of sense. While there were various studios supplying our childhood animated classics, the name-recognition of Disney does rather have a way of taking over the memory. TV Tropes even has an article about it, because of course it does.

At first, I didn’t take much notice of this, but after a while, it did get me thinking about all the studios that have tried to take on Disney over the years. Often at times when the company was putting on a weak showing, other companies have pushed out slates of animated movies to grab that market share for themselves, and that’s what we’ll be looking at this year.

We’ll begin with the various attempts by Disney’s old rivals in the animated shorts department, Warner Bros., first with their late-90s feature animation division, then their earlier partnership with Ted Turner. We’ll then look at the complete works of former Disney animator Don Bluth’s independent studio, which includes our only direct-to-video piece. Then a few more Warner-distributed things, before moving to Steven Spielberg’s brief foray into the game with the horribly-named “Amblimation”. We’ll look next at the early 2D work of Spielberg’s far more successful company Dreamworks, then jet back to the 1970s, where Golan and Golobus, who despite their names are somehow not supervillains, loaded their legendary egos into Cannon Movie Tales, the first-ever blatant attack on Disney’s market. After a brief miscellaneous round, we’ll look at the feature films of TV cartoon moguls Hanna-Barbera and holiday special specialists Rankin/Bass.

The end of the volume will take us back to Disney, looking first at their live-action/animation mixes, and then at some animated films they paid for, but didn’t themselves produce.

I’m not guaranteeing reviews for all of these. Some of them, specifically the mid-70s stuff, I’m not even sure have been released on DVD. But this is the current plan, with a few bonus films thrown in along the way.





(current planned list of films under the jump)

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Q&A: The Final Disney Wrap-Up

An interesting question with an interesting answer. While the Disney canon has a few flops, this is a company that, for their animated films at least, considers “only tripled its budget” to be a flop. There have been a few that didn’t make their money back, but only one really joins the pantheon of legendary money losers, and that’s Treasure Planet, which lost the studio about 80 million dollars. That doesn’t compare to their biggest live-action flops, like John Carter, which banked on a charmless lead and source material no one’s heard of, and The Lone Ranger, which banked on racism and source material no one cares about. Both of these films lost over 100 million, with estimates for Lone Ranger as high as 120 million (though it’ll be hard to say for sure until its out of theaters a bit longer).

The interesting bit is that Disney is also responsible for the biggest flop of all time, and it’s an animated movie. Just not one of their canon. Through ImageMovers Digital, a partner company, Disney produced a film called Mars Needs Moms to the tune of 150 million dollars. Not only was the film a pile of junk, the advertising budget was comparatively tiny. Which is too bad, because if they had spent a lot trying to sell it, it may have actually had losses larger than its budget. As it is, it made 40 million in theaters, leading to a net loss of 130 million. Mars Needs Moms is currently slated as the final film of Volume 2. I’m looking forward to it.

I was surprised as I went through the list just how malleable a concept “feels like Disney” turned out to be. The… emotional beat of the company, for lack of a better term, permeated nearly everything they did. There were points where it was weaker - the compilation films, the Rescuers/Fox and the Hound/Black Cauldron period - but even so, in those groupings, the films still feel like each other, and that gives them a stronger connection to the Disney canon as a whole. So I’d have to give this one to a movie that not only has a different feel to it, but also stands on its own as a bit of an odd duck, and that’s Wreck-It Ralph. I mentioned in the review how it felt more like Pixar than Disney, and that’s all true. And since it’s surrounded by traditional princess musicals and a Winnie-the-Pooh flick, it stands out all the more. So while it’s still very good, that’s the one that feels the least like Disney. Though I have my suspicions Big Hero 6 may be dethroning it.

I don’t know, Walt’s head? I have a soft spot for the hysterical religious right panics of my childhood, of course, like Aladdin telling teenagers to take off their clothes, or the priest’s knee-boner in The Little Mermaid. I like the really inexplicable ones, like that no one is allowed to be declared dead at a Disney park, or that Walt’s will states that the first man to become pregnant will be given the entire company. But most of all, I like the true ones. Like the photo of the topless woman in The Rescuers, or that the documentary filmmakers herded lemmings off a cliff when nature failed to conform to their script. But of these turns-out-to-be-true legends, my all-time favorite is that Harlan Ellison was hired as a staff writer for Disney in the mid-60s, and was fired on his first day after Roy O. Disney heard him joking in the cafeteria that the company should make a porn.

Not really. Disney was actually kind of good about that stuff. You know, given the times and all. They certainly weren’t free of stereotypes, as we’ve seen on this very blog. But I’ve never seen the kind of virulent, sincere, hateful racism from them that I’ve seen in the 1940s cartoons of Warner Bros., MGM, Leon Schlessinger, Famous Studios, etcetera. Most of the things you see linked online as “banned Disney cartoon” are more like “Disney cartoon they don’t show much because it’s about tin rationing or some stupid thing like that.” The only thing I’ve seen of theirs that really matches the racism of their contemporaries is Sunflower from Fantasia, and they’ve cut her out of there. There’s also the cartoon illustrated above, “Mickey’s Mellerdrammer” which… Ah, it’s on YouTube.

Incidentally, Warner has released a DVD of their wartime cartoons, with a contextual introduction from Whoopi Goldberg, and following the success of that, is planning on releasing a DVD of their “Censored 11” and other old offensive cartoons. Frankly, they shouldn’t, because they’re reeeeeeally racist, and frankly kind of terrible. I sought out “Coal Black and De Sebben Dwarfs” after seeing animation historians refer to it as a masterpiece and one of the greatest cartoons ever made, and Bob Clampett’s magnum opus and stuff like that. It’s not. Even if you are super good at compartmentalizing racim, it’s just an unfunny collection of tired, simple gags with overly frantic animation. AND A LOT OF RACISM. I have no idea what the historians are thinking. I guess they’re just overcorrecting, and trying to be edgy?

The cause of the schism is easy to see when you look at what Disney was making in the late 70s. Basically garbage. Disney was full of stifling older animators, a labyrinthine bureaucracy, and an uninspired creative team. So he left, taking John Pomeroy and more importantly Gary Goldman with him, as well as a short film they‘d made, which they shopped around to get funding. Sullivan Bluth Studios produced eight films, but declining quality and sales led the studio to close, and Bluth and Goldman accepted an offer to start Fox Animation Studios, which produced Bluth’s final two movies. Much more information will be available in Volume 2 of the blog, wherein I shall discuss the entire output of Sullivan Bluth and Fox Animation.

Incidentally, the Disney film that is generally agreed to have been the final straw for Bluth is Pete’s Dragon, which I will also be covering here.

Well, in the Lucasfilm deal, they got not only Star Wars, but also Indiana Jones and a number of small franchises/titles, like Grim Fandango, Willow, Monkey Island… Um… Radioland Murders… That movie about Preston Tucker that nobody saw. There’s also Marvel, of course, and the Muppets, their two big acquisitions. They’ve bought Pixar outright, so all the Disney/Pixar characters are just plain Disney characters now. They acquired a terribly run yet fairly creative comic company, CrossGen, and are trying to think of something to do with those characters (the correct answer, as far as I'm concerned, is keep making Ruse and Abadazad, and dump the rest in a landfill). They own ABC, of course, so I assume they got some licenses with that. I know they bought distribution rights to a bunch of their old rivals in the shorts business, but I’m not sure what exactly. Actually, it’s hard to research this right now, since trying to research properties acquired by Disney just brings up pages on pages of articles on the Lucas deal.

1 - No, he had planned to have his brain put into the robot body of Michael Eisner, but Dwight Frye dropped it on the ground and they had to use an evil, business-savvy potato who was really awkward at hosting TV specials.

2 - Honestly, I just remember them because of a TV ad for the 1994 VHS release of Snow White, wherein they showed a number of people being challenged to remember the dwarfs’ names. The “man on the street” nature of the ad was belied by the fact that everyone said them in the same order. Whoops. Anyway, that ad was on TV constantly, so that’s how I remember them, and if I were stopped on the street by a commercial-maker, I would say them in the same order. Self-fulfilling advertisement.

3 - The best name.

What gives you the right to cast aspersions on anyone’s scheduling - Oh, you produce, not one or two, but three high-quality podcasts on a regular basis? One of which has had an official panel at the Emerald City Comic Con? And that same podcast is one on which I am a frequent guest, and on which I will be appearing on next Monday, November 11th?

Thanks for your question, Aal! Happy birthday!