by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
Last year, DreamWorks Animation celebrated its 20th anniversary. To mark the occasion, Callum Petch has been going through their entire animated canon, one film a week for the next 30 weeks, and giving them a full-on retrospective treatment. Prior entries can be found here, should you desire.
Budget: $145 million
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 74%
Rise of the Guardians is a bomb. It is a big bomb. Oh, sure, it doesn’t seem like it is, its eventual worldwide gross is double that of its production budget – the typical measure by which you determine whether a film is successful at the box office or not – but it is. Domestically, the film took 10 weeks to scrape and claw its way past the $100 million mark, and the longer a film stays in cinemas the less money the studio actually gets (you can get a full-on explanation of that here). Overseas, the film performed somewhat better but still not great, especially in comparison to prior DreamWorks films, and once the breakdown of the foreign dollar came in (and you can find out how that works here) DreamWorks still didn’t make a profit. In fact, they had to take an $87 million write-down on the film, the first time they’d lost money on a project since Sinbad nearly a decade ago.
So, why did it bomb? It’s not the fault of the film being bad – which was critically praised and is a damn good if crippled film, but we will get onto that later – so why did it just face-plant right out of the gate? That’s what most of this entry is going to focus on because that’s our through line for the last sixth of this series and it could provide us with explanations for the box office prospects of the remaining pair of films in this series. So, apologies for those of you who were hoping for an in-depth look at the film. We’ll look at it if there’s time, because it’s a damn good film with a killer final 20 minutes, but for this series we need to examine the box office performance of the film rather than the film itself, unfortunately.
Full disclosure, here: since Rise of the Guardians is a relatively recent film, and was the first notable major underperformer that DreamWorks had seen in a decade, much of the stuff that I’m about to say is being referenced and sort of lifted from websites who, at the time, were filing think-pieces on this very subject not even 48 hours after the first weekend totals came in. Many of the things that I will say here were theories that I had prior to going off and doing research anyway, but other writers’ reasons and thought processes helped open my mind a bit as to specificity. So, with that in mind, I’d like to give credit to HitFix’s Gregory Ellwood and Animation World Network’s Ed Hooks for helping, thanks to their respective articles, shape my thoughts and theories for this article. With that said, let’s dive in.
Undoubtedly, one of the biggest reasons is that the budget for this thing is ridiculous. Although it clearly makes usage of every last cent, $145 million for an animated movie in this decade is insane and unsustainable. Yes, Pixar and Disney blow that amount on every film they make but, as we have previously touched on, they can get away with it. Everybody else has realised that $150 million domestic isn’t guaranteed anymore, so they’ve purposefully started making films for less than/equal to $100 million to compensate. That’s why Aardman’s The Pirates! In An Adventure! With Scientists! was able to recover from a dismal American showing, it only cost $55 million to make.
DreamWorks, however, continue to pump all of their movies with the same level of money, increasing the risk if one fails and regardless of whether said pumping is necessary. If you’ve been following along, you’ll have been keeping track of the “Budget” segment of my article pre-amble and seen that no film post-Shrek 2 has come in at under $100 million. Now, in certain cases, like with this film or the Kung Fu Panda and How To Train Your Dragon series, that’s fine, as extra detail and money helps with the world and tone and such. But for animated comedies? Did Megamind really need a $130 million budget? Despicable Me came in at $69 million and it looks way more distinctive and, arguably, better than that film did. Or, in blunt terms, is there any reasonable explanation as to why the budgets for How To Train Your Dragon 2 and Penguins of Madagascar are separated by only $13 million?
That’s as good a link as any to my next point. The budget thing is also systemic of a larger problem: DreamWorks still trying to play like it’s 2005, like they’re the only non-Disney/Pixar players on the Western feature-length animation block. However, thanks to them blowing up the Disney dominance back in the early 2000s, more and more animation studios – and, specifically, distribution studios like Universal who are now more willing to get in the game – have now sprung up, creating further competition. They started poking their heads above the water tentatively in the mid-to-late 00s, when Laika would release Coraline and Blue Sky Studios – obligatory pleading to PLEASE NOT F*CK UP Peanuts – would quietly become a consistent and reliable studio, but 2010 onwards has seen them burst on through en mass.
2012, in particular, saw new efforts from recent upstarts Illumination Entertainment (The Lorax), Laika (ParaNorman), and Sony Pictures Animation (Hotel Transylvania), as well as long-timers Aardman (The Pirates!), Studio Ghibli (The Secret World of Arrietty actually opened on nearly 2,000 screens in a rare display of genuine confidence in that brand from at-the-time distributors Buena Vista), and Blue Sky (Ice Age: Continental Drift), in addition to Pixar (Brave) and a resurgent Disney (Wreck-It Ralph). When you also throw in DreamWorks’ other 2012 release (Madagascar 3), that is a crowded as hell schedule – one, relatedly, that has only gotten more crowded the further into the decade we get, which pleases me to no end – and one just cannot coast anymore. The days of DreamWorks being able to guarantee butts in seats, regardless of the quality of their films, purely because there is nothing else available have long since departed.
Not to mention that each of these films carried with them their own unique, distinct, and marketable identity that didn’t just rely on brand recognition. The primary trailers for The Lorax hit the “From the studio that brought you Despicable Me” and “Based on the story by Dr. Seuss” buttons, but also clearly outlined the premise and the film’s bright, candy-land colour scheme and art style. Boom. Sellable. ParaNorman had that gothic horror meshed with broad comedy feel and identity front and centre, albeit with its darkest edges sanded down to make it more palatable to, for some reason, snobby stop-motion-averse mainstream audiences. Boom. Sellable. Ice Age is Ice Age and came out when literally nothing else was in cinemas, Wreck-It Ralph slapped the videogame conceit over everything, Hotel Transylvania emphasised its loudness and physical comedy.
DreamWorks, however, still sell their films the same way they always have – some attitude, pop culture references, and licensed soundtrack for comedies; lots of flying, out-of-context gags, and emphasis of the 3D elements for more dramatic fare. They don’t sell individual films so much as they sell the DreamWorks brand – Home is even suffering from this, even though I actually rather like its trailers. This is fine for, say, a Madagascar sequel, because audiences already know what they’re getting and like what they’re getting and the trailer just needs to promise them more of the same, but becomes a problem when you’re trying to sell a new film, especially when you pump them out with the factory-like efficiency that DreamWorks do.
Here, for example, is the first trailer for Rise of the Guardians.
Now, that trailer does a lot of things right: it establishes a clear tone, introduces us to our main characters, has some mystery in there instead of simply showing everything off all at once, and it sets itself apart from most of the other animated features on the market. Yet, simultaneously, it’s a major failure. It relies too heavily on kids’ prior affection for seeing characters like Santa and the Easter Bunny teaming up to fight evil (more on that in a moment), it fails to properly establish Pitch Black and his motivations, our true lead character, Jack Frost, is nowhere in sight, and it doesn’t explain much at all. It’s a tough line to walk when it comes to trailers, show too much and you negate the audience’s desire to see it but show too little and you do just as much damage, and Guardians’ first one, although it does a lot for me, shows too little to engage general audience interest who like to have more than the sketchiest sketch of an idea of what they’re getting into.
In fact, to link into the film itself, that belief that audiences would be enamoured enough by the idea of Santa, the Easter Bunny, Sandman, Jack Frost, and the Tooth Fairy teaming up to fight evil feels sadly outdated. In the 21st Century, this worthless irritating and pathetic century, heart-on-sleeve sincerity and wonder is something that society very much seems to frown upon. That desire to be a little cheesy, to have fun, to be sweet and nice is something that we, as a culture for some utterly confounding reason, have decided is beneath us and that we must laugh out of the room at every opportunity.
Instead, the only way we can accept enjoying these things now is with a sort of ironic detachment – hence why 80% of movie musicals spend their entire runtimes apologising for being musicals, why romance films are so po-facedly serious about everything, and why sci-fi almost never kicks back and has any fun anymore. When something like that does come along, like this past weekend’s Jupiter Ascending because never let it be said that I don’t try and keep this column topical, everybody laughs it out of the room because we apparently can’t accept that sincerity anymore. Maker, animation has quite literally only just gotten over this image problem, and we can blame that tangible attitude of Shrek for sending us down that path whilst thanking this Second Disney Renaissance for finally pulling the public back out of it.
Therefore, you present the general public with a film like Rise of the Guardians – a film whose marketing relies on kids’ prior attachment and desire to believe, and whose finale literally involves the villain being defeated by a scrappy group of kids believing in wonder with all of their heart with no cynicism or sass from the film (and it’s f*cking amazing, for the record) – then of course it’s going to open poorly at the box office and never truly recover! Our society doesn’t foster that kind of genuinely sincere wonder and heart anymore, so most will just dismiss it out of hand and move on with their lives.
And then there’s also the tangible thing. A common complaint that keeps cropping up in people’s excuses as to why the film did poorly or just in general conversation about the film: Santa’s Russian accent. This is very much a creative choice that has baffled people, with some even thinking that that’s why the film failed. Because kids are familiar with Santa, err, not being Russian and that would therefore turn them off the film totally. I sort of get where they’re coming from, it’s the tangible element of a larger problem that not many people can totally figure out – in that the beefy, warrior-ised, badass designs of the Guardians fit their personalities and the more action-heavy moments but clashes with the sincere childlike hope of the rest of the film – but I highly doubt that it’s a reason all by itself for turning people away.
Finally, there was the release date: Thanksgiving weekend. I get the idea, it’s the holidays and a big family movie is just the kind of thing that audiences are in demand for. But, as we have previously talked about, thanks to the way they do business, DreamWorks movies aren’t Events like a Disney film or a Pixar film are. They’re films that come out on a semi-regular basis and you either watch them or you don’t. Even when the films are Must See viewing – and we’ve covered several of those in this series – their releases don’t carry that air, despite the millions of dollars that the company throws into marketing these things. So whilst Disney can get away with releasing Tangled or Frozen over that weekend, DreamWorks can’t because, unlike Disney, Rise of the Guardians is not an Event Movie.
Hence why the thing basically died in fourth place opening weekend behind Twilight: Breaking Dawn, Part 2 (second week), Skyfall (third week), and Lincoln (third week), and just barely fending off Life of Pi by virtue of that opening on less screens. All of those prior factors, with really sub-par marketing likely being the inarguable main reason and let us not forget general DreamWorks over-saturation, conspired to send Rise of the Guardians to an early grave. Many of these are actually rather recurrent in the reasons behind DreamWorks’ other recent failures, which means that we might get more time each week to actually talk about those goddamn films properly, but that’s also a really worrying sign that the company doesn’t seem to be learning from its mistakes. Rise of the Guardians is rather much Patient Zero for this recent commercial trajectory that DreamWorks have gone down and, for some reason, it’s been allowed to fester instead of being quarantined and dealt with.
So… with all of that said and sorted… how is the film? I realise that I have pushed it to the background here, much like I did with Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron way back when, but I needed to since, as we all know, this is the start of the spiral that DreamWorks are currently stuck in and to not talk about it is to do a disservice to this series I’ve been working on. It is, however, a shame because Rise of the Guardians is very much worth talking about. If I were writing for a website where 8 straight A4 pages of text could be presented in a way that wouldn’t cause one’s eyeballs to rip themselves out of one’s skulls and hightail it to the heavens to get away from the torture, I’d happily spend the next 4 pages talking about it. Unfortunately, I’m about 1 full A4 page away from my word limit, so I’m going to have to be very brief.
Rise is a very good film that could have been an outstanding film had it not been forced to bow to the unspoken decree that ALL ANIMATED FILMS MUST BE LESS THAN 100 MINUTES, OR SO HELP ME! The problem with it, and why it doesn’t work as well as it should for the first 70 minutes, is that it needs to be at least 2 hours and 10 minutes long instead of 89 (97 with credits). Rise of the Guardians is a film that is stuffed to the brim with content and plot and story. Not backstory, it’s smart enough to realise that you don’t need to waste time explaining the backstories of these characters, but story. This is a film that needs to chronicle Jack Frost’s life, his emotional insecurities, to parallel that with Pitch Black’s insecurities, provide arcs for the pair of them, fill in the cast enough that the disruption of their daily schedules carries actual emotional weight, build a world, kill someone to raise stakes, cause the viewer to actually care about the kids who will factor into the finale, provide several suitably exciting action beats, and provide enough scenes of the guardians just hanging out together so that one gets the sense of how they are outside of the film, among many other things.
Surprisingly, it pulls off more of this than I was expecting – the Jack Frost stuff is brilliant, the parallels between him and Pitch are called out in dialogue more than action but it still works gangbusters and is far better done than it is in How To Train Your Dragon 2, and it nails the kid stuff spectacularly which is why the ending works so insanely well (more on that in a paragraph or two). Unsurprisingly, though, it’s not totally successful, mainly because it never ever slows down. How can it? It’s got way too much content to have to get through, but it’s all necessary, so it has to pace itself like a drag race, never once letting up on the gas. This does mean, though, that much of the first two-thirds of the film don’t click as they should – in particular, Sandman’s initial death should be a majorly heartbreaking “we are not f*cking around here” moment, but we barely ruminate on it enough for it to have any real impact.
There are chunks of film missing, basically. The slower moments, the connective moments, where we ease up and relax with our characters. They do exist, but they’re brief and hint at the film it could have been if there was more of that breathing time. The best sequence not related to the ending involves the rest of the guardians helping Tooth Fairy with her job of collecting children’s teeth, because it allows the characters to just relax and be themselves. Admittedly by turning this exercise into a silly competitive mini-setpiece, but it still feels genuine. It deepens the cast, establishes their bonds, helps the viewer invest more, and the film needed more of that. There just quite literally isn’t the time to.
Fortunately, though, the film f*cking nails its ending. Seriously, the entire final 20 minute stretch, from Jack trying to help Jamie re-ignite his belief in Santa and the other Guardians, to the duo’s final goodbye, is damn near perfect. It accurately captures that sincere, heartfelt spirit of being young and wanting to believe. To believe that there are mysterious unknowable forces of absolute good in the world, that fear and nightmares really are just concepts that can’t actually hurt you, that you can effect real genuine change on the world through innocence and kindness. It’s one of the best examples that I can find in recent memory of a film just getting that feeling of being a child, since most films instead either overly patronise or barely mask the fact that these are just adults attempting to remember how kids are and act.
Its emotional beats pay off excellently, even with the truncated runtime that the film has had to set them all off, the animation reaches extra special levels of gorgeous, seeing the guardians finally let loose is thrilling, the return of Sandman is one of those “oh, HELL YES!” moments that great fiction can pull from even the stoniest of human beings, and it’s all so sincerely joyous and heartfelt. Again, the main narrative crux of the finale is whether a kid will believe hard enough that some kind of possibly unreal force of absolute good will rescue him from a nebulous force of absolute bad, and he and his friends are instrumental in saving the day purely because they believe hard enough. And this is all played dead-straight for pure, heart-warming emotion, because this sequence, and consequently the film itself, absolutely would not work if it did so any other way.
And that is almost literally all of the time that I have this week. There is so much more to talk about with regards to Rise of the Guardians – its sublime animation, the true extent of its pacing issues, its tone, how Chris Pine’s voice fits Jack Frost and unnecessarily distracts in equal measure, the marginalisation of Tooth Fairy, its themes of loneliness and how one can be shaped by that – but, much like with the film itself, I’ve tried to do too much in too little available time. If I ever stupidly decide to retrofit this ridiculous series into a book format, then you’d better believe that I will be expanding this section majorly. For now, though, Rise of the Guardians was a bomb, but it didn’t deserve to be, and it’s getting worrying that I can apply the first two parts of this sentence to more and more DreamWorks films as time goes on.
Rise of the Guardians was a major, notable financial dud for DreamWorks Animation, their first in nearly a decade. It cost the company substantial money and likely put the studio on edge as to its future – not unfounded considering how 2013 would wrap up. Rise also marked the end of the studio’s 8 year relationship with distributor Paramount Pictures as the success of Rango inspired the latter to make more home-grown animation, and DreamWorks’ desire for a deal with better terms for themselves. In August of 2012, they signed a five-year deal with 20th Century Fox, owners of Blue Sky, and began this new relationship the following year.
Next week, we’ll take a look at the first film to come from this new partnership, The Croods, speculate on why this one was a success, and try to explore the further ramifications of this move. Also, we’ll actually talk about the film this time.
A new edition of DreamWorks! A Retrospective will be posted here every Monday at 1PM BST!