Tag Archives: Ice Age

The Problem With Illumination

…and, in fact, most animation studios in general.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

illuminationBy now, you should have been able to read my review of Illumination Entertainment’s Minions.  If you haven’t read it yet then firstly shame on you and why do you not want me to become successful?  But, in any case, here are the cliff-notes: it’s really funny, I had a load of fun, Scarlet Overkill is amazing, and the Minions themselves are still wonderful comic creations.  I really liked Minions.  Still do, in fact, despite whatever I end up typing in this article.  However, a nagging realisation has stuck with me since I got out of the film and it’s something that concerns me for the studio’s future.

I can’t really tell you what the difference is between Illumination and every wannabe-DreamWorks pretender to come along since the mid-2000s.

I mean, yeah, Illumination has Despicable Me, and that’s all well and good, but somebody asked me on Twitter whether they’d enjoy Minions as the humour of Despicable Me turned them off of those films and I honestly drew a blank when trying to describe what exactly was so special about the Despicable Me humour.  I’ve spent the last few hours re-watching clips of both films to try and figure out what makes the Despicable Me brand, in comparison to any other animated brand out there, and the most I can come up with is that it’s willing to be a bit more openly cartoony than most other animated features.  Sure, its character designs – and therefore, if the designs of The Lorax and the upcoming The Secret Life of Pets are anything to go by, the standard character designs of Illumination in general – are distinctive and unmistakeable, but that’s really all that makes Illumination stand out from the field.

Again, I really like Minions and I really liked Despicable Me 2 when I saw it, but I still can’t tell you what separates them from ten-hundred other American animated features desperate to become the next best thing, besides the fact that they’re really damn good at what they do.  The one thing that does sort of separate them, slightly wackier humour than is usual in today’s animated features, is even running the risk of being outdone by Sony Pictures Animation if Hotel Transylvania 2 is able to deliver on the promise that the underwhelming first film had – since that and the Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs series might finally change the studio’s reputation to something other than “Those People Who Helped Make TWO Abominable Smurfs Movies”.

Instead, they’re still just yet another animation studio making family films in a medium already drowning in animation studios making family films.  For example, tell me something that makes Hop different from any number of similarly-awful live-action/CGI hybrids from the mid-2000s besides the fact that this one paid Russell Brand money to voice act.  Anything at all.  This is an animation studio that managed to turn Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax, a brilliant low-key cautionary tale about the dangers of excessive deforestation, into another loud whizz-bang CG animation that’s nearly indistinguishable from anything released in, say, 2007.

Just over a week ago, Illumination released the trailer for their next film, The Secret Life of Pets, which you can view above.  I really, really dug it.  It may have reigned in the wacky cartoony-ness of the Despicable Me humour significantly, but it also couched that in reality.  This was a trailer that got most of its laughs through exaggerating observations and ideas that we have about our pets, and its short little vignette form allowed it to maintain the quick pace that Minions has.  It probably wouldn’t be sustainable if it were a feature film exactly like this, but it’s a strong basis and, even with the usage of pop music (although I do appreciate the leftfield choices of Basement Jaxx and System Of A Down), it has a unique feel and personality that’s decidedly lower-key than most of today’s animation.

Then I read the film’s plot synopsis.  This is taken straight from Wikipedia.

Taking place in a Manhattan apartment building, Max’s life as a favorite pet is turned upside down, when his owner brings home a sloppy mongrel named Duke. They have to put their quarrels behind, when they find out that an adorable white bunny named Snowball is building an army of abandoned pets determined to take revenge on all happily-owned pets and their owners.

If you’re anything like me, your heart and enthusiasm promptly sank about 12 feet once you finished reading that.  It just bugs and irritates the hell out of me to see a film with as much unique and original potential the The Secret Life of Pets’ first trailer showcased, instead turn out to be – or, I should actually say, appear to be, since who knows how the actual film will turn out – an animated version of Cats & Dogs, with the blueprint of a million other animated films buried in it, especially Toy Story.  It could still be a great version of that loud whizz-bang CG animated family feature, but I’m tired of studios not trying to carve out an identity beyond “We make loud whizz-bang CG animated family features”.

I mean, it makes sense that Illumination have yet to establish a unique brand and voice, their founder is Chris Meledandri.  From the early to late 2000s, he was the President of 20th Century Fox’s Animation department, with him being a big part of the early years of Blue Sky Studios, another animation company who – despite having released films for the last 13 years – have still yet to carve out an identity besides “We make loud whizz-bang CG animated family features”.  That’s especially a problem because Blue Sky’s debut feature, Ice Age, actually did have a unique and distinctive voice and identity of its own, being more melancholy and reflective and (slightly) mature than other films that came along then and since, before the sequels (and everything else the studio has ever done) proceeded to stamp out the unique parts in favour of ridiculous cartoony spectacle.  WHICH IS FINE, but it means that I have yet to see a Blue Sky movie that has truly stuck with me besides that original Ice Age, because their films, even Epic’s attempt at an action-fantasy, don’t do anything that a hundred other animated features aren’t already doing.

That means that, in the 13 years that Blue Sky Studios have been releasing movies, they still don’t have any unique or discernible identity besides “That Animation Studio 20th Century Fox Owns”.  That makes them the studio equivalent of Silly Putty, they can mould and shape themselves into whatever they want to but they’ll never be their own unique thing because they’re too indebted to everyone else to have their own identity – which I guess does make them the perfect folks to make The Peanuts Movie after all (side note: PLEASE DON’T SUCK).  Blue Sky have had 13 years to break out of that mould, and they’ve instead continued to settle for being Another One in a sea of likeminded competitors.

But, really, this is more just a problem with animated films in general, right now.  Animation is a medium and therefore capable of so many things, so many stories, and so many genres.  Yet American and British feature animation, and the foreign ones that manage to get a release in English-speaking countries, is resolutely family and kid-oriented, to tie back into that post-1950 belief that animation is only for children.  But it’s patently untrue, the booming TV animation market should have dispelled that notion, yet we very, very rarely get adult or even teenage feature animation – the last one that got a wide release (which I classify as over 1,000 theatres) was 2009’s unfairly underrated 9, a PG-13 action-adventure that unfortunately bombed majorly because, well, animation is for kids, right?

It’s basically a self-perpetuating problem.  Feature animation is in a sort of rut – and I want to specify the “sort of” because some outstanding and all-time great animated features are being made and released – because it believes that feature animation is only “loud whizz-bang CG family features”, a belief reinforced by a public who reject anything adult that isn’t tied to a recognisable property (hence why The Simpsons Movie was a mega-success) but keep flinging money at these mostly interchangeable films – in writing this article, I discovered that Ice Age 3 and 4 have made $897 million and $887 million worldwide respectively – which undoubtedly prevents these studios from creating their own unique identities because, hey, why turn away free money?  And with foreign dollars being ever so important in today’s filmmaking landscape, and slapstick and spectacle translating flawlessly no matter the language, this probably isn’t going to change any time soon.

That’s ultimately a shame, because animation is capable of so much more than this, yet right now I honestly can’t tell you much of difference between any of the animated features that are not put out by Disney, Pixar, DreamWorks, Laika, or Aardman, and only Laika of those five is less than twenty years old.  Animation studios need to carve out their own different identities, they need to aim to create something special, something unique.  There really isn’t much separating Blue Sky Studios and Illumination Entertainment, at the moment, and this is not how things should be.  Blue Sky have been around for 13 years, so they’re rather set in their ways and identity by now.  Illumination are barely half a decade old.  It’s not too late.

Callum Petch can’t live on, live on without you.  Listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio (site link) and follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

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Two By Two

Despite a decent premise and above-average animation, Two By Two is content to be as formulaic and uninteresting as humanly possible.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

twobytwoI’m struggling to think of an animated film released this decade that has uglier main character designs than the ones that Two By Two sports.  Not the animals that still exist today, save for the King lion who has a really distracting quiff because nobody remembered how bad it looked on Alec Baldwin Lion from Madagascar 2, those all look fine, although they do suffer from the film’s excess colour palette.  The film’s main characters, however, are not real species of animal, so the film’s designers get free reign with regards to their design.

And, oh hell, are they ever unpleasant to look at.  The Nestrians are coated in excess fuzz, they have too many differently-shaped appendages and so little rhyme or reason as to their construction that they basically look like somebody just kept gaffa-taping a children’s playset of shapes together until they got bored, their nose grabs the attention in a bad way, their colour scheme is unnecessarily garish… I get that the point of the film is that the Nestrians are always out-of-place no matter where they are, but they just look plain hideous.  The Grymps are a little better, but they suffer from ill-fitting eyes and needless body patterns that look like bad henna tattoos, whilst the Griffins are just kinda not pleasant to look at, and not in an intended “fierce predator” way.

It’s a shame that those characters are so unappealing to look at, too, because the animation is actually pretty decent compared to most mid-league animated fare.  I mean, the colour palette really is sickeningly bright, and instead of looking convincingly wet during any one of the numerous sequences involving water, characters instead end up looking like shined vinyl models of themselves, but otherwise things are rather decent.  Character animation manages to tow the line between “limited animation” and “just plain cheap” rather well, there’s a nice lived-in feel to the ark, and there’s some decent boarding here and there.  If the character designs weren’t so ugly, this would be an OK movie to look at.

I mean, it’s not a particularly good one to watch.  Yeah, Two By Two is not good.  It’s not bad, but it’s not good, either.  This itself is a shame because the film frequently hints at a much more interesting and entertaining movie than is presented here.  The plot involves two Nestrians, a father and son called Dave and Finney respectively, and two Grymps, a mother and daughter called Hazel and Leah respectively, trying to survive the inbound flood by taking passage on Noah’s ark.  The Nestrians, however, aren’t on the guest list to board the ark and are basically left to go extinct.  Dave stows he and Finny away on the ark, however, by pretending to be Grymps, which causes extra problems when Finny and Leah accidentally miss the launch of the ark and have to find a way to survive the flood and the Griffins hunting them.

There are actual large scale stakes there as well as thematic touches like the strongest deciding who gets to survive and what not – a group made up of the king lion, a flamingo, and an elephant check and decide who is allowed on the ark or not, and they are a group that can barely hide their contempt for the other species – but Two By Two actively goes out of its way to not touch on them.  The extinction risk is left unspoken and is completely undercut by a brief indulgence in cartoon physics that, unsurprisingly, make the life-and-death stakes feel insincere, whilst that thematic underpinning also goes untouched until the ending where, in a very brief line, it’s promptly dropped completely and explained away as a misunderstanding.  It’s a film that seems terrified of getting even slightly dark, keeping up the day-glo sunshine tone regardless of how boringly formulaic it makes the final product.

In a way, that puts it in close proximity to DreamWorks’ recently released Home which back-grounded its themes of colonialism in favour of misfits finding each other, whilst Two By Two backgrounds its themes in favour of things like parental love and finding friends and your place in the world.  But where Home gets away with it by having likeable and entertaining characters, Two By Two’s cast are all really grating.  The Nestrians, who are both excessively optimistic and panicky, are too shrill and irritating, the Grymps, who pride themselves on being loners and hate company, are too needlessly uptight and angry, the Griffins are basically just boring Cockney “Infinity +1” villains, and the other two characters who tag along with Leah and Finny – an overweight land creature named Obesey, and the parasite that lives on top of him and is voiced by radio DJ Chris Evans for some bizarre reason – are incredibly uninteresting and poorly voiced.

So that ends up leaving Two By Two feeling rather emotionally hollow and making its formulaic beat-by-beat nature really obvious.  That’s a shame because the film isn’t bad, really, again excepting its awful lead character designs.  There are a few genuinely funny gags, some scenes are entertaining, the actual animation is fine, and it all works competently, even with flat line readings all about the place.  It’s just not particularly good, or interesting, or original, or doing anything really to adequately justify taking up 80-odd minutes of anyone’s time, especially with how actively it steers itself into formula to avoid those far more interesting avenues.

In fact, that formula was far better served in Ice Age, which actively addressed the extinction stakes and thematic undertones that Two By Two strives to avoid.  Ice Age adopts the appropriate melancholic tone, has pleasant to look at characters who are entertaining to watch and likeable, and aims to be more than just an 80 minute time-killer.  Basically, although there’s nothing fundamentally or majorly wrong with it, there’s no real reason to recommend Two By Two, either.  You’re better off leaving it to drown.

Callum Petch has seen so much he’s going blind.  Follow him on the Twitters: @CallumPetch

Callum is one of a number of guests that occasionally makes appearances on the Failed Critics Film Podcast, hosted by Steve Norman and Owen Hughes. Unfortunately, you won’t find any of our previous 250 episodes dedicated to a Two by Two review, but you can catch up with one of our more recent editions of the slightly shambolic movie podcast by clicking the link at the top of this page, streaming directly from acast.com/failedcitics, or subscribing in iTunes (or whatever your favourite podcast app of choice may be)!

Rise Of The Guardians

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.


Rise-of-the-Guardians-image25] Rise Of The Guardians (21st November 2012)

Budget: $145 million

Gross: $306,941,670

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!

Callum Petch has got gotta gotta gotta gotta gotta.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch) and listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio every Monday at 9PM BST (site link)!

Spirit: Stallion Of The Cimarron

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

This year, DreamWorks Animation celebrates its 20th anniversary.  To mark the occasion, Callum Petch is 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.


spirit06] Spirit: Stallion Of The Cimarron (24th May 2002)

Budget: $80 million

Gross: $122,563,539

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 69%

So… I won’t actually be talking about Spirit much, this week.  See, this is less down to the quality of the film and more because everything that surrounds it is vastly more important.  Spirit, you must understand, had the misfortune to be released just as traditional animated Western films where entering the last stages of their lifespan.  And, well, that whole business is just way too interesting and important to not talk about, especially if you want to know why everyone, even the House Of Mouse, decided to switch to CG.  So, a lot of this week will be devoted to looking at that whole business, especially seeing as it fits into next week with the last traditionally animated film that DreamWorks Animation has released so far.  I’ll get Spirit specifically at some point but it’s more than likely going to have to fall by the wayside, this week.  I’ll mop up the points about it that I want to/need to touch on next week if I run out of time here.  Sound good?  If not… well, sorry, I guess; you can’t really change an article that I’ve already written.  Sorry.

Right, with that being said, let’s flash back to 1999.  Again.

You’ll recall back in the entry regarding The Road To El Dorado that 1999 was a pretty terrible year for non-Disney-affiliated animated features.  You may also recall in last week’s entry on Shrek that 2001 was a much better year than both 99 and 2000.  Again, financially, not with regards to quality (1999 is pretty much untouchable and I will fight anyone who tries to claim otherwise).  However, one would be wise to pay attention to which films were the actual big successes during the period from 1999 to 2003.  Tarzan, Toy Story 2, Monsters, Inc., Dinosaur, Chicken Run, Shrek, Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius, Ice Age, Lilo & Stitch, Finding Nemo.  Notice that the CG successes vastly outnumber the traditionally animated ones, that said traditionally animated ones are by Disney and that those are only 2 of the 6 films they released during that time frame.

Now, initially, this doesn’t seem too significant.  A whole bunch of animated films are released every year (hell, fifteen have been released in America this year, at time of writing) and few of them are actual bona-fide hits, some will fall by the wayside (again to use this year for an example, remember how Legends Of Oz: Dorothy’s Return happened?).  The problem comes from how lopsided that equation looks.  Again, CG movies are becoming the runaway successes and audiences are primarily skipping traditionally animated features.  Imagine you’re an executive at one of these animation companies and you see these figures, the bottom lines, the only parts that matter to you.  What do you deduce?  You deduce that nobody is going to see traditionally animated films anymore and that what the public wants instead are these fancy computermabobs.

That, in case you were in any doubt, is how CG managed to push traditional animation out of the feature-length game.  Raw figures.  If there was any doubt left that traditional animation was officially a poison at the box office, 2002 killed it off mercilessly.  Hey Arnold! The Movie, The Powerpuff Girls Movie, The Wild Thornberrys Movie, Pokémon 4Ever!, Adam Sandler’s Eight Crazy Nights, and the complete and total catastrophic bomb known as Treasure Planet all dropped in those 12 months and all sank without a trace.  The year’s highest earner was Ice Age, which even outgrossed Lilo & Stitch, Disney’s only unqualified hit during the first half of the decade.  The public weren’t biting and they especially weren’t biting big screen versions of cartoons that were supposedly major hits on TV, so why not pack up shop and move where the money is?

Here’s the thing, though, and this should surprise absolutely nobody: it didn’t have to be this way.  Yes, audiences did flock to the newest and shiniest thing available to a point (I would like to remind you that Disney’s Dinosaur would not have made $137 million domestic and $349 million worldwide if didn’t have that new tech smell), but they didn’t just give up totally on traditional animation.  Spirit: Stallion Of The Cimarron, which we will get into if you hang on a bit longer, ended up taking a pretty good $73 million at the domestic box office, and people didn’t just suddenly decide to show up for Lilo & Stitch and then collectively make a pact to stop watching Disney films until the end of decade.  The reasons why people stopped turning up to these films are because the marketing was atrocious, the release dates were really poor and… most of them just weren’t very good.

Look, I will defend Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Treasure Planet to the death, but neither of them are going to be troubling anybody’s personal Top 10 Disney Films list.  Whilst one could also say the same for… for… OK, this list of films from the Disney Renaissance is ridiculously good… err… ooh!  Pocahontas!  Whilst one could also say the same for Pocahontas, that film made bucket-loads whereas Atlantis and Treasure Planet really didn’t (in fact, Treasure Planet only made $38 million in the US and failed to recoup its budget once worldwide grosses were factored in).  The difference being that Pocahontas had a strong marketing campaign and a good clear release date (a week before Apollo 13, which it held strong against) going for it, whilst Treasure Planet and Atlantis had neither of those things (the former was released the week after the one-two punch of Harry Potter & The Chamber Of Secrets and Die Another Day, whilst the latter had to battle Shrek and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider) and also had to deal with the fact that the very public crashing and burning of Titan A.E. had tainted animated films with sci-fi elements for everyone else.  This could have been averted with a strong marketing campaign but… well…

(Incidentally, yes, it is rather telling that 60% of this film’s overall gross came from foreign markets.)

The complete and total failure of The Powerpuff Girls Movie, meanwhile, can be laid solely at the feet of distributor Warner Bros. (and no, I am not just saying that because I am a huge mark for that show and for Craig McCracken in general).  I mean, they put it up against Men In Black II, Like Mike and a still-going-strong Lilo & Stitch and gave people who weren’t already interested in the show absolutely no reason to care (that trailer above is literally the only one they made), what the f*ck did they think was going to happen?  The Box Office Mojo report for the weekend even noted the bizarre decision to not have any evening showings for the thing!  The Wild Thornberrys Movie opened the same weekend as Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers, Hey Arnold! The Movie opened seven days after Lilo & Stitch, Pokémon 4Ever! inexplicably opened in limited release and stayed there for the duration of its run, Eight Crazy Nights had an abominable trailer (and sucked, so I don’t think anyone’s complaining in this respect), whilst we all know by now that Titan A.E. failed because nobody at Fox’s marketing department knew who they were supposed to be aiming the damn thing at (and, whisper it, it wasn’t actually a particularly good movie to begin with).

To put it bluntly, the good movies primarily failed because the studios screwed them over royally, either on purpose or just down to plain old-fashioned incompetence, whilst the bad movies primarily failed because they sucked.  By the time Home On The Range hit cinemas in 2004 and Disney openly announced that they were done with traditional animation, it was fair to say that even the House Of Mouse wasn’t hitting it out of the park like they used to.  Every year, there are a handful of great films and a nice heaping slop of complete stinking garbage and, most of the time, the good ones make all of the money whilst the bad ones sink without a trace.  The problem is that the good ones weren’t getting the attention and marketing power that they deserved as, post-Titan A.E. especially, studios had already decided that the new frontier was going to be computer animation and that traditional animation was going to drop dead sooner or later.  So they helped speed it along by not pushing the golden eggs like they should have; instead of having a few high-quality successes towering over the failing mountain of slop, everything ended up taking a financial dive together, quality be damned, because nobody was trying to sell the damn films!

You know why Lilo & Stitch was Disney’s only home run, financially and critically, for nearly 8 years?  Because everyone knew it was damn fantastic and everyone knew it was damn fantastic because this was the genius marketing campaign that got people into the cinemas in the first f*cking place to enable them to tell everyone that Lilo & Stitch was A GREAT F*CKING MOVIE WORTH SEEING!!

I’m sorry for the harsh tone of the last few paragraphs, but this whole thing really upsets me.  People did not stop going to see traditionally animated films purely on the basis of computer animated ones being shinier keys that were dangled in front of their eyes.  People stopped going because they all looked dreadful, even when they weren’t.  Computer films looked different, they looked like a break from the usual crap that was being created and sold in the traditional medium.  They were marketed better, in a way designed to capitalise on that newness (Dinosaur got butts in theatres because its main trailer was the outstanding opening five minute sequence to the film, falsely promising a much different film than the generic one we got), whilst traditionally animated films got the same marketing voice they always had and people were tired of it.  They wanted something new, and these films were often doing something new, or at least something of high quality, and these films were often of a very high quality, but they didn’t look new and they didn’t look high quality so people stayed away, and that’s when they knew the film was coming out in the first frakkin’ place.  The form was as good as ever, but the only people who knew that were the ones turning up, the devoted.

So, if you’re wondering why traditionally animated feature films made in the West all but disappeared after 2004 and why Disney’s big return to the field collapsed in a heap after only two tries (2009’s great The Princess & The Frog, which opened one week before Avatar and had a poor marketing campaign, and 2011’s exceptional Winnie-The-Pooh, which opened the exact same day as the last Harry Potter and similarly received a really poor marketing campaign), now you know why.  It’s primarily down to executives who had already pre-emptively decided that that the form was dead and decided to speed along the burial.  And it’s also partly your fault for not giving them the bird and hunting them down anyway.  Yes, I am still bitter that the failure of The Powerpuff Girls Movie has pretty much guaranteed that my Samurai Jack movie will never get made (yes, my Samurai Jack movie; I am so desperate for it that I have basically decided that Genndy Tartakovsky needs to make it to preserve what little sanity I have remaining).

Right, then, with all of that addressed, and saving me a tonne of additional words next week, let’s get on with today’s film: Spirit: Stallion Of The Cimarron.


Spirit: Stallion Of The Cimarron is both an experiment and a clear foreshadowing of the company’s far-more successful How To Train Your Dragon series.  The experiment?  Can we do what Dinosaur eventually chose not to and make a serious drama film about animals that the audience can relate to and love without them ever uttering a single word of dialogue out loud, and can we blend traditional animation and computer-aided CG and cel-shading without breaking the audience’s investment in the film’s reality?  These are bold experiments, the first more so than the second as everyone was attempting to do the second in the onset of the 21st century in an attempt to stave off the pre-determined inevitable, and I do want to sit here and tell you that they are pulled off with aplomb by the film.  See, technically, the film pulls off both splendidly and holds up majorly over a decade on from its first release; at its best moments, it is a work of pure art.  Except there are a couple of fundamental things that drag the whole enterprise down from “incredible” to “frustratingly good” and those things are so fundamental yet easy to have avoided that I am actually upset at the film almost willingly crippling itself by featuring them.

If you’ve read my thoughts on both How To Train Your Dragon movies, you can probably see why I made that comparison.  The way that Spirit handles some scenes reminded me very much of that later success; they especially came to mind in the relationship between Little Creek and Spirit, with the scene where the former first tries to gain the trust of the latter enough to be able to ride him in particular.  That dynamic is very similar to the one that plays out in the first How To Train Your Dragon only much more compressed for time (Spirit is about 72 minutes with an additional 8 for credits, but in no way does it feel like it has skimped out in any department).  The difference is that whilst I feel that the HTTYD films are a whole bunch of individually excellent scenes failing to come together as a whole (and before anyone jumps in, yes, I am perfectly aware that I am in the minority on the series, a la my thoughts on Adventure Time), Spirit is a collection of individually excellent scenes that absolutely do come together to form an amazing, heartfelt and emotional whole…  It’s just that that whole is almost irreparably ruined for me by two very definable factors.

The first of these factors…  Tell you what, I’ll give you a chance to figure it out before I tell you, because that enables me to just show you some of the film’s best scenes (which is the easiest way to get across to you just how fantastic the film is when it fires on all cylinders) and it’s also really, really obvious as to what the first of the film’s two problems is.  The following scene is the second half of a sequence in which the film’s villain, The Colonel, has tried breaking in Spirit, who had spent his prior time being held in the camp against his will desperately trying to escape and resisting attempts to domesticate him.  Just before this bit starts, it seems like The Colonel managed to successfully break Spirit.  See if you can figure out the one thing that nearly ruined this exciting, fist-pumping and heart-soaring segment for me; it’s not hard.

If you said “Err, hang on, why is Matt Damon needlessly monologuing Spirit’s thoughts?  And why does he sound bored-as-hell?” you have discovered the first of the two arrows that Spirit takes to the metaphorical knees.  Spirit technically sticks to its conceit of only having its animals, primarily horses, communicate solely through facial expressions and whinnying instead of through talking, but I’m guessing that some higher-ups at DreamWorks were dubious as to the likelihood that children would sit through long stretches of film in which there are no dialogue or nobody literally telling the audience what our characters are thinking and feeling.  Enter Matt Damon as the narrating voice of Spirit and, as you may have already gathered, he is HORRIBLE in this.  His every line is utterly dreadful anyway, the kind that explains everything that’s going on on-screen to make absolutely sure that the youngest and stupidest get it, but his delivery practically permanently screams “Can I have my paycheque now?  Can I have my paycheque now?  I am Matt Damon and I have an infinite number of better things to be doing with my time, so can I please have my paycheque now?”

There’s a scene late on in the film where Little Creek, the Native American that Spirit escapes the U.S. Military camp with, has his village raided by the U.S. Army and Spirit’s love interest, Rain, rushes in to save Little Creek only to be shot by the Colonel and get washed down river.  The scene’s existence is telegraphed from practically the first frame of Rain’s appearance, but goddamn is it still an absolute knife to the heart when it finally does arrive.  Spirit’s confused dash through the chaos to find her, the moment when the penny drops for every viewer as Little Creek sits atop Rain with the Colonel directly across from them, her collapse into the river, Spirit’s mad and desperate attempts to keep her alive, the fall from the waterfall, everything that happens on that riverbank…  Give me a sec, I am genuinely welling up just thinking about it; I was an absolute mess watching it.  Then Matt Damon’s voice pops up to tell us what we already know and could deduce from the excellent animation (seriously, you could cut the narration from the film and lose absolutely NOTHING) in such an uninterested and emotionless way that I am constantly pulled back from 100% investment and a total emotional breakdown because his presence.  Is.  Just.  Plain.  WRONG.  That scene would be a piece of goddamn art if his narration was cut, although it at least does distract from the question of why Rain doesn’t seem to actually be visually injured despite taking a bullet at near point-blank range.

As for the second thing?  Well, I’ll let you figure that out again.  It follows right on from the clip embedded above and, quite frankly, you should figure this one out in about 10 to 15 seconds.  Why do you think I have a problem with this scene, a scene that otherwise should have worked totally?

That is correct, folks.  Spirit has multiple songs by Bryan Adams and they are all absolutely godawful.  The issue isn’t so much to do with the fact that they’re lacking in hooks or anything like that, it’s because they are 100% pointless.  Much like the narration, its sole purpose is to engage any kids that may have grown restless watching a film about animals in which none of them speak human words, and to have lyrics that spell out exactly what is happening and what you should be feeling in the clumsiest and most distractingly on-the-nose way possible.  They also don’t fit the rest of the soundtrack; whilst the score goes for a sweeping historical epic with a little Western tinge, the songs are late 80s/early 90s power ballads being delivered by a Bryan Adams that I spent the entire runtime mistaking for Don Henley.  They don’t gel, especially when the songs start obviously straining for awards consideration.  Every time one started up, and there are a hell of a lot of them so this is a frequent issue, I got pulled out of the movie due to Adams’ strained wailing, or a thuddingly obvious lyric, or the deployment of instruments that do not fit the mood the film is going for.

The Internet is a place where people take seemingly innocuous things absolutely seriously, so I know that somewhere someone has edited together a version of Spirit that strips out the narration and the songs and replaces the still-not-great score with a much better one.  Someone has to have and if there is one, or even just a copy of the film with all of those things stripped out (the animation was actually completed first and the narration, score and music were added on afterwards; like everyone involved saw the Mona Lisa in front of them and decided what it needed for improvement was a hacksaw randomly applied to various parts), I want it in my inbox ASAP.  No joke, if the narration and songs were nowhere in sight, this would be one of my favourite animated movies of all-time.  It just works, folks.  It just totally works for me.  The animation is smooth, natural and stunning, the character designs are strong, the shot composition is fantastic, the characters are remarkably well-crafted and ones that I formed strong connections to despite the lack of usual aids, like dialogue, and the fact that they’re not particularly deep, the integration of CGI is often near-seamless (check out the opening a bit further down and just try and spot when the shots switch from hand-drawn to computer-aided cel-shading), the tone, mood and atmosphere are perfect, and the film’s emotional gut-punches hit like a ten-tonne truck with rocket boosters deployed.

But those two utterly boneheaded design choices sit there, sticking out like sore thumbs infected with rabies that won’t go away no matter how much you wish they would.  I’d like to think that those are the reasons why the film didn’t really catch on with the public at large.  The kids probably feel insulted by just how dumb the narration and songs think they are, and it simply wouldn’t get taken seriously as a film for older viewers because every damn time it gets locked into a groove the pre-school level narration and dreadful rejected 80s power ballads rear their heads and remind older fans like me (yes, 19 is granddad age when analysing animated films in this scenario, shut up) that the film isn’t aimed at us either.  It makes the film appear confused, even though it really isn’t.  Unsurprisingly, I am not the only person to call out the film for these creative choices, so I wouldn’t be shocked if that’s why Spirit never became a rousing box office success.  Well, that and its marketing.  Seriously, “a motion picture experience for everyone” is something your marketing department comes up with as a first-draft placeholder or when they’ve truly just stopped giving a sh*t.

I want to love Spirit: Stallion Of The Cimarron.  I really, really do.  That film hit me hard, worked so well and genuinely surprised me with its quality and ambition.  I just absolutely wish that everyone involved hadn’t decided to shove their dicks into the cake at the last possible moment.  Present me with a narration and soundtrack-free version, and I shall rescind everything negative I have said about the film in this article and spend the next half hour lecturing you on the many, many things it does right.  It really is a film that is within spitting distance of the gold medal, but then brains itself on the concrete metres before the line and literally leaves its brain matter spread along the track.  Goddammit, I’m disappointed now.


Next week, part 2 in our look at the fall of traditionally-animated Western features as we take a better look at the box office for Spirit and then shine a spotlight on the film that sent DreamWorks scurrying away from the hand-drawn arm of the industry for good: Sinbad: Legend Of The Seven Seas.  Yes, in the early 2000s, the company did have a strange obsession with titles that were simply Character Name: Job Description, just go with it.

A new edition of DreamWorks! A Retrospective will be posted here every Monday at 1PM BST!

Callum Petch finds romance when he starts to dance.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!