Monday, June 25, 2012

Moving Forward (Part 1)

It's my firm belief that two studios out of what I call the "big three", Walt Disney Animation Studios and DreamWorks Animation SKG, have been stepping up their game in terms of storytelling and writing. As such, these two studios are still doing well alongside Pixar. Other studios in the past six years or so have came and went, with only a few studios actually staying in the playing field (Blue Sky, Illumination and Sony Pictures Animation).

With Disney's Wreck-It Ralph and DreamWorks' Rise of the Guardians hitting theaters this November, I felt that I would review the films that I personally believe began their "uphill streaks". With Disney, I believe things got better with 2007's Meet The Robinsons. For DreamWorks, I believe they got better with 2008's Kung Fu Panda. So here we go, part one, where I take a look at Meet The Robinsons and Bolt.


Meet The Robinsons
Directed by Stephen J. Anderson
Written by Jon A. Bernstein, Nathan Greno and Michelle Spritz
Produced by Dorothy McKim and John Lasseter
Released on March 30, 2007

When an adaptation of William Joyce’s A Day with Wilbur Robinson began pre-production at Walt Disney Feature Animation (prior to being renamed Walt Disney Animation Studios), the studio was slowly plummeting to its demise in the wake of the computer animation fad and the critical success of Pixar's films, followed by DreamWorks' successes. Disney’s then recent films (Brother Bear, Home on the Range) disappointed many, and it seemed as if all was lost for the studio that was once one of the crown jewels of the world of animated features. The executives felt that switching to computer animation would solve all these problems and put them back up against the heavies. They announced that hand-drawn animation production had been phased out, and the studio would enter the computer animation world with Chicken Little in 2005. To them, traditional animation was dead, along with DreamWorks. It wasn't dead, people just avoided those poorly-written films.

Of course, then-CEO Michael Eisner stepped down. Disney bought Pixar, as they were close to losing them, and with that, John Lasseter had a lot of things revised. The A Day with Wilbur Robinson project underwent several revisions, and the result? A rather inconsistent film that was a sign that Disney was going back to good story-telling. Instead of doing what the other non-Pixar companies were doing (stupid romps with pop culture jokes and juvenile toilet humor), they opted for a simply good film with a good message. Meet The Robinsons’ biggest problem is how the two versions are balanced. A lot of the sugar rush, zany antics of the original project were kept since it was too late to undo most of this. It isn’t pandering or insulting, it's never only funny to younger audiences, but going against the more heartfelt, Pixar-like tone of the revised story, it makes everything seem a bit awkward.

The story is very heartfelt, and the characters are all very likable with cute designs. The film’s antagonist, the Bowler Hat Guy, is a hoot. It’s a very nice plot with some wonderful characters. It’s all well done and well told, but the two tones constantly battle each other. This was something the writers tried their best to overcome, and for the most part, the sugary side works. Sometimes, however, it gets tiring. There’s lots of “random” humor that would be more in line with what some high schoolers may joke about. Other bits are out of place. Fortunately, the film takes some time to wind down, despite the talky script.

When Disney entered the computer animation field, Chicken Little didn't look too bad, but it seemed to look similar to the more cartoony computer animated films produced at the time such as DreamWorks' Madagascar and Sony's Open Season. Meet The Robinsons goes for a more Pixar-esque look, and it's very colorful. The vision of the future is a bit saccharine, but it has a child-like wonder to it with a dash of Tomorrowland. The characters are instantly appealing, with googly designs. Only Lewis and Wilbur look normal, everyone else only adds to the setting and tone of the film. The art direction does take a shift for the film's third act climax, and the Bowler Hat Guy does look sinister at times. Visually, this is a very appealing film that works alongside the story.

It was nice to see this amidst the bland CGI films that preceded it in 2006, with only a few examples sticking out. It goes to show that the animators cared and wanted you to love the look of the film. I can't say the same about some of the other computer animated films that polluted the market at the time. Meet The Robinsons may not be overtly ambitious, but it is a pretty good film that has a bit of trouble picking a mood. Luckily, the writers do their best to use the humorous side to their advantage. It borders on tearjerker in the film’s closing minutes, and the idea of Walt Disney’s “Keep moving forward” quote being the core of the story was a lovely bonus, though it is pushed a little too much onto the audience.

In fact, had Disney solved their management issues much earlier (say around 2003 or 2004), Lasseter and the crew could've essentially made Meet The Robinsons even better and eliminate what really wasn't working and keep the tone consistent. That said, this is a very John Lasseter-esque film. It has the heart, the sincerity and the storytelling that defines a good Disney animated feature. If only they didn't have such little time to overhaul it, it would've been the first return to form, but it's still amazing that they were able to take the mess and turn it into a satisfying film in a matter of months.


Directed by Byron Howard and Chris Williams
Written by Dan Fogelman and Chris Williams
Produced by Clark Spencer and John Lasseter
Released on November 21, 2008

Like Meet The Robinsons before it, Bolt began life as a project that was problematic and was in need of an overhaul. Fortunately, John Lasseter and the crew at Walt Disney Animation Studios were working off of something that already had some strengths. The project was originally American Dog, the next big film from Chris Sanders (Lilo & Stitch), a quirky and risky story that ultimately suffered from story problems.

With him out, Lasseter had the project overhauled. Instead of working off of a goofy, pandering film (the early version of Meet The Robinsons), they were working off of something that was already something a little more serious. However, Bolt is much simpler than Chris Sanders’ original story and goes for a traditional route. This was enough to scare off most Disney fans, but the film turned out to be better than expected despite the skepticism. It isn't the quirky, daring film that Sanders envisioned. Instead, it's a modest but well-told effort that's one that you can sit back, relax and enjoy. Like Meet The Robinsons, it's just plain good. This doesn't have the trouble of balancing two ideas, though.

Our leads are likable, Bolt (voiced by John Travolta) is essentially a canine version of Truman Burbank from The Truman Show. He believes the show he’s the star of is real, as the editors and crew make sure he believes so. When he experiences the outside world, he is with a street-smart cat with a rather sad past named Mittens (voiced masterfully by Susie Essman) and Rhino (voiced by a hilarious Mark Walton), a hamster who is obsessed with Bolt’s show. These three leads are already very likable, while the supporting cast appears from time to time. Bolt’s owner Penny (played by an okay Miley Cyrus, obviously phoned in to sell tickets to the Disney Channel teenybopper crowd) is somewhat important in the first act, but she’s not in it as much as the advertising lead people to believe. Other characters that populate Bolt’s television world are a nice poke at the entertainment industry.

With that, Bolt focuses on what makes the films of Pixar so good: Heart. Bolt is someone you root for early on, but halfway through the film, we see that we are in the middle of a touching buddy comedy much like the original Toy Story. It never feels overtly derivative, just similar. There are other elements here from other films, but it’s these charming characters and wit that elevate the film. The screenplay, however, is a bit flat.

There is some cringeworthy dialogue here and there, but it’s mostly under control. The film's funniest jokes (particularly the scenes involving Rhino) are absolutely hilarious, so it mostly knocks it out of the park in the comedy department. It isn’t a masterful screenplay by any means, but one that dutifully supports the story. Our characters shine here, and the heart is right in line with a Pixar film. Combine this with crisp animation and you’ve got a winner. The animation did break some new ground, as the art direction takes on a painterly look. It was the first stepping stone in Disney Animation’s quest to find a style that will effectively blend both hand-drawn beauty and computer animation (see John Kahrs' upcoming short film, Paperman). On top of that, we also get flat animated map montage scenes set to "Barking at the Moon", a wonderful scene where Bolt, Mittens and Rhino see the sights across the country.

Bolt is essentially classic Disney, but in computer animation form. It's not daring or up to Pixar's levels, but it's a refreshing break from what Disney had put out before it. Gone were forced jokes, humor that pandered to kids and wildly inconsistent writing. Bolt, like a Pixar film or Walt Disney's films, is for adults, children and everyone else. It's simply good old fashioned entertainment with surprises along the way.


Stepping Stones

When John Lasseter got on board at Walt Disney Feature Animation, he had a mess on his hands. A Day with Wilbur Robinson looked like it was going to be another disaster from the studio, coming off of the critically panned but commercially successful Chicken Little. With that, he was going to make sure that the studio would return to their roots and make good films again after disappointments like Brother Bear and Home on the Range. At the same time, he had the studio's name changed to Walt Disney Animation Studios, a much more suitable name. The release date was moved from fall 2006 to March 30, 2007.

Though there wasn't enough time to really overhaul the project, the crew did what they could in such a short timeframe. The Bowler Hat Guy was made into a much more interesting, and threatening villain. He was also given his sidekick, Doris. The ending was significantly changed to become much more effective, and the sequence where the villain gets a dinosaur to chase Lewis was added. That scene would become the core of the marketing in the United States.

The marketing sold it as a silly comedy, like Disney's marketing department tended to do. True, Meet The Robinsons is a wacky comedy at many times, but it's also a heartfelt story. The marketing failed to establish this, whereas a superior Japanese trailer got it right. Meet The Robinsons had a hard time at the domestic box office upon release. The marketing probably reminded audiences more of Chicken Little and the annoying animated features released in 2006. The general belief was that Disney stopped making good films since the Renaissance, but that doesn't explain how Chicken Little did so well. Perhaps it left a bad taste in audiences' mouths, combined with the trailers for the film.

Reviewers weren't very enthusiastic about it, but some did praise the deeper themes and the emotional side of the story. It opened with a rather disappointing $25 million, but something happened... This happened to every Disney animated film since then... It spawned great legs thanks to good word of mouth. Meet The Robinsons quietly climbed its way up to $97 million domestically, though that was still much less than what Chicken Little made. The executives probably weren't too thrilled about that. Worldwide, it took in a modest $169 million. It was a bit of an underperformer. Disney's live action/animation hybrid, Enchanted, outgrossed it significantly.

By 2007, people became more choosy with big release animated films. This is why something good like Sony Animation's Surf's Up had a hard time at the box office, looking derivative of certain other animated films despite being pretty original. People normally attend the Pixar films, and even Pixar's entry for the year posted a low opening despite the incredible word of mouth it got. It ended up grossing less than the dreadful Alvin and the Chipmunks domestically. It was a weird year, coming off of 2006, a very weak year for animation.

After finishing Meet The Robinsons, the next Disney film was going to be American Dog, which would be a much more serious return to form. Problems arose around December 2006, when Chris Sanders' story wasn't working. American Dog, much like Sanders' own Lilo & Stitch, was quirky with character designs that weren't your typical Disney character designs. The story involved Henry, a smoking and drinking canine star (you won't see that in a Disney film nowadays given their surrender to the anti-smoking craze at the time) of a James Bond-style TV show who believes everything on the show is real. He winds up lost, miles away from home, where he meets a one-eyed cat and a radioactive rabbit. They're looking for homes, but Henry is still deluded.

Sanders rejected Lasseter's notes, and things ultimately did not work out. Lasseter noted his talent, but he felt that the story needed work. A screening at the studio went over badly. Chris Sanders was out and the story was overhauled immediately. Lasseter kept the dog TV star being deluded, but changed the show to an action-packed story where the protagonist (renamed Bolt) is a super dog. The characters were radically redesigned. The one-eyed cat became a regular cat who doesn't trust humans. The radioactive rabbit would be replaced by Rhino.

The story was simplified, but Lasseter didn't want this to be a dud. He made sure that it had the heart, the wit and the sparkle that define the Pixar films. It's no surprise the story has similarities with Toy Story and Cars. It feels like a Lasseter film. Chris Williams and Byron Howard became the new directors of the project. The animation wouldn't be like the other films on the market, as the film introduced a painterly look that gave a traditional animation quality to the film's backgrounds.

Bolt wasn't easy to sell from the start. The Disney brand name was toxic, as their animated films hadn't caught on at the box office amidst the Pixar, DreamWorks and Blue Sky films. With the success of Enchanted however, Bolt could change that. The animation community was already upset over not getting Sanders' film, and the marketing sold it as a derivative, generic film. Something we've seen before. There was no punch to the marketing, which, in a DreamWorks fashion, kept telling us that John Travolta and Miley Cyrus were the leads in the film. The posters gave off an Incredibles vibe. The marketing was uninteresting and lazy.

Opening on November 21, 2008, it was going up against a certain film that was obviously going to be a huge hit. Bolt only took in a rather disappointing $26 million on its opening weekend, despite great critical reception. Then, it got excellent word of mouth and pulled a 4.3x multiplier. It climbed its way to $114 million domestically against all odds. Worldwide, it took in $309 million for its final total. However, this gross was less than Chicken Little and Enchanted. The film could've done better with a bigger opening (it's also upsetting since DreamWorks' inferior Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa made more than twice that amount on its opening weekend just two weeks earlier) and better marketing that worked alongside the word of mouth. It didn't happen, and this return to form was lost in the shuffle.

Bolt found new life on Blu-ray and DVD, but it could've been a much bigger success in theaters. More and more people are experiencing it, so maybe one day people will look back on this film and see that it was one of the building blocks that would lead to Disney's comeback.

In part two, I'll take a look at Disney's return to hand-drawn animation, The Princess and the Frog!

1 comment:

  1. I agree entirely, Kyle! Well, apart from Meet the Robinsons, great premise, didn't really like the execution.

    Bolt was the start of great things again for Disney in my eyes. I felt it was a little unnecessary - it didn't really feel like a Disney film, more Pixar, just the adjustment to the Lasseter regime I guess - but still amazing.

    Can't wait for the next post! Tangled really is the pinnacle (until Wreck-It Ralph that is) of recent Disney animation!