Sunday, August 12, 2012

Let's Go Blundering!

Remember Aardman Animations' recent film, The Pirates! Band of Misfits? Chances are, you may not unless you are in the know of what's going on in the animation industry. Yes indeed, this little film happens to be another one of those animated films that came and went at the domestic box office. Why is that? Instead of being a poor animated film (in fact, it was a really good film), The Pirates! was actually another victim of executive meddling and misguided decisions. Columbia Pictures' attempts to help get the picture to sell ultimately sunk this high seas romp.

First off, Columbia Pictures probably had no idea what they were going to do after Aardman Animations joined forces with Sony Pictures Animation. First, the studio gives them the conventional Arthur Christmas and then this: A film based on a series of books that isn't well known in the United States, that has humor that may go over American audiences' heads, which is about science in Victorian England and features Charles Darwin as a main character. Science? Charles Darwin? Hot buttons here in the states, in addition to the concept potentially not being too appealing to American audiences. Columbia was probably worried that there would be controversy, given the amount of flack recent animated films tend to get. Remember how Cars 2, The Secret World of Arrietty and Dr. Seuss' The Lorax were supposed to be "liberal propaganda" for children?

With all due to respect to people's political and religious views, this most likely got Columbia Pictures worried. Since animation is viewed as "kiddie stuff" here in the states, people will suggest that anything with a slight agenda is propaganda for children, sometimes without having seen it. The original title of this film was The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists!, since that's the name of one of the books it's based on. Of course, that's the name of the original UK version of the film. So what did they do? They changed the title to The Pirates! Band of Misfits, which is such a bland and boring title that says nothing of film's story. Hey, it's more marketable to Americans, right? It's also marketable to kids, too! What could go wrong? Because, you know, animation is for kids!

Okay, there's nothing wrong with a title change. As long as we get Aardman brilliance on the big screen, that's all that matters. They did not stop there. The film was altered for American audiences and young children. Now I'm not going to talk about the whole leprosy joke controversy, since Aardman themselves re-wrote the joke and it plays that way in both the UK and US versions. Since it's a big issue, I won't comment on my thoughts on the change.

The Pirates! Band of Misfits is not the same film as The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists! The voice cast was slightly changed. The Albino Pirate is voiced by Anton Yelchin in the US version. In the original UK version, he's voiced by Russell Tovey. In the US trailer for the film, they use Tovey's voice, so these changes must've been done at the eleventh hour. Al Roker provides the voice of "the pirate who likes kittens and sunsets", who had a different name in the original and might have been silent. The changes make no sense, why re-dub one pirate's voice to sound American? The rest of the cast is British, so why change one? It makes no sense, and the voice sticks out.

It's a minor problem, but it's the first of a few. Some of the more adult-oriented humor was removed, such as lines that were a bit suggestive. The film was given a PG, and one the reasons was "some language", another indicator that these changes were done at last minute. Since I have no access to the British original, from what I've heard, the lines aren't too bad. They're a little more noticeable, such as the scene where the Pirate Captain says airships are for looking down women's tops. Still, I think a joke like that would go over kids' heads. In the US version, the Pirate Captain says airships are good for attracting women. Not as funny. This is one of a few changes, but they're still unnecessary. (If I get my hands on a region free UK Blu-ray of this film, I'll make a rundown of what's been changed)

So they changed the title. Check. They edited out certain things to make it suitable for children, because they believe animation is for children first and foremost. Check. What did they do they next? They began marketing the film. The first US trailer showed up in August, pretty early, so apparently Sony was ready to launch this film. Apparently they were confident in this...

This was not a great trailer, typical for an animated family film, but it passed the film off as a sort of kids' spoof of the Pirates of the Caribbean films. This trailer was obviously trying to appeal to American audiences, and it conveniently shuffles Charles Darwin's role in the film out of sight, only using him for a few parts. The trailer was alright, but it was certainly not as good as the brilliant UK trailer.

This trailer is a much more confident one, since Aardman films normally do very well in the UK and the books are of course more popular there. Plus that song is so catchy, the fact that us Americans didn't get that song in any trailer or ad is just... Wrong...

Columbia planned on releasing this film on March 30th (the same day as the UK), but there was a lot of competition and several releases were shuffled such as the family friendly Mirror Mirror and a few other films. The film was later delayed to April 27th, another big mistake and the final nail in the coffin for this film. Columbia also screwed Arthur Christmas by releasing it amidst several family films last November: Happy Feet Two, The Muppets and Hugo. Opening with just $12 million domestically, it had to climb its way to $46 million. How did it do in the UK? $33 million tops, and it was the 10th highest grossing film of the year, beating out films like Tangled, Fast Five, Kung Fu Panda 2, Puss in Boots, Cars 2 and even The Smurfs, Columbia and Sony Pictures Animation's big success story that year. Once again, an Aardman film did poorly here and did well in the UK.

I was hoping, when Aardman would finally get back to animated features, they would find some form of success here in the states. Chicken Run was a big hit back in 2000. In fact it was the highest grossing non-Disney animated film until Shrek came along. Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit and Flushed Away had great word of mouth despite poor opening weekends. Arthur Christmas seemed like the perfect film to re-launch themselves as a viable name in the states alongside the likes of Pixar, Disney and DreamWorks, since it wasn't too quirky or different. Arthur Christmas came and went, and it's a real shame. So would The Pirates! do better? Most likely not...

The next trailer and the ads showed up, which were worse than the first trailer. April 27th was not the right time to release it, being the weekend before the little movie about the superheroes teaming up opened. Yes, releasing The Pirates! the weekend before The Avengers was an incredibly idiotic move. Why not early April? Mirror Mirror was pushed forward to March 16th, and The Lorax was beginning to lose momentum. What about mid-April? They could've started small and word of mouth could've helped it. The film scored a solid "B" on CinemaScore, so it could've reached a certain total off of a lousy opening weekend. It's like Columbia had no faith in this film, at all.

The Avengers essentially pulled everything out of it: The family audiences and the 3D screens. It washed the swashbuckling comedy away like a hurricane. But how did it do in the UK? #12 right now with $25 million, not too bad. Here, it seems to be stopping at $31 million, making it Aardman's lowest grossing film in the states. Luckily, the $55 million film took in a final total of $118 million worldwide. Arthur Christmas took in $147 million worldwide against its $100 million budget, making it more of a dud for the studio.

It's all a shame, because Aardman seemed to be going the right path with a new partner after their troubles with the pre-2008 DreamWorks atmosphere. Arthur Christmas certainly feels more American audience-friendly than their other films without feeling forced. Again, lazy marketing and a terrible release date killed it. It had no room to breathe no matter where it was placed, but perhaps good marketing could've helped, right? Nope, it had to stand on its own. And I thought Disney marketing under Rich Ross was bad. The Pirates! shared a similar fate, and it was obviously not going to be a massive hit to begin with, but it didn't have any chances at all plus it wasn't as accessible as the previous Aardman films. If Arthur Christmas was their most accessible, The Pirates! was their least.

Quite unfortunate, but The Pirates! sunk and was tampered with before release in the US in a dunderheaded move to make the film appeal to children. Aardman clearly made a much more adult-oriented film that could still delight children with its silly action scenes and appealing characters. But the more American audiences assume animation is for children first, the more this kind of thing will happen to these animated films.

Whether it's studio powers needlessly trying to improve a film's chances at gaining at the box office or just getting something they don't want off their back, a lot of these animated films just can't stand a chance in today's overly competitive market. Animation has been lucrative since the Second Golden Age, so why can't the executives give non-conventional films a chance in addition to the ones that are obviously going to be huge? Look at Rango, something that was clearly more adult-oriented than most fare and incredibly risky. Paramount backed that with decent marketing, and the box office performance indicates that the controversy over the film's content didn't harm it as much as one would assume. It broke $100 million stateside and finished up with $242 million worldwide against a $135 million budget. Not bad, Paramount has started its own animation studio because of how well it did (plus the fact that their last DreamWorks films hits theaters this autumn).

So with that, you'd think Columbia would go for a tidy profit since The Pirates! wasn't so expensive. Nope, they just threw it out there and that was it. It's just what Fox did with Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox, a $40 million stop motion animated film that could've been a small hit had they not released it against heavy competition with little to no fanfare. The Pirates! is sure to get new fans when it hits Blu-ray and DVD, but it could've been a good-sized success and help Aardman's works get an audience in the states.

1 comment:

  1. The UK trailer makes me want to see it. The song is wonderful.