Wednesday, May 22, 2013

A New Player?

The feature film field of the American animation industry is getting bigger? Why? A 20-year-old special effects company wants in!

Dallas-based Reel FX started out in the animation world in the early 2000s by producing short films and direct-to-video productions whilst contributing to several theatrical animated films such as The WildEveryone's Hero and TMNT. One of their most notable works was William Joyce's short The Man on the Moon, which was what DreamWorks' Rise of the Guardians was partially based on. They also did work on the Kung Fu Panda short Secrets of the Furious Five along with the recent Looney Tunes computer animated shorts. Their direct-to-video work includes the likes of two G.I. Joe films and the two Open Season sequels. Now, they plan on entering the world of animated feature film production. It was a shocking move for its time, considering what was going on earlier this year with the VFX and animation industries. Studios like Rhythm & Hues and Digital Domain filed for bankruptcy, layoffs happened (DreamWorks' laid off over 350 people!), protests ensued... And yet an FX house decides to go big and make animated feature-length films to compete with the heavy-hitters. Admirable.

We've heard a few things about Reel FX's plans to enter the feature animation business last autumn when it was announced that Relativity Media would distribute their debut theatrical animated feature film, the long-gestating Free Birds. Apparently this project, formerly known as Turkeys, has had trouble getting off the ground over the years. I remember hearing the name of it for quite a while now... Animation historian Jerry Beck always had it on his animated features list too.

Funny how Owen Wilson's character isn't the red one...

I haven't written much about this film, other than the fact that it was oddly moved from its planned November 2014 release date to this November back in February, because apparently it's really close to completion! When I read the synopsis for this film, I was not intrigued... In fact I was rather annoyed with it. The film is about two turkeys who team up to go back in time and prevent people from eating turkey for dinner every Thanksgiving. To me, it sounded like an animated film commissioned by PETA (no, not that one!) but without the shock value.

It's possible that the writers could pull this off in a fun way. Perhaps if Free Birds goes the Chicken Run route, it could actually be *gasp* good! Maybe what the turkeys do on their adventure might bring some good laughs, maybe the time machine throws them somewhere else entirely and they end up failing the mission. The film is being touted as irreverent, so are we going to get fresh jokes and ones that aren't... Well... Stale? Will it be a dark comedy of sorts? What if the turkeys succeed in their mission and yet screw up the world because of what they did? There's potentially good stuff in the "succeed in the mission/screw the future" idea, and I'd actually like to see them go that route. It would be interesting, you know?

I know I'm probably speculating a little too much about this film, but apparently Reel FX is really confident in it. Marketing has already kicked off, but no trailer has surfaced yet. It's possible that we'll get one very soon, perhaps before Epic or Monsters University, because the film is not too far away. If the team makes a film that's actually funny and enjoyable, and not anti-meat, then it'll be okay in my book. Then again, who am I kidding? This is a wide release mainstream family-friendly animated film, 95% chance they won't make it that way.

If Reel FX's people say that they want a slate of "quality" animated films, then I guess Free Birds could be pretty decent. Again, it's an irreverent and there a few things that could really work. I'm just not confident in this one yet, but I want it to succeed because the two films that Reel FX has in their pipeline really intrigue me... More so than a lot of animated films that are coming out in the next few years: Book of Life and Beasts or Burden.

We don't know much about Book of Life other than the fact that it's a Dia De Los Muertos-flavored Romeo & Juliet story that's being produced by Guillermo del Toro himself. It will be directed by Jorge Gutierrez, the creator of Nickelodeon's short-lived El Tigre: The Adventures of Manny Rivera. We also know that it does have a release date - October 10, 2014. It'll also be computer animated, much like Free Birds. That's it, though... But the idea already sounds promising because with its Day of the Dead setting, it'll probably be more in line with the work of Tim Burton and Henry Selick. I kind of expect it to be a sort of computer animated LAIKA-esque film, but with its own unique style of course!

What's also interesting is that Fox Animation Studios will work with Reel FX on the film, the once defunct studio that was revived for the production of Fantastic Mr. Fox. 20th Century Fox keeps that studio alive for work like this. The film is also a real 180 from Free Birds, which is pretty much a buddy comedy with cutesy, funny fowl characters. See, this is what I like. Studios experimenting and trying new things with each new film. What this film will be like, I have no idea. All I can say is this: Day of the Dead setting, unconventional subject matter and spooky themes? Count me in!

There's one other project that's currently in the works, but no release date is set... Beasts of Burden.

Seriously, this film should be
done in hand-drawn animation!

Based on the horror-themed comic book series by Evan Dorkin, Beasts of Burden is about five dogs and a cat who battle paranormal and supernatural threats to protect their suburban home. I have not read the comics, but from what I've read about them, they certainly aren't family friendly in any sense. I've kept an eye out for this film because it could be another (mainstream) stab at adult-oriented feature animation. There have been so many failed attempts over the decades, so I'm hoping this one will turn out to be something of a success. Shane Acker, the director of the not-so-family-friendly 9, will be at the helm. Andrew Adamson, the director of the first two Shrek films and the first Chronicles of Narnia film, will produce.

Acker's 9 was actually one of a few failed films that tried to get PG-13/R-rated animation to appeal to mainstream audiences in the recent years, but despite its dark tone and wonderful visual style, it was sadly forgettable with a paper-thin plot. Focus Features marketed it to teenagers with embarrassingly awful ads that said "This isn't your little brother's animated film!" No wonder why it failed to double its small $30 million budget! How many times does the industry have to be told the same damn thing? Don't advertise animation to summer blockbuster-loving teenaged boys. They want to see stuff like Transformers and Fast & Furious, not a quirky post-apocalyptic "cartoon" about rag dolls!

I've been saying one thing for a while: Adult-oriented theatrical animated fare needs to co-exist with family-friendly fare in the American animation industry. I've said many times before that I'm totally fine with Disney, Pixar and DreamWorks making G/PG family films, because most of them are smart and they aren't films that make anyone older than the age of 10 cringe in the theater or on the couch. I don't understand how TV-14 and TV-MA rated shows (juvenile and smart shows) can successfully thrive alongside shows on Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network, but a good PG-13 or R-rated animated film can't do well in theaters. The industry needs to invest in "smart" adult animation, not adult animation that tries to be "adult" with gratuitous violence, cursing and juvenile pseudo-edgy humor.

Brave director Mark Andrews has been clamoring for more adult-oriented animated feature films as of late (he wants to make a PG-13/R film at Pixar!) along with many others in the animation field, and we did see some really hard PG family films (arguable) hit theaters over the last couple of years. Gore Verbinski's brilliant and eccentric Rango was truly a bold piece of animated cinema, but with Paramount's marketing machine behind it and generally good word of mouth, it did rather well at the box office. Oh, and it got a HUGE amount of flack from angry parents. The same thing happened to LAIKA's two sterling films, Coraline and ParaNorman, both of which contained dark content that certainly frightened children and left unsuspecting parents peeved, the latter of which also had edgy humor. Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox, though not a hit, was also a good adult-oriented animated film that still could appeal to a family audience... But its tone and subject matter were definitely not kid-friendly, but not necessarily inappropriate for kids. These films really pushed the PG rating, but they did it with style. They didn't cheaply "pretend" to be more adult-oriented animated films. We need more, and filmmakers can see what they can do with the medium with a PG-13 or R rating. The possibilities are endless! A lot of great adult-oriented works from Japan and Europe have proven this.

Beasts of Burden, if done right with smart writing and no reliance on cheap gimmicks (i.e. stupid things that teens consider "mature" or "adult"), could be a very successful adult-oriented animated film that could spark a new renaissance in that kind of fare. Perhaps it could motivate Reel FX to greenlight more projects like it, because that would really spice up the competition and artists will do what the other studios -  even Disney, Pixar and DreamWorks - aren't doing! Blue Sky, Sony and Illumination pretty much can't go against the grain, as they stick to making profitable and competent family films. After all, being bold could be a threat to them anyways. They don't have a massive empire (*cough* Disney *cough*) to back them up if a wild experiment were to fail. Just look at what happened when DreamWorks took a big chance and made the risky hard sell Rise of the Guardians, they took a box office beating and then doom-and-gloom in the press followed. (Speculation that they would go under and such.) In the end, the studio heads ended up laying off over 350 (!) members of the staff, delaying one of the films and canning a project that was probably already in production. The much safer and accessible Croods made quite a profit and then some.

Reel FX's future in feature animation will probably lie within Free Birds, so that film needs to make a profit. How much did it cost to make? I'm assuming it won't have a budget that's as big as Disney, Pixar or DreamWorks' films. If anything, it's in a good spot. There's no real competition until Disney's Frozen comes out and blows it away, and by then, it could do pretty well. If it's a halfway decent film, it should be a success. Book of Life and Beasts of Burden however, are massive risks. I'll be surprised if either of them come close to $50 million at the domestic box office. Free Birds distributor Relativity's highest grossing film (domestically) made $83 million, so who knows how they'll market this and the upcoming films. That stand for Free Birds is an indicator that they want to go all out with this, after all animated films can bring them the business that their small-scale live action films aren't bringing them.

Reel FX also plans on producing live action films too, such as Danny DeVito's Honeymoon with Dad and Monument 14 (based on the young adult novel series). These productions ought to keep them going as well if they are to do well. Adamson's own production company is one of the studios behind the latter, so Adamson may be involved with other animated productions.

All in all, I'm excited about Reel FX's plans and what they might bring to the table in the future. So, do you think Reel FX has a future in theatrical animation? Do any of their upcoming projects pique your interest? Sound off below!

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