Saturday, August 24, 2013

'Book of Life'... The Next 'Rango'?

I'm going to go out on a limb here and suggest that Book of Life, an upcoming computer animated film from the Dallas-based Reel FX Creative Studios, will be the next Rango...

As you all know, I have nothing but high praise for that Gore Verbinski-directed western that came out over two years ago. It was a much-needed kick in the pants to the industry, showing audiences that you don't have to make a cutesy derivative adventure with the animated medium. It did what most of Disney, Pixar and DreamWorks' competitors don't do and it even tries a few things that those greats haven't tried yet. It was a pretty hard PG film, as it toyed with humor and violence that caused controversy. The character designs were the antithesis of what you see in the marketplace, from Disney to Illumination. Nothing cute, marketable or ready-made for toys. The story is complex but it locks together quite well by the time the third act rolls in, with fun twists and turns. On top of that, the quirkiness is right on the surface and its just a beautiful film to look at. It's an animated masterpiece in my eyes...

Now, why do I think that this Book of Life will be the next Rango? How will it be the next Rango?

Reel FX, as many of you may know, is entering the theatrical feature animation business with Jimmy Hayward's Free Birds this autumn. This film, directed by Jorge Guiterrez and produced by Guillermo del Toro, is set to follow it. The picture is currently slated for an October 3, 2014 release and is described as an "action-packed" take on Romeo and Juliet, but with a "Day of the Dead backdrop". Aron Warner, producer of Free Birds, says it's unlike any computer animated film out there.

Well, Rango was just that if you ask me. Design-wise, it was far removed from a lot of the big studio offerings. It certainly didn't feel like something you'd see from Blue Sky and Illumination, and even the likes of Pixar, Disney and DreamWorks. It was a rare breed, its own animal... Since it came out, I've been saying, "We need more films like that!" Its success should've been something of a wake-up call to studios and newcomers... It looks like Reel FX gets the message.

Today, animation directors are pointing out the problems with the animation industry and the sameness of many releases. People who don't know anything about animation go backwards and ask "Are there too many animated films?" The answer is simple: Diversify. Create a market for different kinds of animated films, rather than the family-friendly adventure or silly comedy. Animation is such a limitless medium, yet many of our studios don't really experiment with it. There's a reason people turn to the likes of Disney and Pixar, because they offer creative films that are also smart; films that don't talk down to the audience. Films that everyone can enjoy, no matter what age.

Look at anime, look at what they get to cover! In Japan, they don't have this ridiculous "animation is for children" prejudice going on. That's almost exclusive to North America since it was born there. They also don't spend over $100 million USD on a lot of their works, so with the budgets they have, they can explore and try many things that American animation hasn't touched yet. The same also applies to many studios in Europe, who prove that huge budgets don't make for great animated films, or successful ones.

Reel FX plans on making their films for reasonable costs, unlike a studio like DreamWorks who will pour over $130 million into every film they make. (Though to be fair, the production values and extra sparkle in their films kind of show that they go an extra mile.) Free Birds has good-looking animation, so Book of Life should look just fine. People will still see an animated film that isn't entirely dazzling in its look. Illumination's films cost under $75 million to make, and people go to see them. Audiences will show up for something good or something that looks good.

Here's where the risk lies... How do you make Book of Life appeal to mass audiences? Its subject matter may not appeal to audiences, regardless of whether the film is hand-drawn or CG or stop-motion. LAIKA's films, for instance, have a hard time catching on. Coraline and ParaNorman's spooky themes just didn't appeal, and their opening weekends were poor. Stop-motion could be popular if marketed right, and so can the subject matter. Now this is not definite. It's possible that Book of Life will look great to fickle audiences that don't gravitate towards weirder or more eccentric animation, but what if it doesn't?

Rango, however, was arguably just as hard of a sell. Again, it had pretty grotesque character designs, no flashy colors (given the Western setting and tone) or anything familiar. The trailers made use of the film's various jokes, and somehow the marketing successfully sold it. Paramount put their all into it though, you got to give them credit there. (At the same time, they slacked off on Kung Fu Panda 2.) Adults who are normally sick of the same ol' same ol' were thrilled to see something different, and the marketing did try to reach out to them. Attaching Nickelodeon's name also helped the film, as they could sell it to family audiences (they did the same with The Adventures of Tintin, but with much less success) as well as promoting it on a channel that tons of children watch. It was a smart strategy, and the film opened well enough and had good enough legs. It may not have doubled its budget, but Paramount was more than happy with its success. To put it in perspective, Rango sold 15 million tickets while the supposedly more popular Rio sold 17 million. The gross of that Blue Sky film was only higher because of 3D screenings.

But on the other hand, Rango did have the first week of March to its advantage. October really isn't blockbuster month yet, but if last year taught us anything, it can be. Fox is distributing this film, so they're going to have to put their all into it if they want it to be a hit, but there's a big dilemma here: Fox has four other animation releases that year - Blue Sky's Rio 2 and DreamWorks' Mr. Peabody & Sherman, How To Train Your Dragon 2 and Home. Will they put a good amount of effort into Book of Life's marketing? Or will they pull a Fantastic Mr. Fox on it, throw it out there with barely any marketing and let it just sit there?

This one is going to need some very good marketing behind it, and on top of that, Fox can try to make it appeal to mainstream audiences without pandering: ParaNorman's trailer and ads, if you ask me, committed that sin. That film's trailer made it seem like a kiddie flick to adults (I remember watching the trailer and couldn't help but be a bit skeptical, despite how great Coraline was) yet it featured scary images that may have been frightening to kiddies. You can't have it both ways, because by pandering to kids with something that wasn't entirely for the younger set and losing adults in the process is what stopped ParaNorman from being the hit it should have been. Rango did well enough because the marketing tried to appeal to both age groups.

Which brings me back to why I brought up Rango. Book of Life is essentially a Rango or ParaNorman-esque film. It's different and it knows it, yet it's still going to be a family film, but probably a pretty edgy one. But why the "next Rango" rather than the "next ParaNorman"? Well, Rango was successful and it was also a computer animated film. If Rango can prove that not all non-Pixar/Disney/DreamWorks computer animated films should be the same, this could make that argument as well. Only time will tell...

Beasts of Burden on the other hand will probably not be a family film given the source material, but nothing is set in stone for that film just yet. You know I'm rooting for that one as well, and I hope Reel FX announces something about it (casting, directors, possible release dates) soon. In the mean time, their second feature looks to be a game changer and one that may make a real impact like Verbinski's quirky critter western did.

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