Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Bits Journal #46

Word on Toy Story 4's progress, an animated Emoji movie, and expanding foreign animation industries... More bits!

Don Rickles confirmed the other day that he is returning to voice Mr. Potato Head in Toy Story 4, to the shock of no one. However, this announcement implies that Toy Story 4 is indeed going to be ready by summer 2017, I had suspected a little while ago that it could move back. To summer 2018, even...

"They just signed me to do the fourth Toy Story. We start [work on it] in September, and I’m very delighted with that. … “When John [Lasseter] approached me for the first one, I said, ‘I don’t do comedy with cartoons, dummies and toys. Leave me alone.’ And [John] said, ‘No, you’re gonna love this!’ Then he told me the money and how nice it was going to be and, I said, ‘Yeah, I can give it a try.’ All of a sudden it’s going on 17 years."

September, eh? Yep, that means animation production should begin sometime early next year, and the film will be ready by June 2017. So it won't be pushed back, unless the story really runs into a wall a la The Good Dinosaur back in mid-2013. I suspect that we'll learn a lot more about this film next month at the D23 Expo, considering that it's the next Pixar film after Finding Dory... Perhaps we'll get the story, new characters (and possibly their voice actors), and some other things...

So... The "Emoji Movie"...

Yes, an animated movie based on emojis is happening. Yes, Sony Animation will be the studio that will make said animated film based on the little faces and icons we use when we text and tweet. Sony Pictures won a "bidding battle" of sorts to get the property, staving off Warner Bros and Paramount! I hear tell that the infamous Tom Rothman, who is co-chairman of the company, was instrumental in getting this property within Sony's clutches. Not surprising...

Now, I don't like to be judgmental of films that aren't out, let alone films that haven't even been made yet... But, the idea of an animated movie about Emojis ticks me off. I'm not going to lie...

Feature animation in America, no matter how good some of the recent films may be, is decidedly very family-friendly. That keeps the stigmas ("animation is for kids", "animation isn't as good as live-action") alive, and I believe it keeps many people from taking the medium seriously. Even something as adult-targeting as Inside Out has been sidelined because it's not rated anything higher than PG. It doesn't help that "adult" animation here in America is mostly shock value stuff, or things - regardless of whether they are smart or not - that make themselves very clear that they are inappropriate for kids. Very few thoughtful animated stories that just happen to be rated PG-13 and R come from here.

This kind of thing, I think, is the last thing we need. An emoji movie just sounds so corporate and so much like "product", not to mention it feels like another "idea" that's intending to leech off of The Lego Movie's success. It makes my eyes roll harder than the Peeps movie idea that was announced a year ago...

You know, like this!

Yes, I just had to...

I'll put it this way... The Lego Movie indeed started out as an easy money-grab feature, being based on a best-selling toy that almost everyone around the world knows. When I heard of the film back in 2012, I was skeptical like most other people. "A Lego movie? It'll probably be dumb, it'll probably be a toy commercial!" In 2010, the project transformed two years after it was cooked up. The writer-director duo behind the great Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs signed on and turned what could've been a depressingly corporate, 90-minute Lego advertisement into a wonderful 90-minute adventure that was imaginative, smart, great for all ages, and it was a film that had something to say!

I mean, who would've thought? Quite a few recent American animated family films don't aim that high, the last thing I would've expected to even go there was a Lego movie. A Lego movie!

Some could argue that this emoji movie could be the same if the right people are put in charge of the film, but I don't think that can happen. Legos are about creativity and using your imagination. You can build anything with Legos, it's all up to you. You can either follow instructions or take your Star Wars sets, your Harry Potter sets, what have you, and mesh them all into something that's uniquely your own. Legos are just like animation, there are limitless possibilities with both!

The Lego Movie is all about imagination and how limitless it is. The film champions creativity, it's the theme of the whole story!

What are emojis, really? Just icons you use when texting or tweeting. Fun they may be, but they're not like Legos, things that spark your imagination and inspire you. I don't think you can make a great movie about emojis. The best you can get is something that'll be really funny and entertaining, but that film will end up being a flash in the pan. Unless the film is a sharp satire of how people are glued to their smartphones and social media, I just can't see this working. Just the words "emoji movie" make me think of a bunch of suits sitting in a meeting room, thinking of how to make more money rather than actually make something creative. Also known as: The lame side of Hollywood that often rears its ugly head...

I think American feature animation can really do without something like this, it's just so safe and inoffensive. Animation is so limitless, why waste it on cute little faces on your phones when you can create new things? Ever since Inside Out came out, I've been rather harsh on animated features made here that don't take advantage of the medium or tell stories that are more than just Saturday night Redbox rentals that make you chuckle a few times. I understand that for every Inside Out, we're going to get at least three throwaway Minions-esque pictures. I get that.

Cartoon Brew recently asked if critics were too harsh on Minions, I'm going to say no to that because I don't want critics dishonestly giving a film they thought wasn't really good a pass just because it was "cute" or it made them laugh a few times. Who knows how an emoji movie will turn out, but I don't like the idea one bit. Sorry.

Anyways, moving on...

The Chinese animation industry saw a big upswing thanks to a feature that's currently playing, Monkey King: Hero Is Back...

The production, based on the classic Chinese novel Journey to the West, is now the highest grossing animated release in China, the previous record-holder was our Kung Fu Panda 2. According to Steve Hulett over at the Guild blog, the Chinese animation industry had struggled for a while, trying to get audiences to see their films while releases from other countries were ruling their box office.

Here is the trailer for the film itself. It doesn't look too bad for something made for only $16 million USD, and I must admit the action and staging is really cool...

Its director, Tian Xiaopeng, had this to say...

"We can’t afford the huge costs of Hollywood 3D animated films, so we have to find our own edge. The only way to compete with Hollywood is to connect on a cultural and emotional level. I want to tell the story in a Chinese way, using our own philosophy and aesthetics to explain the world in our eyes."

See, that's what happens when you don't follow the pack. Try to lead it, and sometimes you'll be rewarded. Now look, this very film is the country's highest-grossing all-animated release and one of their few animated blockbusters. I wonder what will happen next. Will the Chinese animation industry continue to grow? Will it see more films like Monkey King: Hero Is Back? Another big question... Could Monkey King could get something of a release here in the states? Theatrical? Maybe not, but direct-to-video seems likely. Even some of the most obscure international animated films find their way onto Netflix or Redbox, even if the distributors go as far as making them look like knock-offs. (Legend of Sarila / Frozen Land, anyone?) Or doing awful English-language dubs for them.

Now, this recent live-action feature with lots of animated creatures in it happened to become China's highest grossing film ever...

What's cool is that the director of Monster Hunt is a DreamWorks alumnus, animator Raman Hui. Prior to joining forces with DreamWorks, he was already at PDI, doing effects/animation work for films like Angels in the OutfieldBatman Forever, and The Arrival. He worked on AntzShrekMadagascar, among others, and then directed Shrek the Third. Talk about a success story!

Now this brings up a big question, I think...

Look at Illumination Entertainment. A French house called Mac Guff did the animation work for Despicable Me. The film was a big hit, cost a relatively shoestring amount ($69 million!) to make, launched a massive franchise... Mac Guff is now part of Illumination, and they create pretty good quality work without spending the amount of money DreamWorks does, or even Blue Sky and Sony Animation. All of Illumination's films have costed less than $75 million to make, and all of them were very profitable. Now they're going to join forces with a leading South Korean studio called Mofac Alfred, to make a feature based on a very cool South Korean short film called Johnny Express.

DreamWorks set up Oriental DreamWorks a few years back. Kung Fu Panda 3 is their first animated feature, a co-production with the Glendale unit. Their next feature, currently a mystery release that we'll learn more about sometime soon, will also be a co-production with the Glendale unit. That'll be released in the first quarter of 2018 in China only, and then it will get an international release sometime afterwards. DreamWorks also has a satellite studio in India.

Last summer, Paramount Animation got a hold of two features being made by a Spanish studio called Lightbox, a studio that scored a big local hit with The Adventures of Tadeo Jones in 2012. The film was retitled to Tad, the Lost Explorer here in the states and went straight to video. It was a super-profitable feature, making €45 million ($60 million) against an €8 million budget. Paramount wants to distribute their next feature Capture the Flag - opening in Spain exactly a month from now - worldwide. They also want to distribute their Tadeo Jones sequel, which should be arrive next year.

Animal Logic, who did Happy Feet and The Lego Movie? They're based in Australia, and recently opened a unit in Vancouver. Sony Animation works in Vancouver too, with Sony Pictures Imageworks. The upcoming Angry Birds movie is a co-production between Sony ImageWorks and the Finnish company who created the series, Rovio. DisneyToon, prior to feature production work being slowing down, co-produced their films with the Indian studio Prana Animation.

More and more big American animation studios are reaching out to other parts of the world to grow their bases. There are two exceptions, the two major players: Walt Disney Animation Studios and Pixar. John Lasseter said last autumn that they intend to keep all their resources under their Californian roofs, so future films will be all-American. The shuttering of Pixar Canada two years ago more than shows that the man will stick to that plan. Blue Sky is also pretty much their own beast, who knows if they'll partner up with a foreign studio anytime soon.

In simple terms, animation is booming and dominating...

What do you think of these recent success for China? Where do you think their animation industry will go? What do you think of the emoji movie? When do you think we'll hear more details about Toy Story 4? Sound off below!


  1. If it makes you feel any better, the emoji movie probably won't actually happen. Plenty of times a movie is announced, gets talked about, and then just disappears.
    And "Monkey King" has me wondering--could China be on its way to replacing Japan as the second-largest producer of animation?

    1. I hope you're right about the emoji movie. It may have a director and a couple producers, but we shall see if it pans out or not.

      As for China, I'm not sure at the moment, but I see a real boom in their animation industry coming.

    2. Having a director and producers doesn't necessarily mean it's going to happen. In 2007, Columbia Pictures announced that they would be filming James Patterson's sci-fi novel Maximum Ride, with Catherine Hardwicke scheduled to direct and Avi Arad to produce. Cut to 8 years later, and the movie never happened.

    3. it is already a fact that China is the country that makes the most animation, but only 1/3rd of it are released and published due to censorship. if China no longer becomes a Communist country, then yes, it will surpass Japan.

    4. Well, part of the reason China's animation industry is so big is BECAUSE of their communist government. They don't want to have to deal with products of "capitalist nations" like the US or Japan, so they have no choice but to make their own animation. A democratic China--which, I believe, may be a reality within the next decade--would not have such an obligation.

  2. As much as I hope that the emoji movie goes the social commentary route you just mentioned, I'm fairly certain that Sony Animation will go the slapstick route.

    1. They were never exactly big on subtlety.