Sunday, June 4, 2017

Weekend Box Office Takeaways

Wonder Woman’s success aside, I think we can learn a thing or two from this weekend’s box office results...

DreamWorks’ Captain Underpants, a $38 million-costing adaptation of the long-running Dav Pilkey book series, has grossed an estimated $23 million this weekend. This is one of the lowest openings for a CG DreamWorks feature, but there are no worries... And there shouldn’t be...
Captain Underpants is another animated movie that’s showing that, hey, not every animated feature film needs to be this gigantic tentpole smash. I feel that this need for every animated movie to be a Despicable Me or Frozen or even Hotel Transylvania-sized hit is what’s kind of hurting feature animation these days.

Last autumn, I wrote a piece on my other blog about Storks. Storks, a $70 million-costing Sony ImageWorks feature commissioned by Warner Animation Group, opened with $21 million towards the end of this past September. The film ended up grossing roughly $185 million worldwide, which was over 2 1/2x its budget. I felt that the film, and films like it, gave me hope for the American feature animation industry.

The problem is painfully obvious: Hollywood sees animation as a genre, not as a medium meant to tell multiple kinds of stories. They want all animation to be the family-friendly, four-quadrant seeking tentpole smash that serves as a kid-friendly alternative to all the PG-13 blockbusters and superheroes. This has been a problem since the 1990s, so it isn’t anything new, but more than ever these days, it seems like animation really is being pushed into the corner no matter how many movies try to defy a few conventions. They see the grosses of Pixar’s films, Frozen, Despicable Me, and they want that. Anytime someone steps out of line, those “rogues” pay for it.

Yet audiences aren’t going to shell out money for every family-friendly animated movie. We saw that with Storks, we saw that with both Smurfs 2 and Smurfs: The Lost Village, we saw that with plenty of other films. Didn’t matter if they were good movies or bad movies. Now we’re seeing it with Captain Underpants, a film that is perhaps DreamWorks’ best-reviewed offering since How to Train Your Dragon 2. (I won’t be able to see it anytime at all this week, so I’ll let you know some other time.) Yet Boss Baby, with all its mixed reviews, has topped $170 million here and $480 million worldwide.

Anyways, long story short... Captain Underpants may very well miss $100 million at the domestic box office, and that’s fine. Isn’t that a great feeling? Not panicking that the newest big-screen animated movie hasn’t made a specific amount of money?

Captain Underpants is based on a book series that skews the elementary school set (it was always a staple at my elementary school’s annual book fairs), it’s chock full of gross-out stuff and toilet humor, it wears its tone on its sleeve, and it’s zanier than a more “serious” animated feature. It’s gleefully wacky and cartoony. The title alone sums it up. Maybe it was never meant to be the size of Hotel Transylvania ($150m range), or the size of a Despicable Me installment ($300 million+) or Frozen.

Not every live-action movie is meant to be a Marvel Cinematic Universe film or Titanic or Avatar or whatever, get where I’m going with this?

It’s time for the small animated feature film to rise.

There are plenty of great, small-scale live-action films proving year after year that it’s not all about tentpoles or blockbusters or big smashes. There are two examples of this: One is the low-budget movie that breaks out and makes blockbuster-sized numbers. Movies like Get Out. Then there’s tiny-budget movies that miss $100 million domestically, or maybe even $70 million, and it’s still fine. 10 Cloverfield Lane is a good example of this. Horror movies, too.

Not every movie needs to be required to make $100-200 million domestically, because that’s just not humanely possible, especially in the box office climate we are currently living in.

A lot of us all thought that Illumination and Sony were the ones keeping the costs down and being smart, DreamWorks pulled a complete 180 and bested both of them. DreamWorks, known for pumping behemoth $125 million+ budgets into their movies, outdid the cheapest of the studios and released a fine-looking, super-cheap computer animated movie. And its $23 million opening gross is fine. They are all set.

Yet that may come with a price. Captain Underpants was outsourced to Mikros’ Canadian unit, all of Illumination’s movies are made by a French studio called MacGuff, and Sony Animation/ImageWorks now work out of Vancouver. This has caused concern, because... American feature animation is little by little not being done in the United States anymore. Some will stay on American soil. Disney Animation and Pixar’s chief John Lasseter vowed to keep things all under one Californian roof, and I think the shuttering of the short-lived Pixar Canada rammed that point home. Blue Sky may stay in my home state... Other studios, they are or have been into getting the job done elsewhere for half the cost.

DreamWorks is one of the few studios working in or around L.A. Captain Underpants is their first outsourced CG pic, and again, it cost nowhere near the amount their films usually cost. You think the budgets for Trolls and Boss Baby were too high, remember that DreamWorks was spending way more in the past and had even mentioned that the big budgets were an ongoing problem! Prior to Trolls and Boss Baby, the average DreamWorks feature cost over $130 million! Reduce the budget alright, they barely reduced them. Outsourcing Captain Underpants was a smart, smart move...

This outsourcing dilemma, however, is another story. I want to talk about other things...

Will this need for every animated thing to be a huge tentpole finally die down? Captain Underpants, from what I’ve heard (I am unable to see it this week or next week), doesn’t hesitate to be what it is: A comedy that revels in gross-out humor (often used as a cheap laugh in a lot of other animated films) and over-the-top silliness. Its visual style is pretty much the book illustrations, and it isn’t hyperreal-looking. It looks like a big-screen CGI cartoon with its own agenda. Is it a kids movie or a family movie? I don’t know, I don’t care, it did what it set out to do and has gotten mostly great reviews for doing so.

I can’t say the same about a focus-grouped picture that tries to be cutesy for the kids, but tries to keep adults awake by adding faux-emotional stuff, sprinkling in “complex” plot threads (“Look at us! We’re sophisticated like those Pixar guys!”), and using innuendos and edgy humor. A better animated feature just tells the story from the heart, naturally, and gives us characters we can instantly relate to in some way or another. Films that are from their creators, not suits that meddle with the movies from the start. To me, an executive without any real experience in animation should only step foot in if things are going terribly, terribly wrong. Ironically, Walt Disney Animation Studios and Pixar do just this, and they’re in Cali spending gargantuan $150 million+ budgets on each of their films.

So in a way it’s not necessarily a budget issue, but I really think that with a smaller budget, these writers and directors could use the limits to their advantage. Illumination really doesn’t do this, despite the fact that their pictures cost under $80 million to make. With a small budget, you can probably get away with doing this quirkier, off-the-wall picture that would be too risky to do if you were given, say, $150 million to make it. This was DreamWorks’ problem all throughout the decade. Each picture was a do-or-die, sink-or-swim gamble, and after many of them sunk, the ramifications weren’t pleasant. While some features of theirs back then did succeed at being different and fresh, others - Megamind, Turbo, and The Croods, for example - felt very held back. Films that wanted to be these oddball, quirky films... But because of the big budgets, they could only take a few risks.

I look at studios like LAIKA and Reel FX, and they know where it’s at. Reel FX made Jorge Gutierrez’s personal Day of the Dead movie The Book of Life, which was visually different and was a weirder kind of story, too! They’re also working on Gutierrez’s next equally-oddball picture, Kung Fu Space Punch. LAIKA’s weakest film, the rather rushed The Boxtrolls, is still a distinguishable work and has its own thing going. At least there’s “something” there! If the story doesn’t keep you coming back, that at least will. It’s similar to some of those Disney animated features that I vent about, films like Atlantis: The Lost Empire and such. Yes, their scripts and stories had issues, but at least those movies tried to do something new and interesting. The same goes for a lot of live-action movies I tend to have problems with, sometimes they’re the ones that end up being more interesting than other films that are getting all the success.

Of course, there has to be some kind of balance. I can’t just excuse 10-15 poor quality animated films that just happen to have great stylistic visuals, but at the same time I have to find fault with 10-15 animated films that have good stories but are visually run-of-the-mill. Bolt’s a great example of this, I think it’s a pretty sharp Disney animated feature, but visually it leaves little. Atlantis is better in that department, but that film falls flat on its ass halfway through its 95-minute runtime.

Still, I have to call for more stylization and experimentation in feature animation. Story is still top priority, but it shouldn’t be at the expense of innovation. The technology has advanced to a point where studios can make visually-striking CG films like Captain Underpants, The Peanuts Movie, and The Book of Life. (All, coincidentally, released by 20th Century Fox.) I think that needs to be exploited. I love Pixar dearest, but wouldn’t it be cool if Pixar dropped their style for once and made a Book of Life/Peanuts-esque CG movie with this bizarro-cool new visual style? That’s one of the big complaints being thrown at their upcoming Coco, it’s a movie done in their formal, hypperreal style and not the neat new style of The Book of Life. I ask the same of Walt Disney Animation Studios. If they absolutely can’t take the tech that made Paperman possible and make a feature out of it, then go bold and stylized with the CG! Look at their Inner Workings short, I want to see a feature from them that’s like that!

I’m just bored of the quasi-Pixar look at this point. That “realistic” glimmer. Pixar defined that look as their house style, and has only sought to improve it, not deviate from it. Each new film of theirs looks dangerously close to live-action, but they make up for that with great use of color, lighting, and cinematography. Other studios outside of Pixar, Disney, and DreamWorks often don’t quite do this, and some of those films just feel kind of bland and unexciting, and that’s not what animation should be. I at least get a little something out of the visuals for Finding Dory or Cars 3, but I see a trailer for something like Leap! or Despicable Me 3 or Nut Job 2 or whatever and it’s just not the same. It’s all decent-to-good work and such, but otherwise, I feel like I'm just looking at slightly-tinkered live-action with cartoon characters.

With Captain Underpants, The Peanuts Movie, and The Book of Life, I get more. Animation is inherently unreal for a good reason...

Let’s do THAT with computer animation.

Will Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie finally confirm to H-Wood that animation doesn’t always have to be big and huge? Will we see a new wave of smaller-scale, more visually experimental features in the marketplace? Or will everything just go back to normal when the movie is out of theaters?

1 comment:

  1. Only thing that's worrying me about Captain Underpants is that there's not a whole lot of international release dates yet. I, for one, has no idea when I'm gonna watch the film. Very strange from a DreamWorks film. Hope it'll expand very soon!