Thursday, July 27, 2017
Addressing the Emojis...
A serious discussion on The Emoji Movie, you ask?
Can't we just toss this movie off a cliff and point torches at Sony Pictures Animation? Can we all just collectively call Sony Pictures Animation the worst animation studio in the modern age?
As you all know, The Emoji Movie looks to get no critical love or even something of a pass. The just-released reviews indicate that this picture truly is bad, bottom-of-the-barrel, Norm of the North levels of bad. 0% on Rotten Tomatoes, with an average rating of roughly 1.9/10... Most of the reviews say that it's the mediocre-nothingness kind of bad, and that is something animation truly does not need.
This, coupled with the reception of the teaser for the studio's upcoming The Star, has put Sony Animation on many... Well... How should I put it? Shit lists. I don't blame people for being angry. Sony Pictures Animation had something of a cool future ahead, some 3-4 years ago. Genndy Tartakovsky doing a classic-style Popeye movie for them and a heady original concept called Can You Imagine?, Lauren Faust was part of their ranks, and other cool projects like the adult-oriented stop-motion hybrid Superbago and fantasy stories like Kazorn & the Unicorn were on the slate.
Sony Pictures as a whole experienced a hack that compromised them at the end of 2014, and management changes occurred swiftly - in ALL departments - after things were getting back on the rails. The hearsay implied that the then-current management of Sony Animation, which was fostering Genndy's movies and Medusa, weren't effective as leaders. It was made clear that they just didn't know how to run a studio, yet ironically the new people haven't scored a hit. Hotel Transylvania 2 was in production before they came in, and it was going to be a success anyways because of how successful the first film was. The not-well-received Smurfs: The Lost Village made a mere fraction of what the last hybrid movie made, and no film was released in 2016 if you don't count The Angry Birds Movie. (An uncredited collaboration.)
You would think that a former DreamWorks chief, who was active during their Kung Fu Panda/How To Train Your Dragon heyday, would've made better choices. I'm referring, of course, to the studio's current president Kristine Belson. Smurfs was just another kids' movie, Emoji Movie has awful reviews, The Star hasn't inspired confidence so far. We know little to nothing on the two in-house movies being released next year, Hotel Transylvania 3 and Spider-Man: The Animated Movie. Peter Rabbit and Goosebumps 2 are films they've attached their names to. The original projects lined up for 2020-2021 do sound promising, especially since talented folks like Shannon Tindle (who conceived LAIKA's Kubo and the Two Strings) are there right now.
I know what you're thinking. Tindle and all those other folks could be torpedoed in a year from now, and their films will be cancelled to make way for more uninspired suckfests. Don't put it past the management, but let's have a tiny bit of context first.
Popeye, in Genndy Tartakovsky's hands, was already on the chopping block before the hack. The released emails revealed that the likes of Amy Pascal and Sony Animation's heads were not keen on Tartakovsky's decidedly retro take on the nearly 90-year-old character. His vision was based off of the great Fleischer cartoons of the 1930s, the very cartoons that turned a minor character from a comic strip (Thimble Theatre) into a full-on icon. Even though the released proof-of-concept animated sequence got raves when it was previewed to a test audience, these higher-ups didn't like it. They told Genndy that, and Genndy decided to move on anyways. Presumably, the current management axed Can You Imagine? I'm not sure if that was already dead in the water before December 2014.
Projects like Superbago weren't ever mentioned again. Lauren Faust was booted off of Medusa, the movie is still on track, and it will now be a different take on Greek mythology and not the story Faust had in mind. The Emoji Movie was picked up in mid-2015 by these same executives, merely two years before its release.
However, Sony Animation isn't entirely to blame... The Emoji Movie began life as a project created by Tony Leondis - who worked at Disney Animation, Disneytoon, and DreamWorks before directing his first theatrical feature, the 2008 MGM animated film Igor - after his plans to direct a ghost movie for DreamWorks fell through. Supposedly this Emoji story was a passion project of his, and three distributors got in a bidding war over it. Not just Sony, but also Warner Bros. and Paramount. So, in an alternate timeline, The Emoji Movie could've been a Warner Animation Group film and would've shared a pool with The Lego Movie. It also could've been from the distributor who gave us Monster Trucks.
Was Leondis' original pitch actually legitimately decent? Did the studio system destroy something that could've been a good movie? We all know how it goes... Executives tend to cynically go about movie-making in most cases, hoping for something that will make coin, regardless of its quality. In feature animation, we see a lot of mediocre films come and go, and you can detect their beats from a mile away. I can almost hear the boardroom people saying things like "Now let's see how we can make this plot complex, let's see what Pixar-like devices we can put into it," "How can we make this part feel heartfelt?" and "How do we keep the adults awake? What jokes will they laugh at?"
Of course, animated movie-making is not rocket science. It isn't some mechanic process that you can explain in a cute little infographic. The ideal situation is this: Someone or a small group of people have a great story, the executives greenlight it with some stipulations (stay on budget, etc.), they figure out the story themselves, work their collective rears off on it for a few years, and then the movie gets released. If things are truly going south, they may need help, whether it's from executives or an outsider. It happens sometimes. In few instances, executives saved movies. From the looks of it, The Emoji Movie was mechanically made. The studio heads probably picked up the pitch, made their little "modifications," and then gave it to a group of animators who had to work on it. That's still a job for the talented artists and animators, whether they or you like it or not.
As a historian said in the year 2001, the animators animate the product, they don't control it.
So what should we think of these executives? These evil creativity-killing monsters?
Well, I think it's complicated. Criticism is welcome, these bean-counters should definitely be questioned for these movies. Held accountable, even. I don't care right now whether The Emoji Movie was a bad concept from the start or not, my concern is... How did they let it turn out to be this bad? Or mediocre even? I'm sure somebody, the right mind, somewhere could've made something salvageable out of The Emoji Movie. If a John Lasseter-type was running Sony Animation, the creative team would be pushed to make this thing work. I don't think it was ever doomed to fail, per se. In better circumstances, this movie could've been some quirky, avant-garde marvel that was a wry commentary on how some people are too glued to their smartphones or whatever. It could've been a great parody, a send-up of how Hollywood treats animation. It could've been an adult comedy, for Pete's sake!
But it wasn't. It turned out to be another tossaway kids' movie without much passion put into it.
Do I wish for the thing to flop? Well... No.
Why's that? If the movie flops, the animators - who did all the real work on the movie - are likely to be affected and not the people who approved of such a miserably bad movie. If it did flop and those executives got the boot, that'd be a miracle, but I doubt that'll happen if The Emoji Movie fails. The film cost $50 million to make, so I have a feeling it'll make its money back somehow. Projections have it opening at $25-30 million domestically, which isn't terrible, but not necessarily great, either. I'm not sure what its worldwide prospects are.
My hope is this... It doesn't fail, per se, but it doesn't make enough money to ensure a sequel or countless halfhearted imitators. Belson recently made it clear that Smurfs: The Lost Village - despite the fact that it made over 3x its budget - was a failure in the collective eyes' of the studio heads. That grossed roughly $195 million worldwide, so the executives were more upset about the overall numbers than the profit margin. If The Emoji Movie makes around that amount when all is said and done, then Sony Animation's leadership may likely view it as a flop as well.
As for you... Well, don't go to the film to hate-watch it, in fact... I wouldn't encourage you to really go and see it, unless you are willing to give any film you go to a fair shake, like my writing buddy/YouTube reviewer Mister Coat does. Instead of paying to see it just to hate-watch it, spend your money on some great original movies that are playing right now. Go see Dunkirk (I saw it yesterday, it's really good!), go see Baby Driver (that was excellent!), go see Girls Trip. (Haven't seen it yet, reviews say it's very good.) Don't give shovelware your support, vote with your wallet! You want better animation? Don't go and see bad animated movies. Save the tossaways for Netflix or Redbox or whatever.
We shouldn't have to tell animation fans this, but audiences... That's the problem right there.
Sadly, The Emoji Movie is yet another example of Hollywood's rather low view of animation. While Hollywood wants animation because it makes lots of money for them, they don't see it as an art form. That should be dreadfully obvious by now. They haven't seen it as an art form in decades. Like I said when pondering about the 2020s and what that will bring to animation, Hollywood tends to chase rather than lead. For the most part, they see a studio score a big hit out of a sleeper, they try to get that, instead of striving to create something that's actually worth it. They want franchises, not good movies.
Sometimes they're rewarded for this, sometimes they are not. When they're not, they find something new to chase. The Shrek-style comedy faded, they chased Despicable Me, when that fades... What will they pursue? In the mean time, I see Emoji Movie as an executive's halfhearted answer to the success of The Lego Movie. A complete misunderstanding of that movie's success, which I feel had a lot more to do with its quality than it being a film based on the beloved construction toy. Sure, a Lego movie would've opened huge anyways, but if it were a truly bad film, it wouldn't have had the staying power that it had.
I was indifferent in the last few months. I initially blasted the idea, but once it entered production, I figured there was no use in complaining. I kept saying, "I'll eat crow if this thing is actually decent." I guess that's not on the menu for me tonight...