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Summer's Sleepers and Keepers

Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman analyzes the summers animated releases and relays what we can all learn from their successes failures.

What do a chicken, a dinosaur, and a hundred-foot high wave all have in common? Filmgoers would have an easier time with this question than any ornithologist, paleontologist or oceanographer who might be looking for the answer: All three were premiere animated stars of the Summer 2000 box office. Filmgoers who are also animation aficionados, however, might be able to answer our riddle in more depth: None of the above were produced through the method of traditional cel animation. This fact alone makes the past year an interesting one for animated feature films, and in this month's column we will discover a few other facts that may hold clues as to how these films will be animated, produced, marketed and finally received by the public in the future. In doing so we will explore the "do's" and "dont's" of building a successful animated film based on some of the major offerings of the past year.

Let me begin by averring that animated features will always be with us. The tradition is a long one, and the public seems to support these features with enough dollars to make the effort lucrative. There are now enough skilled animators available to give any studio a decent shot at making a feature film, and we expect to see at least two or three quality efforts per year. In fact, it would be hard to imagine American cinema bereft of animated features; after all, it was this country that first exploited their mass appeal. The fact that the vast majority of animated features tend to fade well before reaching the $65 million mark in profits has not deterred any present or future efforts to give us more of them, and at present, broad-banding is not prevalent enough for Web technology to co-opt the form. Unless one counts on audiences to spend seventy-five hours downloading an entire feature film (or believes they will be content to view it in endless five-minute segments), we will continue to file into our local multiplexes to enjoy animated features, silo-sized soft drinks and cavernous tubs of popcorn.

And now, without trailers, commercials, or reminders to place trash in the proper receptacles, let's go to the movies and see what some recent features have to teach us. (All grosses are current through July 21, 2000 due to my deadline structure.)

Two lemurs, the elder Yar and his daughter Plio, from Dinosaur. © Walt Disney Pictures.

Dinosaur (Disney Studios)

Current gross: $133,051,394

What they did right: Paid attention to the fact that virtually every feature completely animated in CGI broke the hundred-mil mark. Took their time in developing a project that originally began in 1994. Did all the work in-house at the new TSL (The Secret Lab) digital studio to ensure quality and continuity. Recognized the selling potential of dinosaurs to a young audience, but shrewdly picked up on those adults who had their appetites to see "real" dinosaurs whetted by Jurassic Park. No Broadway numbers. Made over three million hours of computer time show on screen without detracting from character development. Developed tie-ins and ancillary products without the promotional overkill typical of early-nineties Disney.

What they didn't do right: Characters were fine but the script was a rehash of common Disney themes including a misfit hero with one or more missing parents, comic relief characters with anachronisitc speech, a sadistic and arrogant villain who falls to his death (Is this a prerequisite for every Disney villain of late? Do they audition by bungee jumping?), and an all-too familiar romantic subplot. However, one must realize that Dinosaur is very much a product of the Disney stable and would strongly bear its stamp. At least we'll probably be spared Dinosaurs on Ice.

What we learned: Digital rules. Between Pixar and Disney proper, one formula for an animated blockbuster has now been firmly established -- go CGI and watch the profits fly. Study the past successes of other studios that have used a certain genre and determine how to best embellish upon them. Research the tastes of your target audience and develop a concept that just can't lose. Finally, play within your audience's expectations and don't take any undue risks unless they involve spectacular visual effects; if people expect a Disney story, give 'em a Disney story.

Pokemon. © Warner Bros. No other uses are permitted without the prior written consent of owner. Use of the material in violation of the foregoing may result in civil and/or criminal penalties.

Pokemon: The First Movie (Distributed by Warner Bros.)

Current gross: $85,744,662

What they did right: Managed to get hold of a pre-existing film while the product was at its hottest. Does anyone remember The Power Rangers or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle movies that finally appeared more than a year after most kids had dumped their action figures into the local landfill? Didn't pay a Squirtle's worth for the labor-intensive work of an animated feature, guaranteeing almost pure profit. Ditto for publicity; this feature literally sold itself due to the proliferation of product into the pre-teen market.

What they didn't do right: Pulled it before it hit the $100 million mark. This feature should have stayed in the afternoon matinee market in smaller theaters for another month or two, supported by tournaments.

What we learned: Timing is everything. Develop a film script at the first sign of popularity and job it out to a dozen animation studios need be to get the speed factor. Don't worry about editing or continuity too much; millions will roll in regardless. Kids will hardly pause to consider mise en scène or proxemic patterns, and adults are well resigned to opening their wallets on cue. Team Rocket should work half as hard.

A brand new plan, from Chicken Run. © DreamWorks SKG.

Chicken Run (Aardman Animations/DreamWorks SKG)

Current gross: $84,080,147

What they did right: Used two experienced directors, Nick Park and Peter Lord. Capitalized on the popularity of a previous success, Wallace and Gromit. DreamWorks took a strictly hands-off approach and let Park and Lord shape their own vision. Stop-motion process looked fresh and different compared to recent cel and CGI features. Strong script built on cinematic references (prisoner-of-war films) which are not recycled often in American movies. Distinctive, grand musical score which contrasted amusingly with the silly animation (as in the South Park feature). Likeable characters backed by strong voice acting.

What they didn't do right: (Only for those who like to quibble.) A few conundrums in the plot. How could the circus, which seemed to value Rocky immensely, shoot him off-course for what seemed to be miles? How could a makeshift flying machine manned by chickens manage to hoist a full-grown human so high into the air for such a distance? Who cares? THEY ESCAPED!

What we learned: There is room out there for a wide range of animated styles and mediums. The three top-grossers above represent CGI, cel and stop-motion respectively. A small studio can flourish creatively under the auspices of a much larger one without the need for a tight leash. This unmistakably British feature, along with Pikachu and company, may be sending the strong signal that American audiences will be more receptive to imported animated features in the future. Anybody ready to distribute Help! I'm A Fish?

Fantasia/2000 (Disney)

Current gross: $58,653,569 (IMAX and theater receipts combined)

What they did right: Advanced Walt's original vision sixty years later. Left "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" segment in the film. Showcased the latest digital technology extant, including the overpowering particle generator. Proved in the outstanding "Rhapsody in Blue" segment that, given fifty years, Disney could finally grasp what UPA had been trying to do. Better musical selections than those of the 1940 film, with no radical alterations needed in the scores. No major embarrassment like the "Pastoral" among its sequences. Benefited from revisionist histories that now judge the original Fantasia to be among animation's greatest masterpieces.

What they didn't do right: Weak and distracting host segments. Released it to the general theaters while their other feature Dinosaur was still red-hot. Restricted it to IMAX theaters for far too long; even if this was a test run prior to making a bid for IMAX, the experiment cost Disney considerable profits. Some unconvincing animation in the "Pines of Rome" sequence. "Steadfast Tin Soldier" sequence was not even up to Pixar's standards. Production problems and changes in direction tied this feature up in the studio for over a year past the originally planned release date.

What we learned: New entertainment formats may be a major draw in the future. An increased number of theaters using IMAX-type technology may be a major showcase for animation. In this case, the format made a good, if not outstanding, feature a special event.

Miguel and Tulio, from The Road to El Dorado. © DreamWorks SKG.

The Road to El Dorado (DreamWorks SKG)

Current gross: $50,802,661

What they did right: Released the feature in late March, avoiding the summer blockbuster/holiday season wars. Used con-artist rapscallions as heroes rather than clean-cuts, and a female lead as sharp and crafty as her male foils. Great chemistry between Kevin Kline and Kenneth Branagh. Hired proven success from Disney: ex-animators, ex-screenwriters, and the duo of Elton John and Tim Rice for the tunes.

What they didn't do right: The idea should have been to compete with Disney, not become them. If Katzenberg wants to raid studios, he might try some of the bigger and more successful entities in Europe, Canada and Asia. Despite the film's sassy attitude, too much of El Dorado is reminiscent of Disney circa 1994. Oh, and didn't an evil master of sorcery also create a climactic set-piece by turning a massive bunch of stone into a savage attacking animal in that other movie? That one with the Russian princess in it? Come on, you know which one I mean...

What we learned: Recycling both talent and ideas will only get a studio so far, even if the talent is awesome and the original idea is a sound one. In this case, it got DreamWorks as far as the $50 million mark, but it could have turned out better. Much.

Titan A.E. © Twentieth-Century Fox.

Titan A.E. (Fox)

Current gross: $22,004,799

What they did right: Impressive integration of 2D and 3D animation.

What they didn't do right: The Titan Project may have had the power to create a planet, but it ended up sinking a studio. Produced while Fox was already considering personnel cutbacks. Chaotic creative changes while in production backed the film up a year. Bluth and Goldman seemed to be just a step behind the times on this one. Publicity could have been better. Too many visual and cinematic references to other sci-fi films. Massive market research missed the mark on teen audiences.

What we learned: Nice guys can indeed finish last, and best efforts aren't always rewarded. This film deserved a kinder fate from audiences, but sci-fi animation features (and there haven't been many) may have become obsolete due to VFX breakthroughs in live-action sci-fi films. Besides, one important piece of research was missing: When did sci-fi animated features last score a hit with the moviegoing public? Heavy Metal? Even Bluth's first attempt at something like sci-fi, The Secret of NIMH, only grossed about $10 million.

The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle. © Universal Pictures.

The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle (Universal)

Current gross: $21,754,375

What they did right: Well, at least they didn't animate Piper Perabo.

What they didn't do right: Sorry, but only Jay Ward, Bill Scott, Lloyd Turner, Chris Hayward and Allan Burns could have pulled this off. Unique Ward humor difficult to adapt to screen since most of it was verbal and made up for poorly animated visuals in the original series. Original format of "mellerdrama" serial at odds with feature-length film concept. Fans of show tend to be fanatic, detail-oriented and tough to please. Highly topical characters probably played much better in 1960s; updating them posed problems. Director Des McAnuff and scriptwriter Ken Lonergan were not animation people.

What we learned: Nostalgia won't always pull them in. Stay true to the original spirit of your source material. When doing revisionist work, check the adaptability of the characters and the series in the first place.

Having reviewed these films, we are now ready to produce our own animated blockbuster. A warning to plagiarists: I'm copyrighted this time!

Chickasaur Run A.E.: The Road to the First Movie 2000

This imaginative film features a herd of CGI-animated dinosaurs who help a desperate flock of stop-motion chickens escape from an evil cadre of cel-animated mutations called the Pokedrej. The escapees flee Earth, escorted by a school of flying space whales who help them reach the planet New El Dorado. There, the chickens and dinosaurs are nearly fleeced of their meager supplies by two slacker con artists, but they all eventually unite against the pursuing Pokedrej, who all fall to their deaths from a great height at film's end.

Or, we could just animate a single white mouse (Stuart Little, $140,015,224....).

Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.