Friday, April 21, 2017

Lee Mendelson Films

Lee Mendelson? Who's Lee Mendelson? Mendelson is one of the reasons that you have all those great Peanuts specials! Mendelson served as executive producer on many of the Peanuts specials and his animation studio created the lot of them. Mendelson started out making documentaries, culminating in his making one based around baseball player Willy Mays. Shortly after he came across a Peanuts comic strip focusing on Charlie Brown and his baseball team. Mendelson decided that he had done a documentary on the best baseball player of all time, so now he was going to make one on the worst. He approached Charles Schulz about making a documentary about Schulz and his Peanut characters, something that Schulz readily agreed to, having seen Mendelson's work. The result was 1965's Charlie Brown and Charles Schulz, which kicked off a 30 year collaboration between the two. While Mendelson was shopping the documentary around, Coca-Cola approached him about producing a Christmas Special, to which he agreed readily. He immediately contacted Schulz about using the Peanuts characters in this special, and they pick up Bill Melendez as director. Melendez had worked with Schulz on some commercials before this and was used to working with the Peanuts characters. Composer Vince Guaraldi rounded out the group and the result was the instant classic, A Charlie Brown Christmas.

By 1969, Lee Mendelson Films had a few TV specials under their belt and decided the time was right to make a movie based around the Peanuts characters. The plot followed a strip storyline from 1966 and involved Charlie Brown going to a Spelling Bee and being a failure in general. What's new? A Boy Named Charlie Brown was a hit, grossing $12 million and getting rave reviews. Many heralded it as a nice alternative to Disney, as Disney was starting to lose momentum after Walt Disney passed away. This was followed up by the stand-alone sequel, Snoopy, Come Home in 1972. Sadly, this movie would not fare anywhere near as well as its predecessor, not even grossing $1 million. Like its predecessor it was a critical darling, and its one I remember fondly as a child. While I remember liking Snoopy, Come Home, Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown was by far my favorite. This was the one where the Peanuts gang is at camp and has a boat race with some bullies. It fared better than Snoopy, Come Home, but reviews were so-so at the time. I must have watched this one a million times as a kid and I still love who ends up winning the race. Mendelson only made one more Peanuts movie, named Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown (and don't come back!). Released in 1980, it follows Charlie Brown and the gang as they are foreign exchange students in Europe. I remember this one too, but only little bits and pieces. This movie did as well as Race for Your Life, both critically and financially.

The Peanuts movies did well in a time where Disney wasn't doing as well, though Rescuers still grossed $71 million by comparison, so Disney is still going to reign supreme. Lee Mendelson Pictures was still making that sweet TV money so they seemed to stop focusing on releasing movies to theaters and instead just stuck with made for TV. This will not be the last time you see Peanuts in this series however, but it won't be from Lee Mendelson Films.

UPA

Where Fleischer Studios was sunk in part due to the start of World War II, UPA was helped by it. UPA, or United Productions of America, was founded in June 1943, and started out by making industrial and World War II training films. The studio was founded in part by John Hubley, along with many other disenfranchised Disney workers who left during Disney's 1941 strike. Hubley had grown to hate Disney's ultra-realistic style of animation and longed to make more stylized animation. UPA kept itself busy through the early forties doing shorts for the UAW and the government, but they eventually dried up during the Red Scare and no one really wanted to be associated with the movie industry. UPA rebounded quickly by winning a contract with Columbia Pictures. After Hubley was able to utilize Columbia's characters, they were given freedom to create their own characters. From this they decided, like Fleischer Studios, to create a human character, namely Mr. Magoo.

Mr. Magoo was a huge hit for UPA, making lots of money at the box office, and even winning Academy Awards for Best Short Subject. They also won another Academy Award for their hit, Gerald McBoing-Boing, which was based on a Dr. Seuss story. UPA eventually turned to television and started the trend of limited animation. Disney and many other studios were trying to make their cartoons look as detailed as possible and that may have looked nice, but it took forever to make cartoons. Limited animation cut down on time and labor by using the same parts of animation, the ones that weren't changing from frame to frame, throughout a scene. The best example I can give is the backgrounds of Scooby Doo, Where Are You? The background was reused several times when the characters were running from ghosts, and in many frames you can tell which item would be moving in that shot because it was a little bit lighter than the rest of the animation. Hanna-Barbera utilized limited animation a ton, but UPA started it and it gave them a lot of success.

Though they had a few more hits with Mr. Magoo, like Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol, the writing was on the wall. By the 60's the world wasn't as keen on movie shorts, so the animation studio shut down and the studio would go on to distribute Toho Studio's "giant monster" or kaiju films in the U.S. UPA would go on until one if its founders, Henry G. Saperstein died in 1998, and the company was sold off to Classic Media in 2000, ending the studio's history. Classic Media was shortly thereafter bought by Dreamworks, though UPA still holds the licensing rights to Mr. Magoo.

UPA, like Fleischer Studios, only came out with two feature films in its history, 1001 Arabian Nights, and Gay Purr-ee. I had only heard of Gay Purr-ee before researching the company, but have never seen it. 1001 Arabian Nights, which came out in 1959, is unique in that they shoe-horned Mr. Magoo into the film as Uncle Abdul Azziz Magoo. Yes, really. 1001 Arabian Nights was not the hit that UPA hoped it would be and it contributed to Columbia dropping them. Gay Pur-ee came out in 1962, and had the star power of Judy Garland behind it. Chuck Jones helped write the story and you can definitely see his animation style in the movie. Judy Garland and Chuck Jones' style was not enough, as the movie flopped, though critics liked it.

Not sure if you're seeing a trend yet, but while these animation studios could compete with Disney on a shorts level, they could not when it came to theatrical releases. That sort of competition won't come around until the 1980's. Still, these movies are still worth noting, as they still hold an important part of animation history. Animated films outside of Disney were few and far between, and not all of them were that bad.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Fleischer Studios

Fleischer Studios started out as Inkwell Studios in 1921 in New York City, founded by the Fleischer brothers Max and Dave. The early days of the studio brought new innovation to the medium with their Song Car-Tunes which were three minute shorts that had the audience "follow the bouncing ball" and sing along to a song. This was the first instance of this karaoke precurser, and the series would also be the first to use sound film to animation, four years before Disney's Steamboat Willie. Max Fleischer invented the rotoscope, a device that allowed for animation to be more lifelike by tracing motion picture footage of human movement. Their first major cartoon character, Koko the Clown, was a product of rotoscoping. In 1929 they changed the studio name to Fleischer Studios. It was also around this time that the studio started to experiment with sound. Talkartoons became a hit with the studio going into the early 30's with their character Betty Boop eventually becoming the star and getting her own show which ran until 1939. 

Fleischer Studios had their biggest hit when they licensed E.G. Seger's comic character Popeye starting in 1933. Popeye even surpassed Micky Mouse in popularity at the time. The studio was hitting its stride by 1936, and this made their parent company, Paramount, demand more output in shorter amounts of time. This led to the first ever strike in the motion picture industry. The strike lasted five months and resulted in Fleischer cartoons being boycotted throughout the strike's duration. Max Fleischer had been bugging Paramount to let them do a full length animated film, but they didn't go for it until Disney pulled it off with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Once Disney had proven that it could be done and people would go see it (and see it they did, Snow White still tops box office returns when adjusted for inflation for animated films), Paramount then demanded a movie be done by Christmas 1939. 

The first of two feature films made by Fleischer Studios was Gulliver's Travels, the classic story by Jonathon Swift. The production of Gulliver's Travels was not a smooth one. Paramount demanded a film in 18 months, a daunting task considering that Snow White was made in twice that amount. On top of this was the Studios move from New York to Miami, Florida. While the studio gained a bit of freedom on how they were making the film, the remote location made their relationship with the Technicolor lab. Rotoscoping was used for many of the main characters to give them more life-like movement, and like Disney would eventually do, used the voice actor as the live-action model. Even with Paramount constantly threatening to cancel the film, the studio was able to get it done in time for Christmas 1939. The film was a success, grossing $3.27 million domestically, a feat made even more impressive considering it was only playing at 50 theaters. Paramount was happy enough with Gulliver's Travels and wanted another movie for Christmas 1941. Despite the profit made from the movie, Paramount still penalized Fleischer Studios for $350,000 for going over budget. This was just the start of Fleischer's financial woes.

Things were going downhill quickly for the Fleischer brothers. The move to Miami and the stress of trying to get Gulliver's Travels made had damaged their relationship. They eventually stopped talking to one another after Max slept with Dave's receptionist. Dave eventually gained full control of production, with Max dealing with business affairs and research. Things didn't go much better with Dave picking what to make. Their new cartoons were very unpopular, with only Popeye sticking out as a money-maker. Max attempted to save the studio by acquiring the rights to Superman, which was a very popular character, but was too little too late. Superman was also expensive to product. Their first short featuring Superman cost $50,000, the highest of any short of that time.

Fleischer Studios still hadn't paid Paramount all their penalties and Paramount eventually fully acquired them, though letting them keep producing cartoons. They hoped that Popeye, Superman, and the studio's second film could get things going again. Mr. Bug Goes to Town, the studio's second feature, was not going to save them. It was first previewed on December 5th, 1941. Critics enjoyed it, but theater owners rejected it. Two days later, Pearl Harbor was bombed by the Japanese and Paramount canceled the release of the film until February. Paramount had had enough of the Fleischer brothers and had made them sign resignation forms ahead of the films release to be used at the company's discretion. Dave quit, and Max was fired shortly after. Mr. Bug Goes to Town, originally titled Hoppity Goes to Town, was a complete bomb, and that, together with Paramount noticing that both of Disney's recent releases, Pinocchio and Fantasia tanked at the box office too, led Paramount to completely abandon making animated films. Fleischer Studios was renamed Famous Studios in 1942.

Fleischer Studios still exists today, but not as a traditional studio. Max's grandson, Mark Fleischer, currently owns the studio, which owns the rights to Betty Boop, Koko the Clown, Bimbo, and Grampy. Mark basically controls merchandising on these characters. I'm guessing Betty Boop is the only one making anyting. Superman was eventually bought by Warner Bros., and Popeye's cartoons are owned by Turner Entertainment.

Not all of these will be this long. Fleischer Studios holds a place in history and their studio history is more interesting than their two films. Fleischer Studios found success because they were drawing in a way that no one else was. They had a rougher feel, but along with rotoscoping and more human characters, it felt more life-like. The settings in the cartoons tended to be more urban, in areas that looked all too familiar to the lives of those living during the depression. Disney did funny cartoon animals, while Fleischer tended toward more human characters. Most studios went with animals, so this really helped with Fleischer's popularity. All of their cartoons have a very specific look, and you know one when you see it. This animation style is not altogether gone either, as there is currently a video game in development that uses that same style called Cuphead. It's nice that the early animation giants are still remembered in some ways today.


Animation Studios

It's been 2 years since I've written for this blog, so I wanted to write about something interesting that many people may not know about. Most everyone knows about Disney, Pixar, Dreamworks, Blue Sky, and Illumination, but there are many more animation studios out there, much more now then there have ever been. We are going through an animated renaissance of sorts, and everyone's trying to get in on it. Sadly, not all of these studios lasted, with some only putting out a single film. My new series will tackle all of these studios and give you a little information on them and the movies they came out with. I will only be covering animated feature films released theatrically. I'm excluding any live action with animation added, though I will be talking about those studios anyway. I won't be covering any animated films made for adults, and I'm only going to cover American films. I may make a few exceptions along the way. One last note is that Disney will not have their own post because I've done a write-up on all of their films and the studio's history is peppered throughout. All of the studios are competition with Disney and for the most part Disney has always stayed on top, so most will go into a little bit on comparing the two companies. If you feel like I'm leaving out a movie, let me know in the comments!