Saturday, April 29, 2017

Hanna-Barbera Productions

Hanna-Barbera Productions got its start as an animation company in 1957 when former Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer animation directors WIlliam Hanna and Joseph Barbera, both of whom had created Tom and Jerry, and live-action director George Sidney teamed with Screen Gems, a TV unit of Columbia Pictures. It operated in this way until 1966 when it was purchased by Taft Broadcasting (yes, it has connections with our 27th President of the United States) and became its subsidiary. In its hey-day, Hanna-Barbera Productions created some of the most recognizable characters in TV history, including The Flintstones, Yogi Bear, Scooby-Doo,The Jetsons, and The Smurfs. The pair of Hanna and Barbera over the years won seven Academy Awards, eight Emmy Awards, and even a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Their fortunes would eventually shift in the 80’s when more focus was on weekday afternoon programming and less on Saturday morning cartoons. This problem has come to full fruition in the last couple years as most major networks have completely abandoned Saturday morning programming. There was that sweet spot when I was a kid, when there was plenty of quality programming at both times.

Hanna-Barbera cartoons were starting to lose their staying power in the 80’s compared to the 60’s and 70’s. Their output had slowed incredibly with their only hit being The Smurfs. In 1991, Ted Turner purchased Hanna-Barbera Productions, mostly to fill up programming for his new network, The Cartoon Network. Hanna and Barbera stayed on as consultants. It was also around this time that the company’s cartoons kind of went in two directions: one going for renewed nostalgia, and another into the edgier side of things. My childhood was filled with these cartoons. You had the newer versions of classic cartoons, most of which went with the “kid” versions of their classic characters. These were: A Pup Named Scooby-Doo, Yo Yogi!, Tom and Jerry Kids, and The Flintstone Kids. Lots of animation companies employ this with their characters. Some cartoons are very much of their time and it’s harder to get the new generations to watch them, so they just take their characters and put them into new situations or present them in a different fashion (other examples: Muppet Babies, Goof Troop, Quack Pack, and Tiny Toon Adventures). You still see it today to a lesser extent. Movies are being made on old cartoons instead (Smurfs, Transformers, and The Chipmunks are recent ones), though that’s been happening since the 90’s, too (I’m looking at you, terrible Flintstones movie). The other subset of new Hanna Barbera cartoons were the edgier ones aimed at an older, more 90’s mentality group of kids. Pirates of Black Water, SWAT Kats, and The Real Adventures of Johnny Quest (also a reboot, but EXTREEEEEME!). I had no scruples as a child, I watched most anything you put in front of me. Turner eventually would merge with Time Warner in 1996 and the studio became a subsidiary of Warner Bros. Animation. I’ll get to Warner Bros. later, so don’t worry. Hanna-Barbera exists in name only, used in marketing for their characters. Their characters are still used and are in productions for kids, though only their most famous, such as The Flintstones, Jetsons, Smurfs, and Scooby-Doo. Scooby is by far Hanna-Barbera’s most successful character. There has been almost no lull in output for this character, with either a TV show, TV-movie, or film happening in most years. He’s by far my favorite Hanna-Barbera character and to me it's no wonder he’s been so successful.

Hanna-Barbera Productions created seven movies altogether over the years. Not all of them were using their characters either. That was not the case for their first two productions, Hey There, It’s Yogi Bear! And A Man Called Flintstone. Yogi came out in 1964 and was their first try at a theatrical film. The film did reasonably well at the box office and critically, with critics enjoying seeing something other than Disney films. A Man Called Flintstone was meant to the be the series finale of the show, and a parody on James Bond films. Coming out two years after Yogi, it was also a decent hit for not being a Disney film. Hanna-Barbera decided to adapt a book instead of using their own characters for their next film, Charlotte’s Web. They received permission from the book’s author, E.B. White, and were told by the author what parts that had to stay and what could be potentially changed. In the end they made the movie a musical and partnered with Sagittarius Productions. E.B. White hated that all those annoying songs got in the way of his story and ultimately regretted letting Hanna-Barbera adapt it. Released in 1973, the film was a moderate hit both critically and financially (noticing a trend?), but it really paid dividends 21 years later. It was released several times on VHS, but its 1993 release caused it to be one of the best-selling titles that year. Go figure! I know that this was definitely one that I rented a bunch of times as a kid, so maybe it was just a thing with 80’s/90’s kids? Also, this movie is legit sad, so hope you aren’t already feeling depressed before you watch it.

Besides live-action film C.H.O.M.P.S., Hanna Barbera took it easy with theatrical films until 1982’s Heidi’s Song. I’m actually a bit surprised that I had never heard about this film until now. We had a collection of some very obscure animated movies and TV shows (all recorded on blank VHS tapes, of course), so it’s a wonder this one wasn’t one of them. This one actually did better than any of the other Hanna-Barbera films so far, so that was a good thing, but I couldn’t really find anything about its critical reception, and considering that it took me this long to learn about it (I’m a crazy person when it comes to animation, as evidenced by this series), I’m going to guess it was a run-of-the-mill cartoon movie. If anyone has seen this one and loved it, let me know in the comments! Transformers competition/rip-off GoBots even got its own movie in the form of GoBots: Battle of the Rock Lords in 1986. Unfortunately the movie came out the same time as Transformers: The Movie and ultimately only pulled in a little of a million dollars, with Transformers pulling in 6 million. That being said, Transformers budget was almost 6 million, so they didn’t do too hot either. I have never seen GoBots or anything about it, really. It was a little before my time, honestly.

Hanna-Barbera did something a little weird with The Jetsons. Its original run (1962-1963) lasted a little over six months and then ran on re-runs from then on. It was brought back for new episodes in 1985 and lasted two seasons. Not everyday that a cartoon gets brought back as the same exact show, not a reboot, twenty years later. With the renewed interest in The Jetsons, Hanna-Barbera decided to make a movie starring its futuristic family. The Jetsons Movie came out in 1990 and served as the last Jetson product until 2017 (it was a WWE tie-in, so yeah) mostly because the main voice cast passed away shortly after the movie, including the great Mel Blanc. The advanced age of the cast caused issues with the production, the first being that the voice of Elroy, Daws Butler, died before production could start. George O’Hanlan, voice of George Jetson, passed away right after recording his lines. Blanc also died during production, and they had to have Jeff Bergman fill in some of the lines for all the actors that had passed away. What everyone remembers about this film, however, was the casting of Judy Jetson’s voice. Janet Waldo, who just recently passed away, recorded all of her lines for the role, seeing as she was the character’s original voice actor. Hanna and Barbera had the bright idea that to really draw the kids in, they had to get a “star” to fill out a role. The hired teen singer Tiffany to be Judy and all of Janet Waldo’s recordings were erased. Legendary voice director Andrea Romano (she is connected to just about every Warner Bros. project) was so appalled with the decision that she had her name removed from the movie. The movie was released to terrible reviews, some focusing on the plot, others on Tiffany’s performance. It did reasonably well at the box office despite the awful reviews, making over $20 million theatrically. It would go on to make much more through video sales/rentals. I distinctly remember watching this quite a few times as a kid, but I think I knew at the time that it wasn’t that good.

Last of Hanna-Barbera’s theatrical films was 1993’s Once Upon a Forest, based on the Furlings characters created by Rae Lampert. Hanna-Barbera partnered with animators from all around the world to pull this movie off and billed it as a “new masterpiece” from the creator of An American Tail. Said creator was not Don Bluth or Steven Spielberg, but David Kirschner, who served as Executive Producer on An American Tail. Many found this to be a bit misleading, but how many times have you seen something like that advertised at the top of movie posters? Even with the recently popular environmental story-line, the movie was a box office bomb, grossing just $6.6 million against a budget of $13 million. Ouch. No wonder this was their last film. Hanna Barbera animation teams were spun off into Turner Animation and later into Warner Bros. Animation. Hanna-Barbera fared better than most studios through its long history, and its characters still live on today, which is more than can be said for Fleischer Studios and UPA. Yes, Betty Boop and Mr. Magoo are still recognizable to most generations, but when was the last time you saw them in anything? Who Framed Roger Rabbit? And the Mr. Magoo movie? I think what Hanna-Barbera learned from their theatrical ventures is that original movies or not, they were very capable of making decent films or very, very bad ones.

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.


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!