Friday, May 19, 2017

Aardman Animation

Aardman is another exception to the only U.S. studios rule I made for this list. Aardman got its start in 1972, founded by Peter Lord and David Sproxton, who wanted to realize their dream of producing an animated motion picture. The small company would provide animation for TV shows and TV title sequences. In the late 80’s the studio found success with their mockumentary, Creature Comforts, which ended up winning an Oscar. The animation was done in the traditional style for Aardman, stop motion clay animation. Nick Park would be their most important asset, as he created many of their landmark characters, including Wallace and Gromit and Shaun the Sheep. Park directed and created several Wallace and Gromit shorts in the late 80’s through the mid-90’s with two winning Oscars. In 1997, the company drew the attention of Dreamworks, and the companies teamed up to co-finance and distribute Aardman’s first feature length film, Chicken Run.


Chicken Run had been in the works for a year before Dreamworks came on, and many studios, including Disney, 20th Century Fox, and Warner Bros. were interested in being part of the production to help enhance their presence in animation. Dreamworks won out and co-financed and distributed, but retained rights to worldwide merchandising. The film, like all stop-motion films, took forever to make and the movie wouldn’t be released until June 2000. Lucky for both Aardman and Dreamworks, the movie was a smash hit, grossing $225 million against a small budget of $45 million. Chicken Run is still Aardman’s highest grossing film to this day. Reviews were stellar for the movie, with many comparing it favorably to Aardman’s Wallace and Gromit shorts. Dreamworks signed on to help distribute four additional films for Aardman, and things seemed to be going rather well.

Dreamworks and Aardman’s next collaboration was Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit. Based on their popular characters, the film deals with the inventor and his beleaguered dog trying to stop a mutant rabbit from terrorizing their town. Being a much more British production than Chicken Run, the dialogue had to be toned down so American audiences could understand what was being said. Dreamworks had notes about certain dialogue or lines that drove Park and the others at Aardman crazy. Dreamworks was mainly concerned with making the film easily digestible by American audiences. Like Chicken Run, the film did very well in theaters, grossing slightly less than Chicken Run, but also receiving universal acclaim. Wallace and Gromit became the first stop-motion film to win Best Animated Feature at the Oscars, and remains the only one. Aardman’s next film with Dreamworks, Flushed Away, would be the last of the partnership. Realizing that the film would be near impossible to make in stop-motion due to the amount of water that would be needed to created, they opted for doing Flushed Away completely in CG. Were-Rabbit had not been as big of a smash that Dreamworks had hoped, so they continued to bother Aardman during the production of Flushed Away. This, along with what would end up being a disappointing return at the box office, led to the dissolvement of the Dreamworks/Aardman team-up. Flushed Away, being a CG film and not stop-motion, made the budge 3-4 times as much as any of their previous endeavors, which didn’t help matters. The movie ended up grossing $178 million against a budget of $149 million. Dreamworks lost around $109 million due to the under-performance. The movie was also not as critically well-received as their last two films, but it still wasn’t bad. A future film that Aardman had been starting work on in 2005 was called Crood Awakening. When they dissolved their relationship with Dreamworks, Dreamworks retained the rights, and it would eventually be released as The Croods in 2013.

Aardman then entered into a contract with Sony Pictures Animation, one that ended up lasting just two films. Their first film with Sony as distributor was 2011’s Arthur Christmas. I had originally overlooked this film due to it 1) a holiday movie and 2) looking like the usual animated fare that was coming out. I was pleasantly surprised by the film and you should give it a look around the holidays. I recommend all the other Aardman films, of course, but this one just surprised me. Arthur Christmas ended being a co-production between Aardman and Sony ImageWorks, an animation company that I’ll speak about in another post. This was another CG film for Aardman, but this was their first 3D film. While critical reception was on par with Chicken Run and Were-Rabbit, the box office returns weren’t in the same ballpark. The film made $147 million against a $100 million budget, marking a loss for both companies. The company’s next collaboration was 2012’s The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists!, or The Pirates! Band of Misfits in the U.S. Aardman decided it was time to go back to stop-motion, but still made it a 3D film. Despite a small controversy dealing with the mention of leprosy in one of the trailers, the film did rather well at the box office, grossing $123 million against a $55 million budget. While reviews were not as stellar as Arthur Christmas, critics generally enjoyed the British pirate comedy. Sony Pictures Animation, not satisfied with the returns from Aardman’s two films, dissolved their agreement.

Aardman’s latest film to be released was 2015’s stop-motion movie Shaun the Sheep, based on Nick Park’s character. Shaun the Sheep was originally a side character in Wallace and Gromit shorts, but was eventually given his own TV show in 2007. The how has run for five series and continues to this day. French product company StudioCanal and Aardman came to an agreement, and they have agreed to distribute at least the next two Aardman movies. The movie did relatively well at the box office, though it only grossed a few million more in Britain than in the U.S. The film is the highest rated of all Aardman’s films, with a 99% on Rotten Tomatoes. It did well enough that Aardman is already working on a sequel to it. Their other film that is in production is called Early Man, and will center on two cavemen trying to save their village. Aardman, along with Pixar and Laika, have an amazing track record and consistently come out with hit after hit. I don’t see them going anywhere anytime soon.

Nickelodeon Movies

 I’m bunching up all of the Nickelodeon movies into one post, even though they weren’t all done by the same animation studio. I’ll touch on each in this post. Nickelodeon had been a mainstay of children’s programming since the mid-80’s, really gaining ground with the addition of NickToons in 1991. Nick ruled the TV, so it thought it should logically go into making movies. Nickelodeon Movies was founded in 1995, with their first motion picture, Harriet the Spy, coming out the next year. They would follow this with 1997’s, Good Burger, and had planned on releasing a movie based on Aaahh!!! Real Monsters, but it never materialized. Their first foray into an animated movie was The Rugrats Movie, an obvious choice for Nickelodeon, as it was still one of its most popular shows.


Klasky-Csupo


Founded by producer Arlene Klasky and animator Gabor Csupo in 1982, the married couple initially did work on commercials. Their big break came in 1987 when they were approached to do the animation for shorts on The Tracey Ullman Show. These animated shorts were The Simpsons. They would go on to be the animation company for The Simpsons through 1992, the show’s third season. They would get steadier work with Nickelodeon in 1991, starting with Rugrats. They would produce several other shows for Nickelodeon over the years, namely Aaahh!!! Real Monsters, The Wild Thornberries, Rocket Power, As Told by Ginger, and the two Rugrats spin-offs. Nickelodeon eventually tired of the animation style of Klasky-Csupo and they were officially dropped in 2006. The studio stood stagnant for years until 2012 when it was resurrected by the now-divorced business partners. In all they produced four movies for Nickelodeon, The Rugrats Movie, Rugrats in Paris:The Movie, The Wild Thornberries Movie, and the mash-up Rugrats/Thornberries movie, Rugrats Go Wild. The Rugrats Movie was a hit and became the first non-Disney movie to break $100 million domestically. Rugrats in Paris, while it didn’t do as well in theaters fared much better critically than The Rugrats Movie did. Both Thornberries movies were mildly successful, grossing around $60 million against a budget of $25 million. Critically, however, Rugrats Go Wild didn’t do so well.


DNA Productions


Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius was Nickelodeon’s next movie based on one of their properties, based on shorts aired between 1999-2001 on Nickelodeon. DNA Productions partnered with O Entertainment to make the film, the latter being founded by Steve Oedekerk, the genius behind the “Thumbation” shorts and Kung Pow: Enter the Fist. The movie made around the same as Rugrats in Paris and had the same critical reception. The movie would go on to be nominated for Best Animated Feature at the Academy Awards for 2001, but would ultimately lose to Shrek. Nickelodeon had DNA and O Entertainment develop a TV show and it aired from 2002-2006. DNA got its start in 1986 and mostly worked on animation sequences for TV shows. They are most known for developing Jimmy Neutron with O Entertainment, Olive the Other Reindeer, and the Warner Bros. movie, The Ant Bully. I’ll speak about The Ant Bully, even though it isn’t a Nickelodeon film. Tom Hanks read the book The Ant Bully, by John Nickle to his kid and thought that it would make a great movie. He approached the founder of DNA, John A. Davis, as he was a fan of Jimmy Neutron. Davis’s first thought was, “not another ant movie!” After reading through the book he realized that it set itself apart from the other bug movies. He had an equally hard time getting support for the movie because of the whole “ant” thing, but eventually was able to get the production on its feet. The movie, even with an all-star cast, including Julia Roberts, Meryl Streep, Nicolas Cage, Paul Giamatti, and Bruce Campbell, couldn’t give the movie the gross it needed to keep DNA going. Against a budget of $50 million the production grossed $55 million. Critical reception was also tepid, and Davis was forced to close the studio soon after the movie premiered.


Snee-Oosh


Snee-Oosh is the production company of Hey Arnold! and Dinosaur Train creator, Craig Bartlett (Fun Fact: Bartlett is married to Matt Groening’s sister). Bartlett got his start at the Will Vinton Studios (more about that one in a later post), and eventually found himself at Nickelodeon working on Rugrats. He pitched Hey Arnold! to Nickelodeon execs in 1993 and was allowed to make a pilot. The pilot was a hit with the upper brass and the series began in 1996, running until 2004. Originally meant as a TV movie titled Arnold Saves the Neighborhood, Nickelodeon decided to instead make it into a theatrically released movie. The movie was the first PG animated movie they released and considering the budget of only around $4 million, it made a good amount by grossing $15.2 million. That is still an underwhelming amount when the Rugrats movies are pulling in around $100 million. Critical reception was terrible, with most focusing on how it lacked the wit of the TV series. Nickelodeon, despite the response to the first movie, wanted a second one, Hey Arnold!: The Jungle Movie, released the next year. Craig Bartlett didn’t like the direction things were going and walked out of the production and left Nickelodeon, causing Hey Arnold! to be cancelled. Funny enough, all these years later and Hey Arnold!: The Jungle Movie is being released as a TV movie on Nickelodeon. Guess Bartlett worked things out.


United Plankton Pictures


Nickelodeon’s biggest hit of their whole existence is arguably Spongebob Squarepants. Love him or hate him, he’ still everywhere. This show has been on since 1999 and I still see products with him on them. He was huge when I was in middle school, and the love hasn’t died down, apparently. Created by marine biologist and animator Stephen Hillenburg, it’s creation is in part thanks to Rocko’s Modern Life, the show Hillenburg worked on before creating Spongebob. Spongebob includes two voice actors, Tom Kenny and Doug Lawrence (AKA Mr. Lawrence), who voiced main characters on Rocko’s Modern Life. You can definitely draw a parallel between the two in terms of humor. The show quickly became a hit at Nickelodeon, and it was only a matter of time before a movie was requested of Hillenburg by Nickelodeon. Hillenburg was hesitant to do a movie and refused for over a year. He agreed eventually under the impression that the movie would serve as the series finale. This was not the case, as the show was far too profitable for Nickelodeon, so they demanded it go on after the movie. It did, but Hillenburg left the show and from then until 2015 only reviewed episodes and gave advice. I have never seen the movie, but had watched the show up until that point, and it was good, but something did change after the movie, and that’s because Hillenburg wasn’t running the show anymore. The movie did well at the box office, grossing $140 million against a $30 million budget, and reviews weren’t that bad either. Sequel talks were around for years, but nothing really came of it until 2010. Ratings had been lagging for years and Nickelodeon saw this as an opportunity to regain interest in the series. Hillenburg came back to help write the film, and has since come back to the show.  The newer movie, The Spongebob Movie: Sponge Out of Water, combined traditional animation, CG, and stop-motion. Released in 2015, the movie grossed $325 million against a $75 million budget, doing better than the first movie. Critical reception was also better than the first movie, getting an 80% on Rotten Tomatoes.


Production on the show, like with the first movie, stopped to focus on the movie. A new season of Spongebob was finally released in late 2016, a gap of three years between seasons. Spongebob is only in its tenth season, though it’s been around for almost eighteen. A new movie has been planned thanks to the success of Sponge Out of Water, with a tentative release date in 2019.


Omation Animation Studio


Part of O Entertainment, Steve Odekerk’s production company, and also part maker of Jimmy Neutron, created Nickelodeon’s next animated movie, Barnyard. The movie, like Jimmy Neutron spun-off into an animated series on TV. Barnyard did well at theaters, despite all odds, but did terribly with critics. It’s Kevin James as a cow, whaddya want?


Industrial Light & Magic


Though not associated with a previously aired show and not becoming one afterward, Rango was a Nickelodeon Movie. Like the other movies in this post, it wasn’t actually made by them. Marking their first animated picture, Industrial Light & Magic created the CG animation for Rango. Industrial Light & Magic, or ILM, is the special effects studio created by George Lucas to help create Star Wars. They have been involved with countless productions over the years, but working with live-action films, not animation. Pixar, as described in their post, got their start as a part of ILM. Gore Verbinski, most known as the director of the Pirates of the Caribbean films, directed the film, his first animated project. Verbinski tried to do something a little different with Rango. He wasn’t part of the animation industry and didn’t like being pigeon-holed into strict family film territory. He bemoaned that there were no Ralph Bakshis, an infamous animation director that specialized in animation for adults. Rango still falls into that family-friendly territory, because of course it had to with Nickelodeon producing the film. Rango does feel different than the average animation film, drawing inspiration from countless westerns and even including a scene straight out of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Rango did well in theaters and, even more impressively, got rave reviews and ended up winning the Oscar for Best Animated Feature. With the movie’s success, Paramount decided that they would create their own animation studio, Paramount Animation. Their only two films are the latest Spongebob movie and Monster Trucks (live and CG).

WingNut Films


One of the exceptions I’m making when it comes to foreign production companies. I’m listing the primary production company as WingNut Films, Peter Jackson’s New Zealand production company, but animation for Nickelodeon’s next big budget film, The Adventures of Tintin, was made by Weta Digital. Weta, incidentally, was also founded by Peter Jackson, though it came before Jackson had his own production company. Weta Digital was meant to provide special effects for his movies, the first being Heavenly Creatures. The finished film had Peter Jackson, Kathleen Kennedy, and Steven Spielberg as producers, though everything started with Spielberg back in the 80’s. Spielberg was a huge fan of the Tintin comics and lucky for him, its creator Herge, liked Spielberg’s work and felt like he would do Tintin justice. Herge died a week after Spielberg and he met to discuss a movie, but his widow still sold Spielberg the rights. Spielberg had many starts and stops throughout the years, originally wanted to do a live-action version, but in 2001 he realized that it would be better as a CG film. Spielberg approached Jackson’s Weta Digital to make the film, and Jackson suggested doing motion capture for all of the characters to add realism (same look as Beowulf). The script was originally offered to Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), but Wright was busy at the time. Steven Moffat was then offered, to which he agreed on the condition that Spielberg shield him from studio interference. Moffat wrote the first draft, but became the showrunner for Dr. Who, leading him to leave as the writer. Wright was no longer busy and co-wrote with Tintin fan and director, Joe Cornish (Attack the Block). Spielberg originally had only wanted to produce the film, but ultimately decided to direct the movie himself. The Adventures of Tintin was a hit for Spielberg, grossing $374 million against a $135 million budget. Critical reception was good for the most part. The most common complaints came from super fans of the Tintin books, who felt that the film wasn’t true to the source material, and those who were put off by the motion capture animation. Like Beowulf and Polar Express, the characters look like live-action, but there’s something just a bit off with them. This phenomenon is called the uncanny valley and is most commonly used to describe robotics, CG animation, and even dolls. While the films using motion capture may look pretty, there are a group of people who will be creeped out by the character models. Tintin was a big enough success that a sequel is in the works.

Nickelodeon’s latest movie released was Monster Trucks and they don’t seem to have an end in sight thanks to their strong foothold in kid’s entertainment. Upcoming animated films include Amusement Park, a 3rd Spongebob movie, a Nicktoons movie, and the Tintin sequel.

Dreamworks

The creation of Dreamworks, much like the merger between Disney and Pixar, was all thanks to Michael Eisner, then-Chairman and CEO of Disney. Jeffrey Katzenberg had been Chairman of Disney Studios since 1984, and was a big reason that Disney had a renaissance in animation. An opening as President of the company came up in 1994, and instead of giving it to Katzenberg as he had promised, Eisner instead filled the position himself. Katzenberg’s relationship with Eisner, Roy Disney, and Disney in general had diminished and he was forced to put in his resignation. Later that year Katzenberg recovered by joining up with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen to form an animation studio that would rival Disney. Dreamworks SKG (Spielberg, Katzenberg, Geffen, if you were ever curious), or just Dreamworks was created under the agreement that they would make less than nine pictures a year, would let their workers be contracted out if they wanted, and workers would be allowed to make it home for dinner. Once Amblimation’s last film, Balto, was finished the animators came to work at Dreamworks. On top of this they bought part of Pacific Data Images, which specialized in visual effects (CG). The studio did not just come out with animated pictures, as some of their first films were live-action, including Amistad and Mouse Hunt. They would hit their zenith in the late 90’s and early 00’s for live action when they won three straight Best Picture Academy Awards for American Beauty, Gladiator, and A Beautiful Mind. For the most part the studio has had smooth sailing, save for two times brought to light by David Geffen. Under Katzenberg’s watch, the studio lost an estimated $125 million from Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas, and they sorely overestimated the demand for DVD’s of Shrek 2. Both instances brought Dreamworks to the brink of closing down.

Dreamworks Animation partnered with Aardman Animation, a British claymation studio, in 1996 to develop Chicken Run. This went well and the studios agreed to make four more films together. This was not to be as the studios ended up only making three total films together, citing creative differences. In 2004, Dreamworks Animation spun off from Dreamworks and became a publicly traded company. Katzenberg became the head of this department, with Spielberg and Geffen serving as investors and consultants. Fast forward to 2016, when Dreamworks was officially bought by Universal Pictures, AKA Comcast. Funny thing is, Universal already owns an animation studio, Illumination, but as of this writing, both studios have remained separate. I know I skimmed a little over some of Dreamworks, but nothing really huge happened out of the ordinary for them for quite awhile, save for maybe a distributing deal with Paramount and 20th Century Fox.

Dreamworks has come out with a lot of movies in its short existence. It has come out with at least one movie, sometimes two, every year since 1998, save for 1999. Dreamworks didn’t go the same route as Pixar and completely focus on computer animation, though that had varying levels of success for them. They started with 1998’s Antz, a story about ants that just happened to come out the same year as Pixar’s A Bug’s Life. These two movies caused a huge fight between Pixar and Dreamworks, as you can imagine, with both claiming that the other stole their idea. Katzenberg had looked into developing a story called Army Ants when he was at Disney, and eventually took that with him to Dreamworks, along with a story about Sinbad, and an adaption of The Ten Commandments. Lasseter felt betrayed by Katzenberg, whom he had told about A Bug’s Life a few years back. Dreamworks had initially wanted Prince of Egypt to come out in late 1998, but Disney too announced that A Bug’s Life would come out at the same time. Though Dreamworks tried to negotiate with Disney, Disney wouldn’t budge. In the end, the two films were released and though they have some similarities, have completely different tones. Antz was geared more toward older kids and teens and A Bug’s Life was more of a family film. Both films were well received and both made a hefty profit, with Antz having a much lower budget than Bugs. The feud between the two companies would last for quite some time, though many of the animators at Pixar and PDI (Pacific Data Images) remained friends from when they had worked together at earlier times.

Their next film, The Prince of Egypt, had been in production before Antz, but came out two months later and was traditionally animated. With a team of 350 artists, Dreamworks created one of the most visually stunning animated movies ever. Seriously, the animation is amazing. Extra care was taken by the producers to make sure that the story would be as accurate as possible. They visited sites in the Middle East, spoke with religious leaders and received their input, and designed the characters around what people actually look like from that area. If you are looking for the most faithful adaption of The Ten Commandments, this isn’t it. There are definitely some liberties taken with the story, but that doesn’t take away from the enjoyment of the film. While it doesn’t have the highest scores of Dreamworks’ canon, I think this is their best film, and it just happened to be the first they ever started developing. Prince of Egypt was a hit, grossing $218.6 million against a $70 million budget. Dreamworks went on to make a straight-to-video sequel, Joseph: King of Dreams, which is just OK. Dreamworks, outside of working with Aardman, had terrible luck with traditional animation. Toy Story had ruined it for everyone. All audiences wanted to see was CG films. Dreamworks lost money on The Road To El Dorado, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, and Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas. These weren’t exactly stellar movies, either, so I’m not really surprised they did poorly. Chicken Run, their first film with Aardman, was a huge success, but I’ll talk about Aardman at a later time. Things really started going well for Dreamworks with their next CG film.

John H. Williams was introduced to a book called Shrek! By his children, who thought the book hilarious. He took the book to Jeffrey Katzenberg who knew he had something special on his hands so he quickly bought the rights to the book in 1995. Casting the title character is probably the most interesting part of the development. At first they wanted none other than Nicolas Cage to voice Shrek, but he didn’t want to look like an ogre. He felt people would connect the character too much with his real life look and it would interfere. OK, then. Chris Farley was then hired to voice Shrek and actually almost completed all of his dialogue before his untimely death. The role was then re-cast with Mike Myers, though he demanded a completely different script, as he didn’t was the sames lines as Farley. Half-way through Farley asked if he could re-do his lines with a Scottish accent, something his mother would do when telling him bedtime stories. Katzenberg loved it and that’s the version that we have today. Shrek came at the perfect time for Dreamworks, as Disney had effectively left its renaissance and wouldn’t get its groove back for almost a decade. Released in May, 2001, the film’s raunchier and self-referential tone was a huge hit with audiences and it ended up grossing $484.4 million against a $60 million budget. Reviews for the film were also better than Dreamworks could have hoped. They finally had a film they could build a series on. And build one they did. Shrek 2 would use a much larger budget, $150 million, but it paid off. Shrek 2 grossed a gaudy $919.8 million becoming their biggest hit ever. At the time it was the highest grossing animated film, when not adjusted for inflation, until Toy Story 3 came out in 2010. Grosses for its other two sequels were equally good, with the critical reception dropping off a bit.

Dreamworks’ next big hit was Madagascar in 2005. That film would go on to spawn two direct sequels and a spin-off movie. All are just OK, with Madagascar 3 being the best out of the bunch in my opinion. Kung-Fu Panda became their next franchise, coming out with two sequels. Their best franchise, though, is How To Train Your Dragon. The first movie came out in 2010 and was based on the book series of the same name by Cressida Cowell. The original treatment of the film was very close to the book, but after Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois came on as co-directors (they had done Lilo & Stitch) the story changed to make it less whimsical and geared toward a younger audience. The story changes paid off and How To Train Your Dragon was a huge hit, earning $495.8 million against a $165 million budget. The film is also the highest rated film Dreamworks has come out with. A second film came out a couple years later and was equally great. A third is coming out in 2019.

With Dreamworks under the Universal umbrella, it’s hard to say what will happen to the animation company. They’ve successfully competed with Disney for many years, though it seems like most of the animation studios still going have a pretty strong foothold. What I’m trying to say is that there is actually room for more than one or two animation studios. Dreamworks may not have the same storied history as Disney, but they have come out with some real hits and crowd-pleasers. That being said, they have also come out with some serious duds over the years. I can honestly say that I have seen a little over half of Dreamworks’ films. For me, it isn’t an event the way seeing Disney, Pixar, or even Laika films are. Dreamworks is in the same wheelhouse as Blue Sky and Illumination, capable to some good and not so good movies, but they’ll undoubtedly make a profit.