Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Blue Sky

Blue Sky Studios was formed in 1987 by Chris Wedge, one of the first computer animators. Like most companies trying to focus on computer animation, they did a lot of work for commercials and special effects in movies and TV shows. Starting in 1990, Wedge began working on a short animated feature to help demonstrate the power of their system, CGI Studio. It wasn’t heavily worked on until five years later and would eventually be released in 1998, winning the Academy Award for Best Animated Short. This success gave Blue Sky the opportunity to product full length animated films. The studio was bought by 20th Century Fox in 1997, their way of getting into the CG market. Blue Sky thus turned into the successor to Fox Animation Studio. Blue Sky operates under the 20th Century Fox Animation umbrella, the same as Fox Animation Studio. 20th Century Fox Animation itself has released one movie that isn’t related to Blue Sky or produced by an outside animation company, Fantastic Mr. Fox. Directed by Wes Anderson, the quirky stop-motion film was originally going to be animated by Henry Selick, but he left to work on Coraline. He was replaced by Mark Gustafson. Fantastic Mr. Fox, while not a hit at the box office, was universally praised, as most Wes Anderson movies are. Blue Sky is strictly a CG film company, so it seems 20th Century Fox Animation just did it themselves. Blue Sky didn’t always have it easy. The studio was almost closed after the F/X market crashed. Fox had sold off special effects branch and was considering doing away with Blue Sky altogether. What really saved Blue Sky was the release of Ice Age in 2002.

Ice Age, a testing ground for Blue Sky, ended up being a smash hit, grossing $383 million against a $59 million budget. The film received generally favorable reviews, and in the end would be the best reviewed of the whole series. Ice Age gave Blue Sky the ability to continue making movies, and they did exactly that, coming out with Robots a few years later in 2005. While not as big of a hit as Ice Age, it did well enough. They followed with Ice Age’s first sequel, Ice Age: The Meltdown, which grossed an impressive $660 million. As mentioned before, however, reviews were not too good. It didn’t matter! They continued to release three more Ice Age sequels with Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs grossing the highest of all of them, $886 million. Again, it doesn’t matter if the movie is crap, if kids recognize the characters, they’ll make their parents go to see it. Blue Sky has come out with eleven total films, but only has two franchises to their name: Ice Age and Rio. Ice Age is clearly paying dividends, though the last one, Ice Age: Collision Course, made about half as much as Ice Age: Continental Drift. Probably should try to make an actual good movie, huh? Rio and Rio 2 both made around $500 million but reviews weren’t terribly good for either. The most promising property that Blue Sky has right now is The Peanuts. The Peanuts Movie didn’t blow anyone away at the box office, but it is the highest rated of all their movies. Currently there is no Peanuts sequel in the works, but hopefully they’ll revisit it. Blue Sky, honestly, has one of the worst track records for a modern animation company, speaking only on critical reception. Peanuts, as mentioned before, is their highest rated, with Horton Hears a Who! not far behind. Most of their other films are very much middle of the road, or downright awful. I’m looking at you, Ice Age: Collision Course. Hopefully their next couple of films can bring them into a higher standing, but right now, they’re in the back in the animation department.

Sony Pictures Animation

Sony Pictures Imageworks handled special effects for Sony Pictures, but in 2001 the studio decided that they really didn’t need it anymore. What saved Imageworks was the fact that no one was interested, and that all of a sudden CG movies were becoming all the rage. Shrek and Monsters Inc. proved that CG movies were here to stay, so Sony wanted to get a piece of the pie. Imageworks was split in two, with the original studio handling special effects, and a new studio, Sony Pictures Animation, handling TV and movies. Sony’s first movie was to be Astro Boy, something that had been tossed around since 1997, though at that time it was going to be a live-action movie. Sony hemmed and hawed about what to do with the property that it ended up in the hands of Hong Kong based studio, Imagi Animation. This was probably for the better, as the film ended up being a bomb with reviews being pretty bad. Imagi came out with the TMNT movie two years earlier, the fully animated Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie that no one remembers. That movie, at least made a profit, but reviews weren’t great. Astro Boy seemed to have put the nail in the proverbial coffin, and Imagi closed its doors in 2010. That’s the problem with trying to revive properties that only a small population of the country know. It makes more sense being made overseas where there is a larger market, but Astro Boy is not a well known property here.

Avoiding the disaster that was Astro Boy, Sony instead developed their first feature film, Open Season. I’ve never seen this one, but I remember seeing commercials for it all the time. Open Season was co-directed by Roger Allers, the co-director of The Lion King, and created from an idea by cartoonist Steve Moore, creator of In the Bleachers. The other director, Jill Culton, picked the voices for the film blindly, just listening to the recordings of the auditions. She had no idea that she had chosen Martin Lawrence and Ashton Kutcher. Released in 2006, the film received not great reviews, but with a gross of $197 million against an $85 million, Sony had a decent intro film. The studio’s second film, Surf’s Up, a parody of surfing documentaries, did better critically, but not so much financially, grossing $149 million against a $100 million budget. The film was nominated for an Academy Award, but lost to Ratatouille.

Sony’s best movie made in-house (Arthur Christmas and The Pirates! were made by Aardman), in my opinion is Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs. Loosely based on the children’s book by Judi and Ron Barrett, it centers on a young inventor who creates a food-maker machine. With a hilarious all-star cast and future Lego Movie directors, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller co-directing, the movie had a lot going for it. Cloudy would end up being the studio’s biggest hit yet, both in terms of profit and critical reception. The sequel, which came out four years later in 2013, did not have the same directors, but most of the principal cast returned, save for Mr. T, who was replaced by Terry Crews. While not as good as the first, it still managed to kill it at the box office, grossing $274 million against a $78 million budget.

The Smurfs hadn’t been relevant since the late 80’s, and there was virtually no new audience for them unless parents were showing them to their kids. I grew up watching The Smurfs and the Magic Flute and a few other specials, so I’m pretty familiar with the characters, but I’m sure most kids younger than me wouldn’t be able to say that. That is, until Sony decided to dig up the little blue creatures and make them appeal to a new audience. A Smurfs movie had been pitched for years, but Peyo’s heirs didn’t like what screenwriters were sending them. Finally, producer Jordan Kerner snagged their attention and was planned to be a trilogy of animated films going into Gargamel’s past. That isn’t exactly what happened, as the end result became a live-action/CG animation hybrid about the Smurfs being stuck in New York City with Neil Patrick Harris as the human that helps them. Ugh. I’m not sure why this version of The Smurfs appealed to Peyo’s kids when it is so different from the cartoon. The cartoon took place in medieval times! This movie, and its sequel, are classic examples of studios making movies that play on people’s nostalgia. Parents will take their kids to see The Smurfs and Alvin and the Chipmunks because they loved them as kids, and surely they can’t mess it up too much. Oh, they definitely can. People flocked to this movie, and it was just plain awful. It ended up with a gross of $563 million. With a normal budget of $110 million, the studio made bank, so of course they’d continue the series. The second movie, Smurfs 2, received even worse reviews, but still netted a profit, grossing $347 million against a $105 million budget. This was considered a huge disappointment to Sony, considering they made over $200 million less on this movie. While the first two movies were made relatively close to each other, two years to be exact, they waited until 2017 to release another Smurfs movie. Smurfs: The Lost Village, ditched the live action and made it completely animation. Considered a reboot and not a sequel to the previous two Smurf films, it fared better critically, though not much, and did OK at the box office, grossing $182.8 million against a $60 million budget. This came out a month ago, so the number will likely change. The previews actually looked kind of funny for this one, so I may try and watch this one someday.

Sony’s last franchise is Hotel Transylvania, which basically functions as an animated Adam Sandler movie. Seriously, it has everyone from his movies as voices, so you know what you’re getting yourself into. I will admit that I actually like the first movie. I’ve seen bits and pieces of the second, so I can’t judge that one. The film didn’t get great reviews, but it has its moments and it’s an easy movie to watch with your kids, especially around Halloween. I didn’t realize until after that it was directed by Genndy Tartakovsky, the creator of Dexter’s Lab and Samurai Jack. This series gets props just for that. I’m also a sucker for anything with Andy Samberg in it (he was in Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, too!). The first film was a hit for the studio, grossing $358 million against a $85 million budget. The second film actually received better reviews, considered mixed, and grossed $473 million against an $80 million budget. It’s safe to say that this series isn’t going anywhere. There’s even a TV show in the works!

Sony has a lot of movies in the works right now, with the next one coming being The Emoji Movie, which looks really stupid and someday we will all laugh at how dated the concept is. Their next movie is called The Star, a movie about the animals present at the birth of Christ. Not sure how that one will do, thanks to its material and the fact that there has been no advertising for it, and it comes out in November. After that they have an adaption of Peter Rabbit, the third Hotel Transylvania movie, and a Goosebumps sequel. One project that has been in the works for quite a while has been the animated Popeye movie. They released an animated sequence years ago with Tom Kenny doing the voice of Popeye, but apparently it’s been in development hell for years. They have a new writer for it, so we’ll see if it ever sees the light of day. I really hope so, but I’d also be afraid that it would be in the same vein as The Smurfs. Never thought I’d have to write Smurfs so smurfin’ much.

Universal Animation Studios

 Universal Animation Studios was founded in 1991 and was primarily used to produce sequels to Universal-released feature films. This included sequels to Charlotte’s Web, Balto, and the thirteen and counting Land Before TIme sequels. The actual animation for these films were done primarily overseas, by Wang Film Productions, or Rough Draft Studios. They produced TV shows also, like Curious George, The Land Before Time, Back to the Future: The Animated Series, and Fievel’s American Tails. They produced two theatrical films in their existence, Curious George and The Tale of Despereaux. In 2016 the studio was merged into Dreamworks Animation after Comcast bought Universal. The studio served as Universal’s animation output for theatrical movies for a very short time, with Illumination taking over after The Tale of Despereaux in 2008. The studio continues to make straight-to-dvd movies and TV shows, but not theatrical films.

Universal hadn’t been in the animation game for awhile when Curious George came out in 2006. Before that, they had 1995’s Balto, made by Amblimation. A Curious George movie had been bounced around for years, but it didn’t get off the ground until the 2000’s. After much discussion, the studio decided to make the film primarily in traditional animation, with a little CG thrown in. The film, with a much smaller budget than CG films at the time, unfortunately didn’t make enough at the box office to take advantage of that safety net, only making $69.8 million against a $50 million budget. Reviews were so-so, with most complaining about the obvious padding to the story. Universal’s second film, The Tale of Despereaux was animated by British studio, Framestore Feature Animation. Framestore is responsible for the special effects in many blockbuster movies that we all watch, including Guardians of the Galaxy, Avengers: Age of Ultron, The Dark Knight, and Sherlock Holmes. The Tale of Despereaux remains their only animated film. The production of Despereaux was a disaster, the result of three different countries, the U.S, Britain, and France, working on the film. The directors of the film ended up being Sam Fell and Robert Stevenhagen. The two had not read the book version, written by Kate DiCamillo, and never visited production in Britain. Instead they directed through speakerphone and e-mail. Though critics praised the animation, the story was ripped apart, something that usually suffers under production troubles. The film did slightly better than Curious George, grossing $86.9 million against a $60 million budget. Universal decided to have one studio consistently make their films from then on, Illumination Entertainment.


Laika got its start as Will Vinton Studios, which was founded by Will Vinton in 1978. Vinton primarily did animation and effects for TV and movies, with only one animated feature under his belt,1985’s The Adventures of Mark Twain.The stop motion film was well received, but has since languished in obscurity. Vinton is best remembered as the creator of The California Raisins, Domino’s Pizza Noid, and the M&M commercials. Vinton’s work, for the most part in commercials, was made in what he coined as “claymation.” Studios like Aardman would later utilize this same animation style. As time wore on, Vinton wanted to do more feature length films, but didn’t have the money for such a venture. In the late 90’s he started accepting investors into his studio, the most prominent being Phil Knight, owner of Nike, Inc. Knight’s son, Travis, began working at the company as an animator shortly after. By 2002, the company was struggling financially and Knight successfully gained complete control from Vinton, who was kicked out of his own studio. Vinton sought damages and sued for the rights to his own name. Thus, Knight changed the name of the studio to Laika, named after the dog sent into space by the Soviets in 1957. Vinton went on to create his own studio again, called Will Vinton’s Freewill Entertainment. Couldn’t come up with something that wasn’t a mouth full? Shortly after Vinton was tossed out, Henry Selick was brought on as a supervising director, showing that the company would not stray from stop-motion.

Their first big project would not be made in house, but for Warner Bros. and Tim Burton. Corpse Bride, in the same vein as Nightmare Before Christmas, was a gothic stop-motion film that was released in 2005. While not as fondly remembered as Nightmare, it is still a solid stop-motion film and a must-see for Burton fans. Like with most stop-motion films, the budget was relatively small ($40 million), and was able to gross a respectable $117.2 million. It would open to mostly positive reviews and would also be nominated for Best Animated Feature at the Academy Awards, but would lose to another stop-motion film, Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. Their first independent project would be 2009’s Coraline, directed by Henry Selick. Based on the popular dark fantasy children’s novel by Neil Gaiman, the film was a risk for Laika, as they were in financial struggles and as recently as 2008 had laid off a good number of their workers. Selick met Gaiman shortly after he finished reading Coraline and Gaiman, being a fan of Nightmare Before Christmas, offered to have Selick adapt his book. Selick realized quickly that he needed to add a little to the story, namely the character of Wybie. There was a lot of tension leading up to the release, with concerns that if the movie didn’t do well, that they’d be done in animation. Luckily for Laika, Coraline ended up grossing $124 million against a $60 million budget, netting at least a little profit for the studio. Reviews for the film were very good, with most focusing on the amazing visuals. In my opinion, this is the best Laika film. The look, tone, and story are just perfect, and I know that part of that comes from Neil Gaiman. I’m a bit biased because, again, I love spooky stories and I also really like Selick and Gaiman.

Though Coraline was successful, Selick and Laika were not able to renegotiate a contract, so he left in 2009. Laika would continue laying off staff, namely in the CG department, to focus primarily on stop-motion. Their second film, ParaNorman, released in 2012, is another spooky stop-motion film, though wasn’t as successful as Coraline. Critical reception was generally good, with animation being the stand-out and many praising the inclusion of an openly gay character. ParaNorman wasn’t a bust for Laika, as Travis Knight, now serving as President and CEO, considered its totals to be fine, but was disappointed with it nonetheless. ParaNorman was one of those films that I didn’t see until years after. While I enjoy animation, I don’t go out of my way to watch many animated movies these days unless I hear something really good about. I heard how good this was years after and decided to check it out, and I was pleasantly surprised.

Laika’s third, and in my opinion the weakest of their catalogue, was 2014’s The Boxtrolls. The film broke the record for opening weekend for Laika films, but in the end would make a little less than $110 million against a $60 million budget. Not too great, and reviews were right down the middle. I’m sure I would probably like this one better with a second viewing, but it just didn’t blow me away. Animation was excellent, of course, but otherwise I didn’t really like the story. Laika’s latest film was 2016’s Kubo and the Two Strings. For me, this is right up there with Coraline. Directed by Travis Knight himself, the film is the closest you’ll get to a stop-motion samurai epic. The film, unfortunately did not do well in theaters, only grossing $74.5 million against a $60 million budget. This is puzzling, as its major competition was Ben-Hur and War Dogs. It seemed to be advertised well, so I guess kids just weren’t clamoring for a japanese-centric movie. While it didn’t do well at the box office, it is one of the highest rated animated films outside of Disney with a 97% on Rotten Tomatoes. I imagine that this film will become more popular with age, as many animated films that didn’t do well initially went on to gain cult followings.

Laika, though Kubo didn’t do well, is going strong. In 2015, they announced a plan to expand the studio so they would be able to release a film a year. Their next film is untitled, but will tentatively be released in May of 2018.

Vanguard Animation

Vanguard Animation was founded in 2002 by producer John H. Williams and Neil Braun. Vanguard quickly signed a contract with Disney to produce four low budget films. This was when Disney was looking for another option besides Pixar. As you can tell by not knowing the name Vanguard Animation, it didn’t work out. The studio has released three films theatrically and are still around, though I’m not sure how. Their one and only film released with Disney was Valiant, a movie about birds that helped soldiers in WWII. While it was distributed by Disney, it was not in anyway made by Disney, which is why you don’t really hear it mentioned. It is definitely not part of the Disney canon. The film had a small budget for a CG film and not a lot of animators to work on it, so production had to be crunched into 106 weeks. This rushed schedule led to a “cheap” look according to critics. The movie got terrible reviews, but did alright at theaters. It didn’t, however, make enough to make Disney want to keep them on, and they backed out of the contract.

Vanguard relied on European companies to keep their productions going, with their next being Happily N’Ever After. Though it did boast a pretty impressive voice cast, the film was critically panned and made $11 million less than its budget. Their next, and so far last film, was 2008’s Space Chimps. It’s about exactly what you think it is. It made a serviceable amount, but not enough for the company to break even. Again, they somehow got a pretty good voice cast, but it seems that even the crappiest animated movies manage to get a few big names. Easy paycheck! While not as universally derided as Happily N’Ever After, Space Chimps received pretty bad reviews, the exception being Roger Ebert, who enjoyed it for what it was: a silly movie about monkey astronauts. Vanguard released a direct-to-video sequel to Space Chimps and a movie called Get Squirrely that I can’t tell if it was released at all. They do have a movie in the works titled Charming, and looks to be in the same vein as Happily N’Ever After, so good luck with that.


 ImageMovers began in 1997, being founded by Robert Zemeckis, along with Jack Rapke and Steve Starkey. Zemeckis is most known for his films Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Forrest Gump, and Cast Away. ImageMovers is not strictly an animation studio, as they have a nice mixture of both live action movies, like What Lies Beneath, Cast Away, and more recently, Allied, and animated movies. The studio is still going strong in terms of live action, the most recent being Allied, starring Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard, but they haven’t produced an animated feature since 2011. I remains to be seen if they are completely done making animated movies or not. What sets ImageMovers apart from other animation companies is their use of motion capture CG. I spoke about it when covering Tintin, but these are the movies that have the photo-realistic look to them. While it can make for some striking visuals, it can also be a little off-putting. Its getting better, but some of the kids in The Polar Express were downright creepy looking.

Speaking of The Polar Express, that was their first attempt at motion capture animation, and became the first full length all-digital capture film. There was a lot riding on this film, seeing as making a motion capture film wasn’t cheap. You’re basically having actors act out all the scenes, then having people animate over that. Twice the budget! The film’s budget was a record for an animated feature at the time, a whopping $165 million. Warner Bros knew how to market for a film like this, and tried to get audiences to see this in 3D at their local IMAX theater. Mind you this was before 3D blew up after Avatar, and not every theater had an IMAX screen, so this wasn’t an option for everyone. If I remember correctly, my family and I went to see this at our IMAX theater. I don’t know how many real IMAX theaters there are in each state, but ours happened to be only about an hour away. Now, of course, they have a IMAX screen or two in regular theaters, but nothing beats going to a legit IMAX. IMAX tickets are quite a bit more than regular tickets, so Polar Express benefited from that, the same way Avatar did five years later. Released in late 2004, the film ended up grossing $309.8 million, just a little under double their budget. Critical reception was mixed, with most focusing on the padded story (it’s based off a children’s book) and the weird looking characters. Audiences have been a bit kinder to the film, with it now becoming a holiday mainstay on TV. If you like Tom Hanks, then you’ll probably really enjoy this movie. He plays most of the adult characters!

The studio’s next two motion capture animated movies were 2006’s Monster House, and 2007’s Beowulf. Monster House, did better with critics than Polar Express and managed to keep the budget at $75 million. It grossed twice its budget, being a moderate hit for its distributor, Columbia Pictures. Beowulf, distributed by Paramount in the U.S. and Warner Bros. outside the U.S., did as well critically, but didn’t do as well financially. While it did gross more than Monster House, it also had twice its budget. All the pretty animation has a price. Starting in 2007, ImageMovers and Disney teamed up to create ImageMovers Digital, an animation facility that would produce and direct 3D animated films using motion capture technology. Their first collaboration was 2009’s A Christmas Carol, another film I remember going to IMAX to see. A Christmas Carol is interesting because there are so many versions out there and they all deviate from the book in one way or another. Inexplicably, this version is pretty true to the book, and the book gets pretty dark at times. This threw some audiences and critics off, who listed it as their main concern, though the animation was praised. In my opinion, this is definitely a fine version of the book, but it’s certainly not my favorite. The movie, like The Polar Express and Beowulf, costed a lot of money to make, and unfortunately didn’t quite make it to double the budget. Disney could see the writing on the wall, but wouldn’t pull the trigger until shortly before their next, and last, film was released, 2011’s Mars Needs Moms. They knew what was going to happen with Mars Needs Moms and preemptively shut down ImageMovers Digital, claiming that it no longer fit their business model and cited the lousy economy. Mars Needs Moms ended up being a big ol’ bomb for both Disney and ImageMovers, grossing $39 million against a $150 million budget. Reviews were also not kind, There were quite a few movies in the pipeline before Mars Needs Moms crash landed at the box office, including a Roger Rabbit sequel and an adaption of The Nutcracker. It remains to be seen if Zemeckis will find it profitable to make another motion capture film again, seeing as how none of them were run-away successes.