Thursday, May 18, 2017

Amblimation

Amblimation was Steven Spielberg’s answer to all the animation studios that were around at that time. He had success working with Don Bluth for two films and with Disney for Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and wanted to take a swing at it himself. Amblimation wasn’t around for too long, starting in 1989 and lasting until 1997. After it closed, many of the animators went to Dreamworks and helped it become the behemoth that it is today. Amblimation was known more for its quieter atmosphere, subdued acting, and more atmospheric pace compared to a great deal of animated films at that time. That characteristic may have made better movies in their eyes, but it also led to them under-performing at the box office. Amblimation made just three pictures in its lifetime, but any kid who grew up in the 90’s will remember them fondly.

A sequel to An American Tail had been planned by Spielberg for years, and he had always planned on Don Bluth to do the animation again. That didn’t quite work out, as Bluth had not enjoyed the lack of creative control that he had over the two Spielberg movies he made. Spielberg instead enlisted Phil Nibbelink, a former Disney animator, and Simon Wells to direct his sequel. The result was a movie with a distinctly different look than its predecessor. Several changes were made to character’s design from the first movie, though nothing that made it seem like they were re-booting the characters. An American Tail: Fievel Goes West was released on November 22, 1991, the same exact day as Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Considering the competition, it didn’t do terrible, eventually making $40 million. Beauty and the Beast would go on to make $218 million in its first run. Critical reception was mixed, with most saying that there was nothing really wrong with the film, it was just a little dull. Beauty and the Beast on the other hand received rave reviews and would become the first animated film to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. I distinctly remember seeing both of these films when they came out. Most fall animated releases came in late November and that is when my birthday is, so I typically went to whatever had been released that year. That year was my 6th birthday and we went to see Fievel Goes West and then went to Pizza Hut right after, which was advertising for the movie hardcore. For this reason it’s hard for me to separate a movie like Fievel Goes West from my childhood nostalgia and look at it with a critical eye. That being said, I know that Beauty in the Beast is a better film. Sometimes you just gotta watch a movie that has and elderly Jimmy Stewart as a dog named Wyatt Burp.

Amblimation worked on all three of their films at the same time starting in 1989. The next, released in 1993, was We’re Back! A Dinosaur’s Story. Based on the book of the same name by Hudson Talbott, it detailed the journey of intelligent dinosaurs who are dropped off in the present day by aliens. Yeah...I kind of forgot about that plot, too. I don’t remember much of this movie, but what I do remember is that Professor Screweyes was creepy as hell, and his death was very disturbing for a kid to witness back then. I also remember that it followed the very popular story line of kids being sad because their parents were yuppy workaholics. Back in the early 90’s there wasn’t a healthy family portrayed in films. Parents were divorced, dead, or neglectful. That was the reality for a lot of kids at the time, and it’s something you don’t see as much in movies these days. Not much to say about the production, besides that John Malkovich was supposed to play Professor Screweyes, but eventually left because he didn’t agree with the “vision” the children’s movie about super-smart dinosaurs brought to the future by aliens was going with. Look it up. Though it was promoted heavily, the movie was panned by critics and was a box office bomb, grossing only $9.3 million. I couldn’t find anything on what their budget was, but I’m guessing it wasn’t lower than $9.3 million.

Last but not least was a little film called Balto, released in 1995. Based on the true story about the dog of the same name who helped save children from the diphtheria epidemic in the 1925 serum run to Nome, Alaska. Amblimation seriously had bad luck when it came to releasing their movies, because this one had to go toe to toe with Pixar’s Toy Story. Balto had a mediocre critical reception, with most saying the same things they said about Fievel Goes West: not offensive, but not incredibly engaging either. Like We’re Back!, Balto a veritable bomb, grossing $11.3 million against a $31 million budget. The movie, like most non-Disney in the 90’s, benefited from VHS sales and was popular enough to have a few direct-to-video sequels. Not much to say about this movie from my personal experience. I saw it as a kid and that was it. Spielberg got the picture and the studio folded in 1997. Another movie that was in production, an animated version of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Cats, never saw the light of day, thank God for that. Amblimation’s films were not the cream of the crop that Spielberg was hoping for, but they were definitely highlights for 90’s kids.

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