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.