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.
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 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).
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.