Warner Bros. Animation got its start in 1980 as an avenue for Warner Bros. to produce Looney Tunes compilation films and television specials. From 1979 through the 1980’s they produced five Looney Tunes compilation films: The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Movie, The Looney Looney Looney Bugs Bunny Movie, Bugs Bunny’s 3rd Movie: 1001 Rabbit Tales, Daffy Duck’s Fantastic Island, and Daffy Duck’s Quackbusters. These were all released theatrically, but they mostly re-used shorts with new animation to make an overarching story. I watched both Daffy Duck movies a lot as a child. In the late-80’s they would move toward focusing on animated TV shows. Starting with A Pup Named Scooby-Doo in 1988, they would also create Tiny Toon Adventures, Animaniacs, Pinky and the Brain, Freakazoid, and most importantly, Batman: The Animated Series. In 1996, Time Warner merged with Turner Broadcasting, which lumped Turner Feature Animation in with Hanna-Barbera Productions. Warner Bros. Animation eventually morphed into Warner Animation Group, or WAG, in 2013, with a focus on CG animation instead of traditional animation. The studio has continued going strong today, though their not quite at the same level as some of the bigger name animation studios, though that seems odd considering that besides Disney, there is no bigger name attributed to animation than Warner Bros.
Batman:The Animated Series was Warner Bros. crowning achievement in the 90’s. Sure, Animaniacs, Tiny Toons, and Pinky and the Brain were popular, but Batman was beloved and won them Emmy’s. It is considered by many to be one of the greatest animated shows ever, so it makes sense that Warner Bros. would want to make a movie about the series. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, originally meant to be a TV movie, Warner Bros. ultimately decided to release it theatrically, but under the condition that the studio had to complete it in under eight months. At the very least it takes about two years to make an animated film, so this was really pushing it. Warner Bros. Animation pulled it off, however, thanks in part to the dedication from their team and the fact that Warner Bros. itself let them have creative control. What audiences got was a movie not focused on any of Batman’s traditional Rogues Gallery, but a new foe, the Phantasm. The movie still had the Joker in it, because of course they had to have the Joker, but he well worked into the background, not overtaking the over-arching story. Because the decision to release it theatrically came at such short notice, there was very little time to promote the movie, and it made only $5.6 million against a $6 million budget. Not a great start for Warner Bros. Animation, but the film would gain a cult following and pay dividends through video sales. Critics loved the movie for the most part, and today it is considered among the best Batman movies ever created.
Warner Bros. Animation would make five more films under its current name, and three of those would be live-action films with animation. Space Jam, Osmosis Jones, and Looney Tunes: Back in Action were all costly movies to make, and only Space Jam became a real hit, being a focal point for mis-guided 90’s nostalgia. Critics still hate the movie, but many millennials look back fondly at this movie. I admit I like it too, but I understand it isn’t a good movie. Osmosis Jones and Looney Tunes: Back in Action fared badly with critics also, with Back in Action looking the best out of the three, though I’m not sure if I agree with that. For their next fully animated movie we go to 1998’s Quest for Camelot. The production was a tumultuous one, as many of the execs didn’t understand working on a feature animated film and didn’t have the same set-up as Disney had at the time. Many of the animators were previously from Disney and expected things to work like at Disney, but soon found out that there was a lot less structure at Warner Bros. Because of the frustration all around, many people walked out or were let go. The film was made in about a year under not very good conditions. The whole ordeal almost turned Warner Bros. from ever doing an animated feature length movie ever again. Originally slated to come out in the holiday season of 1997, Warner Bros. changed their mind because they didn’t want to compete with Anastasia, Flubber, and the re-release of The Little Mermaid. Coming out instead in May of 1998, the movie ultimately pulled in a little under its budget, and was generally panned by critics. I’ve seen this one recently, and it’s not the worst thing I’ve ever seen, but some parts are just plain awkward. Any animated movie with Cary Elwes can’t be all bad, though.
Warner Bros. best release came in 1999, The Iron Giant. Originally a 1968 book by Ted Hughes, the story was later adapted as a concept album by Pete Townshend and a play before it was brought to the attention of Brad Bird. You may recognize Bird’s name from either The Simpsons, where he was a creative consultant for eight years, his Pixar movies, The Incredibles and Ratatouille, or the recent Mission Impossible movies. Bird at the time was working for Turner Animation, but with Turner merging with Time Warner, he was allowed to bring the story over to Warner Bros. Pitched as a story about “what if a gun had a soul?”, Warner Bros accepted, but had writer Tim McCanlies do the screenplay, which Bird was not exactly thrilled about, as he wanted to write it himself. He quickly changed his mind after seeing McCanlies’s work. Mild spoiler alert ahead if you haven’t seen the movie. Bird originally had wanted to keep The Iron Giant destroyed, but McCanlies won out, saying that “you can’t kill E.T. and not bring him back.” Warner Bros. had learned a little from Quest for Camelot and didn’t micromanage the animators or producers on this film. They still had strict deadlines, but were given much more creative control, so much that Bird described the film as being made completely by the animators. Test screenings started shortly before Warner Bros. planned to release the film. Bird and the rest had no idea until April of 1999 that the movie was to be released in August. Test screenings were the highest Warner Bros. had had in fifteen years and it threw them off guard. They suddenly had a well-loved movie but there was literally no time to advertise for it. Burger King had been all set and ready to release toys with their kid’s meals, but Warner Bros. never pulled the trigger. The most advertising it received was a teaser poster, which eventually became its theatrical poster. Warner Bros. tried to postpone the film, but Bird argued that they had two years to build up hype for the movie and had done nothing. The movie was a critical sensation, with a current score of 96% on Rotten Tomatoes, but the critical reception was not enough to put butts in seats. The film grossed a little over $30 million worldwide against a $70 million budget. This, combined with top execs resigning at the studio, didn’t spell great times at Warner Bros. Luckily, the film went on to become a cult classic and had made a considerable amount in video sales and rentals. A Signature Edition has come out in the last year that adds a little extra to the run-time that were originally cut. I highly recommend this movie if you haven’t seen it already.
Besides the animation/live-action movies, Warner Bros. abandoned theatrically released animated movies until 2014 when they morphed Warner Bros. Animation into Warner Animation Group. Focusing on CG movies, Warner Bros. has had huge success with this iteration, developing the stories themselves and then utilizing outside companies to complete the animation. Their first attempt at a CG film, The Lego Movie, worked out better than Warner Bros. could have ever dreamed. Warner Bros. had been burned before, and it’s apparent they had little faith in this movie since they let Village Roadshow Pictures have 50% stake in it. Animal Logic, an Australian animation company, was contracted to do the animation work. They decided to go with a stop-motion look, though it would all be CG. With an all-star cast, Robot Chicken director Chris McKay assisting with direction and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller providing direction and writing the film hit it out of the park. The film was a hit not just with kids, but everyone. Warner Bros. learned very quickly that Lego is a universal toy that was enjoyed by many generations before the current one. The film opened to nearly universal praise, and ended up pulling in almost $470 million against a $70 million budget. Village Roadshow didn’t look too stupid anymore. What had helped was the fact that Lego had been under a resurgence in the last decade before the release of The Lego Movie in 2014. Lego had gone from the brink in the early 2000’s to producing hit after hit with straight-to-video movies and Lego-themed video games based on popular franchises like Star Wars and Harry Potter. There was already a built in audience of kids and teens that were watching or playing with Lego. Take into account that most generations alive have played with Lego, and it shouldn’t have been that much of a surprise that this movie was a hit. Plus its one of the funniest movies I’ve seen in a very long time.
Warner Bros. now has a whole bunch of Lego movies in the works, with one sequel, The Lego Batman Movie, already released earlier this year. That one was also a hit for Warner Bros., with Animal Logic once again handling the animation, though some of the artistic touches were missing from Lego Batman, such as water being made from Lego. Lego Batman performed almost as well with critics, with a total gross of $308 million against a $80 million budget. While Batman is a universal character, the movie may have scared off some potential viewers due to it being a very heavy Batman movie. By that I mean that half of it was references to other Batman properties. I loved it, being a Batman fanatic myself, but I can see how others may have been feeling a little bit alienated if they weren’t familiar with DC comics. Between the two Lego movies, Warner Bros. released 2016’s Storks. Again, Warner Bros. developed the movie itself, but another company did animation, in this case Sony Pictures Imageworks. Once released it received mixed critical reception, but managed to make $182.4 million against a $70 million budget. It remains to be seen if Warner Bros. can keep the success going. They can’t, or shouldn’t, live on Lego movies. Storks eking out a profit does not bode well for the studio so far, as they need another franchise that isn’t built on an already established product. According to their upcoming films list, everything is based on something already established. They have a Scooby-Doo movie coming out in a few years, and one based on the fantastic graphic novel, Bone. Their second original film will be called Smallfoot and will deal with a yeti who is convinced that humans really do exist. See what they did there? Hopes are high for Warner Bros., but they are a bit behind studios like Disney, Dreamworks, Blue Sky, and Illumination.