And it seems that Warner Brothers’ marketing wasn’t at it’s usual incompetent worst. They weren’t great, but there were a lot of ads and promotions. It wasn’t an all out media blitz, but it wasn’t a repeat of The Iron Giant fiasco, either. Yes they still failed the single most important task in film marketing: delineating a clear and concise message about the opening date. Good grief, if some clod with a blog (ie: “me”) knows that you can project a film’s financial success or failure based off of a single weekend’s numbers, then what in the world are all those MBA’s in Sherman Oaks doing? But you can’t pin the whole thing on WB’s marketing or a crowded market. These weren’t optimal conditions for success, but I’m not sure they are absolute arbiters of failure, either. In other words, given these two things remaining the same I think you can still have a successful launch to an animated film. So why did TAB not succeed?
There are two kinds of animated movies. Both can end up like a pile of poo, but in my opinion only one can end up being something audiences get excited about. The first is the director driven story. A person (or two, no more) has a burning story idea in his mind and heart. He has the passion to bring it to life. Often these poor sods are chewed up by the Hollywood system and their movies are turned into derivative piles of crap, but somewhere way, way back in the beginning there was something fun going on. If they’re lucky some remainder of this sense of fun and passion ends up on screen. Great examples of this kind of movie that survived the creation process fairly well intact would be The Iron Giant, The Incredibles and Toy Story. And as much as some people might be offended at this, I get the sense that Hoodwinked was this kind of a film. You got the sense that audiences enjoyed the thing, and from reading about it I got the idea that it was a few guys who wanted to make a film and made it for what money they could. You can’t fault them for agreeing to let Weinstein distribute it in all of it’s low production glory. You’d have done the same exact thing. By contrast an example of one of these kinds of director driven movies that got ridden roughshod by execs would be Chicken Little. Yet even through all of Mikey Eisner’s meddling I still felt some of the original fun of that story on screen.
The second kind of family feature films are the cynical corporate creations. They’re merely products and they are assembled at the behest of a variety of business minds. The core driving principle is their market value and potential profit returns. There is no one person who has the passion or personal investment to fight back against the snarky efforts of those who would rather productize the film because no one person thought this thing up in the first place. And I believe that no matter how slick or well done that lack of a soul shows up on screen. The director is a hired gun, the story is usually borrowed from some book or other successful property. Examples of these kinds of films would be Garfield, Scooby Doo, Quest for Camelot, The Cat in the Hat and… The Ant Bully.
I think John Davis and the DNA team did a very fine job with the film. However in the end it was a fine job of dressing up the bride of Frankenstein. The original screenplay for TAB had some heart, but the rewrites traded heart for slap-dash fart jokes. Crude humor is always the ready friend of execs looking to ‘punch up’ a film for test viewing scores, and the rewrites for TAB were pretty heavy toward the end of production. In its primary form it wasn’t the funniest movie and the market demands that animated films be funny. So out goes the character motivations and some more serious ideas, in come the cynical sarcastic asides. And since everybody in charge was a hired hand nobody had a really strong personal investment to fight that. This all started because Tom Hanks noticed this little kid’s book and thought it would make a good movie. But Tom Hanks didn’t write the story, he didn’t direct it, he didn’t voice it. In short, it would appear that he had no real passion for it. He just thought it would do well as a movie in the market. A product made by hired help. And hired help - even the best and most competent of hired help (and by all rights they hired some of the most competent and qualified help)- isn’t the same as somebody who gave birth to the story. Somehow this too ends up coming through on screen. I don’t know how, but I think it’s true.
My friends who worked with me on The Ant Bully probably aren’t gonna like what I have to say here- but I’ve always felt that we were making a big stinking pile of average corporate mush. Honest. We did. We worked hard, we did our best to bring passion and life to it, we put a lot into it, there’s a TON of talent on screen and folks have a right to be proud of their work- but in the end, in the cruel indifferent world of the marketplace it’s just kinda bleh.
It had all the ingredients. By the spreadsheet and by the focus group feedback scores in test screenings The Ant Bully should have been a success. It should have been the perfect product. Yet in the end this is the ultimate corporate movie. It’s a product devised according to formulas and ingredients, preened and pruned from the very beginning to be a pop-culture product in the mass market to force feed the kiddo’s another round of pixels in exchange for their parent’s disposable income. And despite the valiant efforts of the artists and technicians hired to make this thing look good people aren’t usually going to get excited about such things. We can’t forget that this is still entertainment. Within the audience there’s still some shred of a desire remaining for something to come from someone’s heart, not a spreadsheet. For some reason I think audiences can sniff out a film that’s just too corporate. I don’t have much of an empirical reason to believe this, but anecdotally I think it holds water. The declining interest in sequels and derivative films has been a steady parade downward. I am convinced that other similarly corporate concoctions, regardless of the level of excellence in their execution- are doomed to the same fate of audience apathy. If there’s no initial soul behind the idea then you can forget about it. Sure executives can screw up a good movie idea from a director- Disney did it for years! But if all you start with is a pile of successful ingredients stitched together then I think you’re going to be in trouble more often than not regardless of how good it looks or how well it scores on rottentomatoes.com.
But if you do go see The Ant Bully in a theater, see it in Imax3d. It really is amazingly freakin’ cool there.
I’ve spoken my bit. If you disagree then by all means, fire away!