Saturday, August 05, 2006

The Ant Bully: My Take

Wheew! It’s been an absolutely insane week here. I have so much stuff going on and I’ve been busier than a one legged man in a butt kicking contest. However I did want to take a moment to get in some trouble and express an honest opinion. So I’m here to spill my guts on The Ant Bully film, which came out in the U.S. last weekend to rather tepid results (a mere $8.4mil opening weekend, failing to unseat a wavering Monster House even in its second weekend). When it’s all said and done if TAB follows formula it will end up pulling a rather anemic $25-29mil in US box office. Not exactly a real winner there. Maybe it will grow some legs, but I’m too pragmatic to think that’s very likely.

Most folks know that I worked on this film, but unlike many others I don’t tie my own personal success to that of the projects I work on. I guess that makes me a rotten artist or something, but I just don’t. I had a great time working on the film, made some good friends and I had a chance to do some really nice work, and to me that’s where the success is. I measure my success by the experience, not the box office. That’s for other people to take credit (or in this case blame) for. The film can flop for all I care, it doesn’t affect me much at all. Yet I do allow that for other artists who worked on it it’s very important for TAB to do well. That’s cool and I hope my friends don’t hate me for anything I say here. But TAB does present us with a bit of a curious case. It had so many earmarks of what should have made it a successful film. It had all the right ingedients. And in the end, that’s why I think it is a failure. It’s just a wee bit too calculated to succeed.

In animation circles lots of folks have been panning the film. Many in the biz have been describing it as a kinda of Pixarn’t effort. I guess you could say it’s the Anastasia of 2006. For some reason folks just knew this one wasn’t ’special’. We don’t know how, we don’t know exactly why- but the feeling out there was a collective yawn. Why? Well, let’s take a closer look at all the reasons why The Ant Bully (at least in the minds of its masters) should have been a success.
First, TAB was not a “cheap” movie by any stretch. The end budget was well north of $60mil, probably closer to $70mil if you add in the Imax conversion. That’s more than Ice Age cost to make. It’s not far from Shrek 2’s numbers. It’s also not far from Pixar’s lower numbers. So the problem wasn’t somebody’s tight wallet in production. And it didn’t wallow much in development churning through tens of millions of dollars with no footage to show for it. It’s not a repeat of the Kingdom of the Sun/Emperor’s New Groove scenario. Most of that money ended up on screen.

You also really can’t point too much at the actual execution of the thing for its failure. There was no shortage of experience and talent working on the project. There are some scenes that are just gobstoppingly fabulous to look at- some real fantastic demo reel pieces in there. And all the top studios agreed. When DNA had other studios in for recruiting (since DNA had to let everybody go after TAB production) there was a noticeable scooping up of talent. Pixar, Sony, ILM, Dreamworks, PDI, Blue Sky, Digital Domain, Laika- they all nabbed people as fast as they could.

Additionally we’re not dealing with an inexperienced director, either. John Davis had great success with Jimmy Neutron. He knows animation, he’s not an outsider to animation. So it’s difficult to dismiss TAB on the grounds of inexperienced hubris. Plus with Tom Hanks behind it you’d think he knew a thing or two about what works in Hollywood and what doesn’t.

Another plus- outside of animation circles TAB is not viewed universally as a stinker of a film. Aside from the reviews that dismiss it as a sort of Marxist manifesto for kiddies, most of the reviews for it on Rotten Tomatoes are positive. In fact it’s got a rather healthy “Fresh” rating of 65% from critics and 83% from users. That’s a better rating than other more successful Cg animated films like Robots, Sharktale, Madagascar, Ice Age 2. This is not “The Wild” (19% rotten) or “Doogal” (5% rotten) or “Valiant” (28% rotten). All of whom tanked rather badly and all of whom had convincingly poor “Rotten” score on the tomato site. So it didn’t flop because the critics overwhelmingly panned the film because, in general, they didn’t.

There was no shortage of wattage in the star power of the voice cast, either. Nick Cage, Julia Roberts, Paul Giamotti, Bruce Campbell, Glenne Close- those are some good names to ride behind for public awareness.

Yes, it’s crowded out there. It’s been a busy year for animated films. The busiest ever. And we’re in a 3 week stretch where 3 of them open back-to-back-to-back. That’s historic, it’s never happened before (and I wager will never happen again). So there’s a diffusion of family film dollars. To a large extent that is a zero sum game. Still, give people a reason to go to the movies and they will. Pirates of the Carribean 2 is proving that.

cont'd in part 2...

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