Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Tastes like chicken....

"Hmm. Tastes like chicken." We always say that when something doesn't have a distinct flavor, don't we?

When I lived in the Chicago area some years ago we bought our first home in one of those 'corn field' subdivisions. If you've spent much time in the US you know the type- cookie cutter houses on streets named Raleigh Trail, Snowbird Trace and Chadwicke Court. Homes that were planned and picked out of a catalog, cropping up in vast fields that used to grow corn before houses.

It was a good first home, we were thankful for it. But even then we knew there were problems with the idea. It was very far out, the neighborhoods were growing faster than weeds and we wondered at the breakneck pace of it all. Soon the entire area filled in with three huge shopping centers, a Walmart, Target and a Costco, four humongous supermarkets, 5 complete sub-divisions containing 700 homes each and two huge movie theaters. It went from sleepy farm roads cutting through endless cornfields to a full blown 21st century American suburb in just 3 years. Back then I had my doubts about the sustainability of that trend. Turns out we're seeing the fallout now in ye olde real estate bust (a bust that we happily avoided by selling into the rising market, not the falling one. Not that I was smart or anything- just blessed. Even a blind squirrel finds a nut now and then). Ultimately every Builder Bob with a hammer went into business building and selling cookie-cutter homes. It was like printing money- and for a while it worked. The end result? Lots of houses, all with the same feel, made with homogenized factory monotony with little or no charm or character. The houses, while fine homes and certainly quite comfortable and liveable, were utterly unremarkable with their smooth vinyl siding nestled amid a sea of meandering cul-de-sacs and lanes with no trees. Once while we lived in this stamped out subdivision an older fellow in his early 60's got lost going for a walk in his own neighborhood one cloudy afternoon. When asked how he got lost he replied "Everything's the same!". There were no unique landmarks, no memorable places to turn or recall. Everything blurred into a beige haze of vinyl.

What's this got to do with Bolt? Seems it's not exactly been a gang buster in ye olde box office on its opening weekend. $26million is all. While that's not a disaster, it's no doubt well below what the Mouse House was gunning for with this film. It was their first film made "from the ground up" at Disney under the creative guidance of their newly installed Pixar leadership. There were no compromises with the old Eisner Disney in the creative direction of Bolt like there were in Meet the Robinsons (which opened with similarly yawn inducing $24million). Nope, this film was done completely the Lasseter way and I'm sure the expectation was that they'd get Pixar's blockbuster results. Something odd happened on the way to the theaters- the audience forgot to come. Like those comfortable & liveable tract houses, Bolt was a comfortable, decently crafted film that was for all intents and purposes utterly indistinguishable from the littany of other comfortable, decently crafted CG animated films that have come before it. The landmarks have been erased and the audience got lost in the sea of "Everything's the same".

Cycles run their course. All of them. How close are we to CG's Hercules?


Kevin Williams said...

ya know, after CG stepped out and tackled super heroes, surfing penguins, cooking, animals who a mastered martial arts, robots in space etc. etc., it seems like a movie about a girl and her dog (albeit a super-hero dog) just wasn't enough of a fresh idea to draw people out.

Even the Cinderella story of a story-man turned voice actor of a wacky talking hamster wasn't compelling enough.

I haven't seen Bolt yet, but all the reviews from friends have been positive...here's to catching it soon.

Matthew Long said...

I think Twilight is to blame for stealing Bolt's thunder (pun intended)rather than it getting lost in a sea of sameness. Though it could possibly make a good rebound this extended holiday weekend.

Adam Kaszycki said...

It kind of tasted like a really well seasoned and tasty chicken with a special sauce. That's just me of course. Yeah, it had it's flaws (and part of me would love to have seen Sanders' vision come to the screen as "Lilo and Stitch" is one of my faves), but it was still good eats.

Of course, I think "Coraline" will be tops in 2009 and KFP took it this year for me (with Wall-E following closely).

Andreas said...

I remember seeing the trailer a month ago or something it was super exciting but it was a trailer and filled with action scenes only, at that moment it crossed my mind that the story might not be that good.

I personally rather see a film that is about story and characters rather than fancy motion and cool animation.

Well iam gonna see it as soon as it is released here but i dont have high expectations.

Wonkey the Monkey said...

During the heyday of Disney feature animation, nobody could get much of an audience for non-Disney animated features. The studios would do their standard media blitz, complete with McDonald's playsets and action figures (on shelves weeks before the movie hit theaters), and after an extended fanfare we'd get... All Dogs Go To Heaven. Or The PageMaster. Or Anastasia. These movies bombed, especially when you consider how much they cost to make.

In the end, I blame these failures on one critical mistake: the non-Disney studios thought that animation was a genre. They treated "animation" the same way they treated "romantic comedy," "summer action blockbuster," and "teen slasher film". This kind of attitude will permeate a production from conception all the way up through production and on to promotion. The producers did not know what kind of movie they were making, but even worse, they thought that they DID know. They were making an "animated feature". That meant talking animals, musical numbers, and wisecracking sidekicks. It meant orphans going on grand adventures. It meant larger-than-life villains chewing the scenery while boneheaded minions make dumb comments. It meant... exactly the same as all the other animated movies. Only not as good as Disney. Sadly, one of the few exceptions to the formula, The Iron Giant, was barely promoted at all. If it had gotten half the publicity of, say, Ferngully, who knows what it could have been?

Disney lost its favored status among movie audiences when they started to act like their own imitators. Today, Pixar is the reigning champ of animated filmmaking (in terms of box office and critical success), with Dreamworks pulling a respectable second. Actually, the presence of Dreamworks gives the current animation market a different dynamic than the Disney-dominated days of the past. DW takes a different approach to storytelling, animating, and marketing than Pixar does, and I think they owe a lot of their success to that divergence. I suspect that they fancy themselves the modern day Looney Tunes to Pixar's Disney animation -- wackier, more "adult", and somewhat lower budget (overall, not necessarily picture-for-picture).

Despite the new Pixar leadership at Disney, Bolt does not look like an exciting new direction. It looks like a Pixar imitator with a lower budget. It looks like a "CG animated feature." And that means talking animals. And wisecracking sidekicks. And... well, you get the idea.

The good news is that lots of studios are still trying, and that's good for everyone. I'd pretty much given up on Blue Sky after Ice Age 2 (sorry, but I hated that movie), but then they totally surprised me with Horton Hears a Who! It was outstanding, and in a totally different way than either Pixar or Dreamworks. Then (or perhaps slightly before, I can't remember) Kung Fu Panda blew me away, causing me to forgive Dreamworks for Madagascar... at least until Madagascar: Obnoxiously Working "2" In-2 The Title came out. In any case, the more people try, the greater the odds of someone breaking out of the box and giving us a movie that knocks our socks off. I'm personally very excited about Coraline, and I can't wait to see what the latest generation of animators can come up with.

Nate said...

It's a shame that they didn't top Beverly Hills Chihuahua (which is sitting at about $90 million in theatres).

Strange market.

Thom said...

Hey Keith, every time I went through one of those synthetic neighborhoods I wanted to scream, "But they all look the same!!" I think I even did once. Since everyone was inside presumably watching their big screen TVs, no one heard me. Anyways...

I suppose I'm starting to get old and crotchety, but judging by the first trailer, Pixar's Up appears to be even more of the same, and then some. It's an interesting concept, but the execution couldn't be more startlingly blase. Makes me want to scream, "But they all look the same!!" again.

Alonso said...

So much money is on the line that it's hard to take risks and a lot of people are involved, so many people are involved that it's committee created instead of individual. Without an individual able to take risks to create something that speaks to them, it's going to be really hard for something that truly connects to others to come about.

That's one of the reasons I watch this blog, Keith talks about alternative and unique ideas and approaches then the "formula" the mainstream follows.

There's got to be a creative way to make a story outside the system.




Jean-Denis Haas said...

It's a shame, I really enjoyed Bolt. Yes, it follows a formula, but it succeeds. It was very entertaining and the animation was beautiful, especially on the dog.

I think word of mouth will give it a stronger second week-end.

Mike Lawler said...

The sad thing is... time and again, once something has seated itself in formulaic creation, it's on it's way to the grave.


I'm reminded of the 80's when mass produced crappy looking plastic toys were everywhere. Epecially those from movies. They looked nothing like the original character/etc and yet they're still bought up and pushed on kids.

Who's to blame? The producer, writer, director, animator, consumer, marketting.. who???

Mike Lawler said...

To clarify...
my examples of things that are on the way/in the grave I meant that they don't hold the same place they once did.

Meaning that today's music industry is rife with over-produced songs about nothing, cheap furniture made of compression board is usually preferred over hand crafted wood, and painters could scarecly be found living off of this alone. It's saddening to think that perhaps animation is headed in this direction. Between this and JohnK I've got to say that animation is starting to feel like Starbucks. It's everywhere and to anyone who know's anything about real espresso drinks, it's god awful.

Anonymous said...

"How close are we to CG's Hercules?"

I thought that was Meet the Robinson's or Robots ?

Anonymous said...

Hey Keith, Thanks for running this Blog! Happy Thanksgiving and God Bless!

Anonymous said...

The writing was on the wall. Even Pixar doesn't move me anymore. The last best Pixar production was the Incredibles. It went downhill with Cars, and further downhill with Ratatouille and Wall-e. I can't understand why people still respond to those movies... but Up (not Russ Meyer's Up) seems interesting enough.

The only studio that constantly delivers old (50's 60's) Hollywood style quality/ feeling is Blue Skies. All good except for Robots.

For me there was only 4 entertaining CG movies since the Incredibles: Kung Fu Panda, Surfs up, Ice Age 2 and Happy Feet.

I guess what's missing here is that the studios are making 3D movies but ironically enough, the characters are 2D.

Paul said...

Wonkey - I love the comment about 3D animation as a "genre." I've been dancing around that idea in my head for the past few years but never put it in those words. That's exactly what the problem is. Nice summary.

Anonymous said...

Hey Anonymous,
Do you seriously rate Ice Age 2 and Happy Feet ABOVE Ratatouille and Wall-E?? How are they even on the same page?

Sorry, where are my manners. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion.

Anonymous said...

All right, saw Bolt last night. Maybe it was because I read this thread first, and was thus prepared for disappointment, but I really enjoyed myself. It's not an instant classic, but it feels so very close to one.

Sometimes I wonder if we just get too jaded about movies... I certainly would rather watch this again then some of the Disney classics (Sleeping Beauty, Little Mermaid, 101 Dalmatians, if I must name a few examples).

David Beer said...

Chris, I think some people may misunderstand this post. Its not really saying Bolt is bad, Its saying times are changing, and in order to attract viewers, it needs to be different as well as good

Anonymous said...

I wrote that I rate Ice Age 2 and Happy Feet above those other overhyped Pixar movies. Yes!

Ratatouile is in my personal view repulsive, hypocritical (skinner is really the good guy here. He gives his heart and soul into his business just to be cheated away by a rat and a opportunist, and Egon, the killer of Gaston is the good guy because he liked the rat's food?). I thought that Castaway was boring, but seeing walle is like seeing paint dry. Too flat a story.

Beautiful colors, animation and what not. That is for little children. But the adults accompanying the kids at the movies shouldn't be tortured with garbage now should they?

Ice Age 2 and Happy Feet gave me that surprise factor (I don't read spoilers before the movie), it was a rollercoast ride, humor and variation in the story = not boring.

Pixar should return to the carrot in front the horse kind a story like they did in Toy Story.

Anonymous said...

I was surprised at how good Bolt was. The character animation was top notch, especially on the Girl's Agent and the Director of the show. I really thought it was as good, if not better than, most of what Pixar has put out as of late (same goes for KFP)...


Anonymous said...

Actually Bolt isn't doing all that bad at the box office. The 1st weekend was a bit of a disappointment but 2nd weekend was actually up from 1st. This is an article I found at box office mojo http://www.boxofficemojo.com/news/?id=2518&p=.htm

Anonymous said...

Nice summary. (Your comments about the housing market, in particular.)

As far as movies...?

I'm looking forward to the Secret Joys of Myopia.

Keith Lango said...

One thing that I probably should make clear- I don't think Bolt is a bad film. It's not. Just like the McMansions are comfortable houses and will serve a family well, Bolt is a decent film that will not leave you feeling like you wasted 90 minutes of your life watching it. It's just not something that stands out. In the realm of cinema spectacle isn't a bad thing- in fact if you want to make a lot of money as a studio, then spectacle is kinda important.

Unknown said...

I think the movie is great and different well as different as it can be after all everything has been done before,I think 3d animation will die out soon as far as being played in the theatre I think there will be alot more 3d shows on tv.

Anonymous said...

I know they belong to the mainstream, but Bolt deserve to be the among of the top with its superb animation and acting! Compare to animation like over the hedge etc...Bolt has more 'layers'