Buena Vista Fried Chicken

Friday, 4 November 2005 — 1:39pm | Animation, Film

I’ve been a lifelong sucker for computer animation. As a teenager I fancied the idea of going into the business myself. I won science fair medals for conducting raytracing experiments that I don’t even fully understand anymore. There was a time when I could have claimed to have watched every all-CG feature film to be released in North American theatres. I can still name the exceptions: Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius, Jonah: A Veggie Tales Movie and Valiant. I expect the claim to give way sooner or later, because in spite of how CG productions take years, the market is overflowing with them nowadays and reaching a saturation point where it simply isn’t enough for a movie to be a digital representation of three-dimensional space. It has to be more.

I’m also a Disney fan, albeit a repatriated one. It’s a pity that so many people, particularly those with disposable income, have a perverted obsession with outgrowing things. The majesty of the Disney classics is that they improve with age. You’ve only truly grown up when you have learnt to fall in love with them all over again. That’s what makes them classics.

Remember when the Magic Kingdom had brand power? The flat one, with a chorus of strings playing “When You Wish Upon A Star” – not the 3D one over music by Randy Newman, which I think has been subverted by the mischievous hopping lamp that follows it everywhere.

Those were the days. þæt wæs god cyning.

Things have changed. For one thing, I’m not going to see Chicken Little this weekend.

It isn’t because the promotional campaign makes it look both terrible and shameless about it. It could always be better than how it’s sold, and I’ll know for sure when I see it next week, or the week after that. Bad advertising (badvertising?) is a common sight when it comes to animated features. One wouldn’t have thought Shrek or The Iron Giant were any good from the trailers alone. Sadly, only one of them made money.

It isn’t because it’s not on the top of some imaginary list of mine this weekend. As a matter of fact, it is; V For Vendetta was moved back to March, and I saw Jarhead on Wednesday.

I’m not going to see Chicken Little this weekend because I want to do my part. See, I firmly believe that a low box-office take this weekend is a good thing. At best, I expect it to be a modest hit with no shelf life. Most of the pundits are calling it at $38M, and I think that’s generous – though of course, releasing it on 3600 screens guarantees a decent aggregate figure. And I’m not going to help unless it actually turns out to be any good as a movie, because I like the message this would send.

I haven’t cared about opening weekend grosses in a while, but this is one that actually matters. Let’s examine the possible scenarios.

Chicken Little is a hit. Either it opens above $50M, or it has enough staying power between now and Christmas that a $200M total is within reach. Consequences: Disney laughs its way to the bank. Pixar loses a whole wad of chips at the negotiating table now that WDFA has proven to be a viable competitor with a hardly competitive film. They never get their sequel rights back, and Circle 7 finishes their own Toy Story 3 directed by Bradley “Pocahontas II” Raymond. The next round of Disney trailers feature the titular American Dog, Wilbur Robinson and Rapunzel shaking their respective booties to disco music. Rumours of a return to cel animation are squashed for a full decade more. Bob Iger joins Michael Eisner in hell, but on the plane of the corporeal, the suffering continues.

Chicken Little makes money, but generally disappoints. This is what I expect – an opening under $40M, and run-of-the-mill drops of 40-50% a week before ending up with Shark Tale figures, or maybe even as low as Robots territory. Here we’re talking $130-170M – big, but not for a CG film with the Disney label, and not in 2005. Consequences: Pixar has an upper hand in negotations, because Disney is no longer so sure it can afford to have them as a direct competitor. We might even see some big, lopsided concessions; the best-case scenario has sequel rights going to Pixar and Circle 7 shutting down Toy Story 3 – a huge loss for Disney and a huge win for the consumer. Future WDFA projects reevaluate their ability to out-Shrek DreamWorks, and stop trying so hard to do just that. We will hear rumblings of greenlighting cel animation again in the post-Rapunzel pipeline, and maybe the company will stop blaming the medium.

Chicken Little bombs harder than the Enola Gay. This would be an opening under $20M and a total gross well under $100M, comparable to Disney’s figures in its waning years. We’re talking about sub-Dinosaur numbers here. It isn’t going to happen. If it does, Disney will be on its knees begging Pixar to come back – a good thing. This isn’t all rosy, though. Disney’s stock price will plummet. The detrimental effect on the brand name may carry over to hurt the success of future releases, regardless of whether or not they are any good. Investment in the computer animation industry as a whole will drop. We still have no guarantee of a return to traditional 2D animation, either. It’s just as likely that animators will be fired in droves, and the Disney legacy dies a horrible, horrible death.

I think the second scenario is the optimal one here, though none of its effects are guaranteed. It would certainly cause a lot of unease; in fact, the cold critical reaction to Chicken Little is already having some effect on the company.

This morning, the news came in that Disney has halted production on Rapunzel Unbraided. Word is that the shutdown is a temporary one to rework the project from the ground up; just how temporary, time will tell. But I like what I’m hearing: less of the pop-culture trash nobody cares about. In essence, less of the Unbraided, more of the Rapunzel; less of the Shrek and more of the Disney.

I have never once seen Disney try to be wacky and hip and come out of it looking good. A Glen Keane film deserves to be better. Keane is a legend, folks. Every day of the year, mascots and stage performers around the world hop around in costumes based on stuff he drew. He created Ariel in The Little Mermaid and Aladdin in Aladdin. He designed the Beast in Beauty and the Beast, the most iconic sympathetic monster this side of King Kong. And I’m sure the five of you who saw Treasure Planet fondly remember the seamless cel/CG hybrid that was his Long John Silver – half scurvy pirate, half Howl’s Moving Castle.

The visual concept behind Rapunzel Unbraided – an oil painting that moves in 3D space – is one of the most exciting developments I’ve heard of about the future of the now rather unexciting movie business, which has with few exceptions become aesthetically stagnant now that the wonders of technology are peaking.

But it’s all for naught if the film has to work against an abrasive and annoying screenplay that plays for cheap laughs. This is supposed to ring in the next Disney Renaissance, after all. I’ll agree it’s not a wholly reasonable expectation, but I’ll sleep better at night knowing that they care enough to try.

And all it took was for the critical community to call Disney on the carpet and tell them their bespectacled gallinaceous emperor has no clothes, let alone groove. Imagine what would happen if the public agreed. All that needs to happen is for Chicken Little to fail by just enough, and we’ll hopefully see some meaningful change of the same bent.

Whether or not the film is any good is immaterial. I’ll answer that question later this month.

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