CHUD LIST: COCKBLOCKED! -DAY 6

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02.22.2011

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There’s a long history in Hollywood of shelved projects, abandoned franchise dreams, stalled careers, and entire genres that lost favor or profitability. 9 times out 10 these problems and failures are the result of a myriad of complex issues and contributing factors. Sometimes though… Sometimes you can pretty much pin everything on one film that fucked it up for everyone. Whether it’s a movie that killed a rival project, destroyed a filmmaker’s career, squashed some brilliant idea, or took the shine off of an entire genre, this CHUD List will catalog the films that were just total, unapologetic Cockblocks.

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Day 1 (Dinosaurs)

Day 2 (Halloween)

Day 3 (Mistress of the Seas)

Day 4 (Brandon Lee’s Career)

Day 5 (Game of Death)

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Day 6 (Walt Disney’s Dinosaur)

Damon Houx (EmailTwitter)

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THE COCK: The Walt Disney animation team. After re-emerging after years in the wasteland, 1989’s The Little Mermaid brought to the fore everything people loved about Disney animation for a new generation. Their follow up was The Rescuers Down Under, which showcases how slow animation and studio systems are. It was followed by Beauty and the Beast, which was nominated for best picture and then came Aladdin and The Lion King – both of which were blockbusters, and all four of which are family classics. Their success led Disney into being an animation factory, hoping to push out an animated title a year. And so next came Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules, and Mulan. None of these next set of films were as well received as The Lion King, but they were never disastrous (though Hercules couldn’t make it to $100 Million at the box office).

In 1999 they had Tarzan, which did $171 Million and was one of the biggest hits of the summer. Jeffery Katzenberg had left Disney by that point to create Dreamworks Animation, though by the end of the century, they were no great threat: Prince of Egypt did okay – it limped to its $100 Million at the Box office through its holiday release. Walt Disney was still the best name in animation. Walt Disney were the kings of 20th century animation.

Somehow over the next ten years, their animation department was ruined, and the studio flopped about trying to do CGI and traditional animation, while never recapturing the magic. There had to be something that brought them down, and essentially made Pixar – who was once distributed by Disney – and John Lasseter the head honcho. Lasseter’s career started as a Disney animator, how did the pupil become the master?

THE BLOCK: Dinosaur (2000)

Much like the asteroid that supposedly killed off the dinosaurs (or the appearance of Jesus, if I understand Creation Science correctly), Dinosaur was the asteroid that brought down Disney’s once powerful animation squad.

How it Went Down: At this point, Pixar – which had Disney as a distributor – was worried about Disney ruining their label. They had Toy Story - a massive hit – and A Bug’s Life, which did much better than DreamWorks’s Antz. Still, it wasn’t so awesome that the company felt secure. Disney originally wanted Toy Story 2 as a direct to video effort, but the film got reworked, went theatrical and was fucking great (this was the winter of 1999).

"Do you remember this movie?" "No, do you?"

I don’t know if it was hubris that led Walt Disney to pursue computer animation, as it was the way of the world, and since Beauty and the Beast animated films had incorporated digital trickery to help animate films, so perhaps trying CG on their own was a logical step. Originally the film was conceived as being done with no dialogue and was meant to be somewhat experimental; the more they played with it, the more they realized that they were better off doing it conventionally. Disney gave it a great send off: They were very proud of their effort, and had it set for a summer launch on the Star Wars weekend. I don’t think they saw it coming, perhaps they were so wowed with their ability to do CG animation that they didn’t realize the film was a turd.

It made $138 Million domestically, which wasn’t a disaster by any stretch of the imagination, though the film was outperformed by both Gladiator and Mission Impossible II. And – to be fair – it did much more business than either Titan A.E. or Chicken Run, from Fox and DreamWorks respectively.  From the numbers this might look like an okay result (it did more than Hercules or Mulan) but by this point, Disney was about the marketing synergy, and the film died on the vine when it came to tie-ins. Emperor’s New Groove – which made $89 Million at the box office – came out later that year and spawned a direct to video sequel, where Dinosaur is largely ignored by Disney and was never a good ancillary earner, nor was it put in the vaulted status of its other animated films. Basically it’s seen as an experiment gone bad, and mostly because it didn’t move additional product.

"Hey, it's a cute... something or other."

But what this also did was show that the Walt Disney studio had an Achille’s heel. Long seen as the standard-bearer for animated films, here they proved themselves to be unable to compete with the new generation. The film didn’t have that Disney magic, and though it wasn’t as pathetic as hair plugs, it was definitely a case where they couldn’t adapt to the new way. I think this was also the breaking point for a lot of parents – that though is harder to track – because the Walt Disney label used to mean something magical. And though there had  been a number of films like Hunchback that weren’t up to snuff, at least they were following the formula. Dinosaur – coupled with the more Warner Brothers-like Emperor’s New Groove - showed that Walt Disney was no longer making Walt Disney films, and in doing so ruined the most important asset the company had. Dinosaur was New Coke, but there was no going back as the Coke Classics of films like The Princess and The Frog came too late.

By 2001, DreamWorks put out Shrek ($268 Domestic), Pixar put out Monsters, Inc. ($256 Domestic), and Disney put out Atlantis: The Lost Empire ($84 Domestic). Though Lilo and Stitch ($145 Million) showed some life, animated films are such that their genesis takes too long to stop them. And where DreamWorks floundered with their cel animation (Sinbad), they got their groove in CG animation and kept churning out the hits, while Pixar is still the parental go-to of choice. Post-Lilo launched 2002’s Treasure Planet ($38 Million, the studio’s lowest grossing animated title since their rebirth), 2003’s Brother Bear ($85 Million), and then 2004’s Home on the Range ($50 Million) – for reference 2006’s Barnyard made $72 Million. By 2005 they went back to CG animation with Chicken Little ($135 Million), but by then the game was up.
Bullet Dodged, or Greatness Robbed:

"I don't know about you guys, but I want to fuck everything on this poster."

I want to say Greatness Robbed, but I have a bullet dodged aftertaste. Cel Animation was made irrelevant by a business model that had Disney churning out films at one a year because of previous successes, not the actual artform itself – digital may be easier, but what turned people off was that it was no longer as great as it once was more so than preferring a certain kind of animation. Disney thought they had a model that would work regardless of quality – which may yet ruin Pixar.
At the end of the day, something was going to take the studio down if they were going about business as they were, but cel animation (like all art forms) could have been and could yet still be a lot of things, and had they treated it more like art and less like commerce, we may have seen more greatness.

Verdict: Bullet Dodged.

The Alternate Universe:

Shrek is a one-note hit for Dreamworks, and points out their shallowness. Instead of Treasure Planet, Disney makes an animated film about a lost puppy in the big city, who finds an adopted family in a group of skunks. Though the fart jokes are trite, it really captures the magical horror that comes out from the primitive emotions Disney animation is able to tap into when they’re really cooking. It manages to trump Chicago as the best picture winner at the Oscars. Pixar is still chugging along, but eventually moves to DreamWorks, where they are known for their CG animation, while Disney is still the cel animation kings. Over the last couple years Disney and Pixar each get the animation Oscar every other year. Spielberg and Lasseter are often seen together doing talking head pieces on their DVD’s.
Remains: Disney is not dead, all things considered, and though the last couple years have seen some life and success with efforts like The Princess and the Frog and Tangled (which did nearly $200 Million domestically), the one thing the studio hasn’t done is take a breath and build up steam again. Studios don’t like that. But with John Lasseter at Disney, I would think at some point they will eventually put ink to pad, or pen to paper, and go back and try to do a good cel animated film. If they do it, I would guess it will be something to make Walt proud.
Until then, the Disney brand will likely be used to make off-brand Pixar product.

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