In the showdown between Open Season and The Guardian, audiences choose the computer-animated deer voiced by Ashton Kutcher over the boy toy’s flesh-and-blood efforts to resuscitate Kevin Costner’s career.
That said, the opening weekend of Sony Pictures Digital’s inaugural offering should hardly give Kutcher or costar Martin Lawrence too much cause for celebration. Yes, Sony Pictures Digital president Yair Landau tells the Associated Press that Open Season’s $23 million debut represents “a great first step” for the fledging CGI unit. But that’s in regards to the creation of a potential rival to Pixar, DreamWorks and Ice Age’s Blue Sky Studios. If you’re talking profit, Open Season may struggle to exceed its reported $85 million budget without overseas help.
Perhaps Open Season simply arrived a year too late to stand out from the crowd. It’s the 11th computer-animated film released in 2006, with Flushed Away (Nov. 3), Happy Feet (Nov. 17) and Arthur and the Invisibles (Dec. 15) to come. That’s more than the 12 released between 2003 and 2005.
And the clogging continues next year. Disney’s Meet the Robinsons (March 30) opens one week after Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (March 23). Foodfight! also is scheduled for a spring release. Between Memorial Day and July 4th, Shrek the Third, Pixar’s Ratatouille and Surf's Up do battle.
It’s come as no surprise that this glut of computer-animated films would exists after Toy Story and Shrek killed off their hand-drawn rivals. Quality was bound to suffer—Pixar’s Cars certainly lacked the heart and soul of Finding Nemo, and there isn’t a frontrunner for next year’s Best Animated Picture Oscar. Expensive flops, such as The Ant Bully and The Wild, were inevitable, especially when they left us with a feeling of déjà vu. The Ant Bully failed to sufficiently distinguish itself from Antz and A Bug's Life. The Wild was Madagascar with Kiefer Sutherland.
2006’s CGI Releases
- Cars $243.9 million*
- Ice Age: The Meltdown $195.3 million
- Over the Hedge $155 million
- Monster House $73 million*
- Barnyard: The Original Party Animals $71.7 million*
- Hoodwinked $51.3 million
- Open Season $43.7 million*
- The Wild $37.3 million
- The Ant Bully $27.6 million*
- Everyone’s Hero $13.2 million
* Through Oct. 9
“It used to be you could bring out an animated movie once every two months and, if they were marketed well and released by a studio with a strong branding, there would be an audience there waiting,” Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations, recently told the L.A. Times. “That's no longer necessarily the case.”
Had it not been sandwiched between Monster House and Barnyard, The Ant Bully might have doubled its $50 million budget solely on the strength a voice cast led by Nicolas Cage and Julia Roberts.
So the moral of The Ant Bully is simple: it's no longer enough to assemble an all-star voice cast and expect to make big bucks.
The Weinstein Co. found that out the hard way when it acquired The Magic Roundabout, renamed it Dougal, and replaced Jim Broadbent, Bill Nighy and Joanna Lumley with William H. Macy, Jimmy Fallon, and Whoopi Goldberg. But giving Dougal an American accent wasn’t enough—audiences recognized it as the dog it was.
"In the perfect world, the big name is also the best choice for the role,” The Ant Bully director John A. Davis told Hollywood.com in July. “Because it’s really about what voice is best for this character. Studios, of course, want the big names for marketing purposes, but the win-win is to get the right choice.”
Pixar’s made the right choice for years. Who else but a then-unproven Tim Allen could lend Buzz Lightyear his air of arrogance? And DreamWorks’ computer-generated protagonists often assume the physical features and personality traits of their human alter egos. Think Ben Stiller’s cautious lion Alex from Madagascar.
So big-name voice casts may not help Flushed Away and Happy Feet (even with Robin Williams) if they remind us too much of any other computer-animated misadventures featuring gabby animals. And if audiences can’t tell apart the rodents of Flushed Away and Pixar’s Ratatouille (June 26)—or the penguins of Happy Feet and Surf's Up (June 8), for that matter—things are going to get messier than a Foodfight!
The Bottom Line
It’s time to cage all talking animals, birds and bugs, and end the cloning of A Bug's Life and Shrek. Sooner than later, the computer-animated offerings that are more likely to get our attention are those that differentiate themselves from the pack, regardless of whether they feature the vocal gymnastics of Robin Williams.