Wherein unreasonably free time is dedicated to proving Jonah Hill is funnier than you.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

TransFanwanking (OR Autobot Apologetics)

My housemates were discussing an AP article on Orson Welles and Transformers[1], and one displayed shock that Transformers the Movie made ≈$6 million. It was a bust for a many reasons, but the thing to note is that animation in general had just finished bottoming out in 1986. The highest-grossing cartoon that year was Amblin's initial animation effort An American Tail,[2] which didn't even break the annual top 10; Disney made more off its Lady and the Tramp re-release than it did with the Independence Day debut of The Great Mouse Detective.

Never heard of The Great Mouse Detective? Time to put Walt Disney [Feature] Animation Studios in context. Here's the original-release and adjusted grosses of all Disney cartoons since Uncle Walt awakened to the life immortal:

Title (Original Release Date)------------Original Gross---Inflation-Adjusted Gross
The Jungle Book (1967)--------------------------------$73,741,048----$404,346,747

The Rescuers (1977)------------------------------------$29,000,000---$85,569,507
The Fox and the Hound (1981)------------------------$39,000,000---$92,309,353
The Black Cauldron (1985)----------------------------$21,288,692----$39,459,040
The Great Mouse Detective (1986)-------------$25,336,794--$44,936,955
Oliver & Company (1988)-----------------------------$53,279,055----$85,298,341
The Little Mermaid (1989)----------------------------$84,355,863---$139,814,000
The Rescuers Down Under (1990)--------------------$27,931,461----$43,448,939
Beauty and the Beast (1991)---------------------------$145,863,363--$227,976,468
Aladdin[π] (1992)----------------------------------------$217,350,219--$528,161,032

Disney was only just getting out of some 20 year-doldrums. The Smurfs and Care Bears had moderate success translating to the big screen — The Care Bears Movie actually made more than The Black Cauldron — but most cartoons of the 80s pulled in poor box office numbers. Cartoons released into 400+ theaters averaged a $2.24 million gross. In the 90s, there were over twice as many 400+ cartoons, and they averaged $5.84 million. There were more 400+ cartoons from 2000 to 2006 alone, and they averaged $8.72 million. Even accepting that current ticket prices are 2.4x those in 1980, it's clear there's simply a bigger market for animation then, even if none of it is has fire-breathing robotic dinosaurs that can fly.

Back to my housemates: they suggested that the forthcoming Transformers[4] is intended for people who could remember the first cartoon, and I brought up the fact that Shia Labeouf is getting to be a bankable star for precisely those people that couldn't tell Optimus from Opie. I don't know enough about the toy market — I mean, really, knights are popular??? — to track those trends, but I'd say the base for Transformers nostalgia can't be very big. Unlike Harry Potter there isn't a creepily large contemporary base, unlike LoTR the story was too vapid to keep people interested,[5] and it hardly has the pedigree of any superhero movie this side of Mystery Men. When the director is suggesting people would rather die than watch the '86 movie[6], you can't seriously believe Dreamworks is wooing anybody with a soft spot for Stan Bush.

For now I'm inclined to believe that there's nothing like Transformers: it's a movie built on an awesome premise that was almost never well-executed and has minimal staying power. I'm also inclined to end this post because it is long and increasingly esoteric.

[1]Personally I prefer my paper on Orson Welles and The Incredibles
[2]Which of course lead Don Bluth to believe he could beat Disney at its own game. Let us hope Chris Sanders learns from his mistakes.
[3]BoxOfficeMojo doesn't have the grosses for
The Aristocats (1970), Robin Hood (1973), or The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977)
[π]At which point Disney "realized" if it made pop-cultural references for the old-folks, it could be entertaining for more than just kids, meeting its logical end in the surprisingly charming but nonetheless unprofitable Emperor's New Groove. Then for some reason they decided to make aesthetically unpleasing action movies like Atlantis (cel-shaded CGI is boring), and Shrek latched onto the pop-culture-caboose, putting Spielberg back above Disney for the first time since...An American Tail! ... Well, I think that's funny.
[4]Produced by Steven Spielberg. Dun-dun-dun.
[5]No offense to Bob Forward and other folks behind 'Beast Wars.' Seriously, it was good stuff.
[6]Wired used "urtext"? +3. +Less Than Three, even.