Friday, September 29, 2006

SPA tries the waters with Open Season

Sony Pictures Animation takes their first grab at the feature-animation brass ring starting today with Open Season. I saw the film last night, in IMAX 3-D at the ASIFA screening, and I think they've got a winner on their hands....

Now the tricky part: does the movie-going public agree, or are they fatigued by the many CG features already released this year? The film is beautiful, with fantastic character animation and tons of humor, and in most any other year it would be a sure-fire hit. But this is a year where everyone's talking about a glut, and the end of September isn't exactly the choicest release date. From the early reviews over at Rotten Tomatoes, it appears at least some critics have been pretty glutted. We'll see what the public thinks, and update this post through the weekend...

Saturday Addendum: Open Season opened at the top of the chart on Friday with $6.15 million. The Boxoffice Mojo forecast is for the film to make $24 million, which sounds pretty reasonable from the Friday numbers.

Sunday Addendum: SPA's maiden effort took an estimated $23 million for the weekend, handily taking first place. That's a solid put not-quite-spectacular effort, though it does put in in the top ten all-time September openings. Everyone's Hero dropped a huge 76% from last weekend, stumbling to $1.1 million and a $13.2 million total after three weeks.


Anonymous said...

Oh heavens, I was at the same screening, and I was really disappointed by the film. The art direction was the only highlight for me, and some of the character design; Elliot is far to close to Donkey for me, though, and from a story point of view none of the characters' motivations or actions seemed grounded in any sort of reality -- on their own terms as talking cartoon animals, of course. The "rules" of their behavior are never established, for example -- is it a secret, for example, that they talk and walk like humans? Do the humans not know this, which seems to be the case when the plot demands it, or do they realize it as a matter of course, as Beth surely must when Boog is dancin' and singin' in the back of her Jeep? If humans do know the animals are sentient, it really causes the hunting angle to become very dsiturbing. But the humans seem surprised by the animals' human behavior, at times, and fine with it at others. It's just darned inconsistent.

Compare this with, for example, Toy Story. In the first five minutes of Toy Story we know all the rules of the world we've been brought in to -- what the Toys do, when they can talk, whether humans can or should see them. This is important because when Woody "breaks" a rule -- to frighten Sid -- it carries real weight. In Open Season, I had no idea how to read, for example, the farewell scene between Boog and Beth, where he acts like a mute dog and not the animated singin', dancin' bear at the opening. Does this signify something? I have no context to make that judgement.

Indeed there is much in the picture that is disturbing for the small fry. The apparently-dead Elliot splayed over Shaw's hood, for one. The sight of a character actually defecating onscreen, for another; I couldn't believe my eyes. That this is followed by a sequence in which the other lead character squats and attempts to defecate boggles the mind. I am well-used to the vomit gags, snot gags, spittle gags, fart gags, etc. which are doled out in the now-familiar heaping sums, and even jokes about poop don't surprise me any more, but to see animated creatures actually pooping onscreen, well, I have to draw the line.

If the critics feel "glutted" it's not because there are too many CG features out there. It's because there is a truly depressing sameness to them; an over-reliance on cheap body-fluid-and-solid gags that any idiot can come up with; a real carelessness with story, in the truest sense of the word careless; in place of real gags that express something of the character, we get characters breaking the proscenium and mugging for the camera with a lot of broad, imprecise action that speaks of nothing inside the characters themselves.

I'm tired of hearing about this so-called "glut" of animated films. The problem is that there is a glut of mediocre-to-horrible animated films, films which peddle cheap gags, recycled many times over, and threadbare stories gussied up with the best technology money can buy, films which condescend to an audience which seems increasingly disinclined to pay their hard earned shekels for the pleasure.

There's a lot of beautiful stuff in Open Season; the lighting work is particularly stellar; the 2-Desque backgrounds and the generally "cartoony" feel work nicely; there's some great character design, and some not very great character design (Beth, for example, seems flat and lifeless); at times, there's some finely detailed work in the character animation, such as Boog's small behaviors (tail-twitching and the like) while watching TV, but then again there's Shaw, who moves, like Stromboli, entirely too much. All his gestures, even his little ones, seem big and overstated.

I left the cinema depressed, to be honest. I had high hopes indeed for this new studio, and comments afterward by the directors -- that there's, by design, no "Sony Pictures Animation style" and the next film's going to be totally different give me hope for the future. But I'm afraid this is not an auspicious beginning, aesthetically, at any rate. Who knows? The public may gobble it up -- or perhaps their sick of being pandered to. We'll see.

A loyal reader who wishes to remain anonymous

Anonymous said...

I'm not gonna try to sound smart and pontificate about other people's hard work.

The poop joke? I laughed , I was not expecting it. Everybody in the theater laughed.

The Hunter, He actually reminded me of MacCLeach in Rescuers Down Under. I thought the animation in general was great. The story is predictable in many places. But there's some great sequences, like the flood sequence. Very well executed.
This film is best enjoyed in the 3d Imax show.

The character design was really strong, and so was the background design.

I hope Sony drops the whole motion capture thing. Keyframe animation looks waaaaaaayy better!!

Anonymous said...

I dont' think the fact that somebody worked hard on something makes it immune to a critique, do you? Lots of people worked hard on lots of crummy films and lots of good ones. I think this sort of "well somebody worked hard on it so I won't criticize" attitude does the whole medium a disservice.

Kevin Koch said...

I just want to say thanks for a thoughtful critique (I'm referring to the first post). I agree with some of what you write (especially that there are way too many similar elements recurring in film after film) and disagree with some, but I always enjoy reading opinions that have some real thought behind them.

Anonymous said...

I was very impressed with the quality of the animation and art direction on "Open Season"...

...AND I walked out of the film. :-)

Storywise, there was no compelling reason to stick around.

Writers and board artists, can we have something other than a non-stop stream of contemporary sass, dialed to "11" throughout? Maybe some characters that we care about? With dreams we can relate to? In situations that capture our imagination?

Once in a while, at least? :-)

Or is that too hard?

Anonymous said...

I think there is a tendency of studios to ape what has worked before. "Playing it safe" will never get an executive fired. "Doing something new and different" will.

Generally, the people who are allowed to swing for the fences and not be punished when they whiff are those with towering reputations that can withstand a box office dud.

Everybody else? They hunker down and don't take chances.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous waxes nostalgic about the brilliant rules of the world of Toy Story where Buzz Lightyear doesn't believe that he is a toy yet falls limp as a ragdoll when a human walks into the room. How does that jive with the rules of the world? We know from Woody's attack on Sid that this rule is not compulsory; so explain away Anon!

Anonymous said...

By the By Anonymous,

Boog isn't "singing" at the top of the story, but I guess given that it is a black man's voice coming out of the assumed he could sing as well as dance!

Anonymous said...

Open Season is a good film - a good children's film.

I love it when adults ponder the complextites of a story about a talking bear and deer. Animation is for kids - always has been. If adults like it - that's icing - not the cake. Some have tried (Bakshi) to make animation an adult medium - and have failed.

These studios know their audience and appeal to them - not to you 40 somethings who feverishly bid on E-bay for mint-in-the-box Woody doll while snarking off comments about shallow story lines.

Anonymous said...

A "good children's film"? I lost count of how many bored, squirming children were being escorted by their parents from the theater midway through the movie.

A PG "good children's film". :-)

Believe it or not, kids DO appreciate and understand a good story.

And if the studios "know their audience", how come Sony only turned in $23.6M for the weekend? Were they targeting a modest number to be neighborly to the other films? ;-) Think they're truly happy with that number?

Anonymous said...

I'd love to hear more about this "squash and stretch" technique that Sony invented.,0,6690631.story?coll=la-home-entertainment

Anonymous said...

Anonymous Deux, as I shall call him or her, in a nasty and puerile analysis of my post, mischaracterizes my earlier post as "waxing nostalgic" when I am merely trying to illustrate a clever and elegant piece of fundamental story construction.

In the course of his/her spewing (and really offensive racial mischaracterization of my post) AD is really missing the point of how one guides an audience's understanding -- and uses the story equivalent of slight of hand to dodge questions of the sort AD raises in re: Buzz Lightyear.

Simply put, what is established in TS's opening sequence is a simple rule that the audience immediately gets, and which frames the story as a whole: when kids are around, toys don't walk and talk. But when kids are away and nobody can see, toys have lives of their own.

The audience, with the exception of Anonymous Deux perhaps, doesn't need a laundry list of conditions that temper this reality. They just need to know that this is the way things are. In fact, being clear on the rule and vague on the specifics is critical to getting the audience to agree to believe the world you're creating, and the reason it works well in Toy Story is that it is expressed through action, not through long-winded and elaborate exposition -- which would probably be the only way to establish some complex system which might cover every possible question such an eagle-eyed viewer as AD might raise.

AD, I suggest you read, say, Alexander Mackendrick on the subject of suspension of disbelief prior to further spewings (or execrable racist accusations). Suspension of disbelief is not something an audience owes a filmmaker. It has to be earned. And it is usually earned in precisely the manner Toy Story earns it. The basic rules of the world are engagingly and clearly established through action at the outset, and if you've failed as a storyteller to win the audience's implicit agreement to "go along with you" it is not the audience's fault.

Now let's look at how this works, or doesn't, in Open Season. Boog acts like a big, quasi-human, sentient puppy dog in Beth's presence in the film's opening, and in the sight of a large audience a short time later. Similarly, Elliot acts like a human being in plain sight of many of the town's citizens. Nobody seems to find this alarming or strange in the least. Well, OK, I think to myself, I guess to the townspeople this is nothing new; I know the humor of "In The Bleachers" a little bit, where this kind of thing is a matter of course, so I figure that's what this world is like.

Only it isn't. A substantial portion of the film is given over to Shaw's animal-conspiracy theory which I understood to be based on his realization that the animals could walk and talk like humans. But if, as we've seen, animals walk, act, watch TV etc. like humans, whence comes Shaw's alarm?

The entire third act is based on humans being surprised by the sentience of animals. And what's supposed to be (I guess) a big tear-jerking moment -- when Beth bids Bog farewell -- Boog is acting much more like a regular ol' animal around her. Is this significant? Color me perplexed (and no, AD, that's not a racial remark, just so you're clear.) Has Boog's experience changed him such that he can't act like a regular person/bear around people anymore? Or what? It's a giant gear change in Boog's attitude, but what does it signify? Since I don't know whether or not a "human-acting bear" is a big anomaly in this world, I don't know how to feel in this scene and thus I am confused and uninvolved.

As to anonymous the third (or fourth, I've lost count), who refers to Open Season being a good children's film, and says animation is for kids and says Bakshi has tried and failed, etc. etc. -- sir, you clearly know nothing about animation or Ralph Bakshi or the amount of time and craft that go into thinking through the "complextites of a story" -- ANY story, from the least-known animated short to the largest big-budget Hollywood film, no matter how throw-away it might seem. "Open Season" of course is no exception, I'm sure -- the fact that they did not establish their story well enough for me or somebody else doesn't mean that they didn't wrestle for hours and months and many long nights "pondering the complextites." You might want to learn a little bit more about filmmaking in general before flapping your yap and uttering lines describing posters as "40 somethings who feverishly bid on E-bay for mint-in-the-box Woody doll[s]".

Especially on a blog run by the local chapter of the Animators' Guild and whose comment boards are largely populated by people who actually work in the industry and maybe have a clue. And perhaps have good reason to remain anonymous.

And that squash and stretch item from the Times -- oi vey. It's been a banner year for reportage on animation -- from that imbecilic review of Monster House by Mick LaSalle to mind-numbingly witless statements like that, I mean, can it get any better?

Anonymous said...

Open Season is a good film - a good children's film.

I love it when adults ponder the complextites of a story about a talking bear and deer. Animation is for kids - always has been. If adults like it -----

whatever man. i wonder if you have kids. my 2 year old will watch anything Pixar, old-school Disney, Looney Tunes, and most of what I would consider as a grownup well-done animation. Funnily Shrek, Shark Tale, all the Dreamworks stuff he looks at for 10 seconds and then goes back to his toys. Now why is that do you figure.

Anonymous said...

To Anonymous Superiorys:

Congratulations. You are the smartest human on the planet. You know and are so much supperior to the rest of us, mere mortals.

Sorry for the poop jokes on movies that tarnish your experience here on earth. Those work only on feeble minds.

Hope you are able to make your own movie, to you high standarts, hopefully not over our heads. Teach us how to entertain owr children, oh lord of storytelling, please...have mercy on us....

Maybe we should do a little offering to calm the the god's anger....

Sheeesh, take it easy! You'll live longer!

Anonymous said...

At least he knows how to spell... ;-)

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