November 2, 2012
Recently, DreamWorks Animation, eager to increase revenue in these trying times, decided to pull out all the stops and ramp up production significantly. CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg announced an ambitious production schedule which calls for no fewer than three movies - possibly as many as five - per year beginning in 2010. Not only is that quite an ambitious undertaking, but each of these will be geared in some way toward children so if you have them, you are probably going to see almost every single one of them. DreamWorks wants you in the theater with your kids, and they want you there a lot.
Being a fan of animation in general but not having any wee ones of my own, I (unlike most parents) have the luxury of being able to pick and choose which of these features I see. And I, not being a parent, tend to insist (foolishly perhaps) on judging them based principally on artistic merit. But while people such as myself are free to debate the relative quality of one animated feature versus another, to those of you with children it rarely makes much of a difference. Parents don't need me to tell them that as long as a film is animated, is no longer than 90 minutes and boasts a few musical numbers performed by cuddly, wisecracking animals, most kids will happily sit through it. And you will be right there with them each and every time.
I don't mean to sound cynical, but I do have a niece, and have endured my share of animated films of varying quality with and without the company of children. And I have looked into the glassy eyes of more than one weary parent who has been forced to sit through an excruciatingly tedious 90 minute toy advertisement three dozen times simply for the sake of their kids. Noble, yes, but also gratifying is the children's movie that adults can truly experience and enjoy in the same way as their offspring. This is why at least one project in particular on Mr. Katzenberg's bold agenda caught my eye - an unassuming looking and tentatively titled project called The Guardians.
That title is certainly awkward; to my ears it implies something involving Uma Thurman in a latex body suit battling hordes of fleshy headed aliens. But perhaps more significant is that in keeping with the industry trend of writing checks first and asking questions later, the film is based on a series of books that hasn't even been published! Yes, it sounds like yet another case of Hollywood throwing good money after bad, but bear with me; The Guardians boasts what is at least a modestly intriguing premise as well as a sturdy pedigree.
Based on an upcoming series by acclaimed children's author and illustrator William Joyce, the premise is simple: Five beloved childhood icons – Santa Claus, The Easter Bunny, The Sandman, The Tooth Fairy and Jack Frost – unite together against a common foe in what should be around $140 million worth of lavishly animated CGI fun and adventure. I'll admit that in my mind, Jack Frost and the Sandman (no word on a Thomas Haden Church cameo) are a bit 19th century, but considering their opponent is none other than the dreaded Bogeyman – this prepubescent League of Extraordinary Gentlemen will need all the help they can get. And so will William Joyce, as this may end up being his most ambitious project to date.
Having himself studied film in college; Joyce has enjoyed a sporadic but prosperous relationship with cinema for over a decade. His contributions to the concept art and production design on Toy Story and A Bug's Life were considerable, and the influence of his distinctive vision is apparent in both films. But his greatest creative success would come as co-creator of the film Robots – a project whose expansive, colorful world and offbeat imagery are vaguely reminiscent of Rolie Polie Olie, one of Joyce's popular children's books.
Yet, while Robots proved to be lucrative at the box office, reviews were mixed. And while Joyce's first bona fide book to film adaptation, Meet the Robinsons, was probably good enough for your kids, it also was met with lukewarm critical reception by those old enough to pay taxes. Both movies were profitable – but as I implied earlier, what is good for the studio accountants may just become a forgotten part of your family's DVD collection or worse, once your kids are big enough to start taking out the garbage. To many, the best and most beloved children's films are the ones you still want to keep once you've grown up.
To that end, one of the most significant obstacles The Guardians may face is Joyce's storytelling style itself. Often the most memorable children's yarns manage to distill complex themes down to the unpretentious level at which young minds often perceive them. Joyce's books - while entertaining - tend to rely more on clever wordplay, fantastic imagery and extravagant visual landscapes. Essentially, the stories themselves tend to be rather Spartan and simplistic, generally aimed at the under six crowd. This is not a liability for a book, but it's somewhat less than the broad scope that a hundred million dollar feature film requires.
On the other hand, Joyce's greatest strengths as a storyteller should prove to be an upside. His quirky, immediately recognizable artistic style have always been the backbone of his creations and at the time of this writing, Watchmen production designer Alex McDowell is said to be on board for this project. Without question, this will be a beautiful looking film and I for one am definitely looking forward to seeing some of the early visuals.
The true test lies in whether the narrative itself will have enough meat on it to form an enduring tale that kids and their parents can enjoy again and again. Otherwise this may simply turn out to be another derivative exercise in marketing and product placement, replete with the usual musical numbers, flatulence jokes and stolid pop culture references. If DreamWorks can reconcile both sides of the creative coin here, they may find their inaugural effort with William Joyce to be the start of something wonderful. If not, I suppose they can always keep wringing water out of Shrek and Madagascar.
Only time will tell. (Bruce Hall/BOP)