European Animated Movies

The eagerly-awaited American debut of Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Parannaud’s Persepolis reminds us that Europe is not a casual producer of animated movies. (I will save my comments on the film until after it opens in Atlanta in February.) In fact, Europe has long been very active in this area for many years, though only a handful of films have had any visibility in the American marketplace; if they do get a US release, it is usually via home video and cable.

When the Oscar for Best Animated Film was introduced in 2001, this seemed to provide an incentive for overseas producers to try to break into the American market; as a result, avid animation fans in Los Angeles can catch Oscar-qualifying screenings for a handful of films the Academy and distributors promptly ignore. But this lack of visibility in the United States does not mean there is not a viable market for these films.

Donkey Xote 01 For instance, Jose Pozo’s Donkey Xote, whose main character owes much to Shrek, recently opened at 300 theaters, a record for a Spanish film. Variety‘s review calls it, “A lively but clumsy comic retelling of the Cervantes classic, pic reps Spanish cinema’s finest computer animation to date, but its humdrum script leaves it flailing at windmills. Home B.O. since Dec. 5 release has been solid but not special, with surefire sales to Spanish-speaking territories unlikely to be replicated elsewhere.” However, with a €15 million ($22 million) budget, it is not hard to see it making a profit.

lissi-01 Germany has a long record of making popular animated film which never seem to get into other markets. However, according to Variety, Michael “Bully” Herbig’s Lissi Und Der Wilde Kaiser (Lissi and the Wild Emperor), a comic take on the popular true-life story of the marriage of Bavaria’s Princess Elizabeth and Austria’s Emperor Franz Joseph, may have a chance to do just that. It notes that Lissi “”isn’t Germany’s first CG-animated feature, but technically it’s on a level with anything from the DreamWorks Animation stable.” According to Screen Daily, it was also the “only German film to reach this year’s Top 10 – with $ 19.1m box-office takings.”

By the way, the film marks the animation debut for Herbig, who is best known for his live-action comedies. (Check out images and trailers at the film’s official site.)

Winx Club — The Secret of the Lost Kingdom, directed by Iginio Straffi, which opened in Italy last month hit it big at the box office. According to the International Herald-Tribune,

For the uninitiated, Winx are fairies, six comely – and fashionable – teenage fairies with a successful television series to their name and a good start on silver-screen stardom. “Winx – The Secret of the Lost Kingdom,” the first full-length movie featuring the fairies, was No. 1 at the Italian box office when it opened two weekends ago throughout Italy, just as truckloads of Winx Club-branded merchandise – dolls, purses, DVDs and so on – jump-started the pre-Christmas rush.

One oft-touted statistic: Winx outsell Barbie in Italy.

The film, which cost €25 million ($36.8 million) is on the high side for a European effort, as it also involved building a new CG studio in Rome. (The TV series was done in 2D.) However, with Winx having generated some €1.5 billion ($2.2 billion) in worldwide merchandising over the past 4 years in , it would seem a reasonable gamble.

The Hollywood Reporter seems to agree, noting that the film has,

So far … sold to almost 46 territories. The film should do well in the markets in which the show and Winx merchandising are popular, such as Europe and North America. The international rollout is set for the beginning of 2008, giving the animation team an extra month to rework glitches in the Italian version.

However, as far as the film goes, its verdict is a bit less positive:

The fairies are a disturbing mix of sexiness and sexlessness, the CGI animation rather straightforward and at 90 minutes the story should wear out older viewers’ patience. The continuous harping on good having to win out over evil seems less a message than a slogan in lieu of story development.

The stereotypical teenagers’ endless chatter about their joys, sadness and fears — not to mention clothes — is punctuated by action/battle scenes that ultimately lack suspense. You don’t have to know the Winx Club world to quickly gather that none of its perfectly pretty boys and girls could experience anything other than a happy ending. Nevertheless, there’s plenty of colorful eye candy to look at along the way, mostly the fairies’ outfits and hairstyles, for which they are known and loved.

For more on the Winx Club check out Rainbow Entertainment’s website, or the many clips available on YouTube.

Of Christmas Cards Past

While in the midst of unpacking files left over from my last big move, I came across a batch of Christmas cards I got in the 1990s and thought this would be a good time to share them. I was then a freelance animation journalist and these cards were among the perks.

Christmas cards can, in rare instances, be important historical documents, such as the one I have signed by the staff of the Fleischer Studios in 1934 sent to Dan Glass, who was to soon die of TB. (His death became a catalyst for the move to unionize the studio.) Others, such as those by former Disney background artist Ralph Hulett posted by his son Steve on The Animation Guild Blog, can expand our appreciation of a particular artist. I will leave it up to you to explain the implications, if any, of the following examples. (Click on images for bigger versions.) (Most of the cards are undated, as I failed to properly catalog them when I got them.) In any case, Merry Christmas to one and all!

Bardel Animation Christmas card from mid-late 1990s.Vancouver-based Bardel Animation, now Bardel Entertainment, was, as I recall, at the time a provider of ink and paint services, among other services. Hence, this card in the form of an animation cel.

J J Sedelmaier 1996 Christmas card featuring the Ambiguously Gay Duo. J.J. Sedelmaier Productions was (and is) a top commercial house. However, from time to time, it ventured into longer form projects, including producing the first season of Mike Judge’s Beavis and Butt-head in 1993 and the Ambiguously Gay Duo shorts for TV’s Saturday Night Live. The card is dated 1996.

MTV Animation Beavis and Butthead Xmas Card 01Speaking of Beavis and Butt-head, I received this and the following card from Abby Turkuhle, who was head of MTV Animation, the network’s New York-based studio formed after the initial success of the Mike Judge show. The studio hung on for a few years before MTV decided to outsource all its series animation needs to other studios.

MTV Animation Celebrity Death Match Christmas card.MTV Animation’s Celebrity Death Match proved to be a popular hit and was one of the few stop motion series to make it big on American TV. The show’s name is still occasionally invoked by political pundits in discussing the vagaries of electioneering.

PDI Antz Xmas Card 01Antz was a surprise hit for DreamWorks SKG, a major studio wannabe which pinned most of its hopes on animation. In particular, chief animation honcho Jeffrey Katzenberg hoped to repeat the success he had with traditional 2D animation at Disney with such films as Prince of Egypt. At the time, a DreamWorks executive told me that the CGI films produced by the then 40%-owned PDI were to be medium-budget efforts that would complement its more important 2D projects. Eventually, DreamWorks eventually bought all of PDI, and part of DreamWorks Animation, which remains independent despite the parent company’s acquisition by Paramount.

Blue Sky Bunny Xmas Card 1998Chris Wedge’s Bunny was Blue Sky Studios’ calling card, so to speak, for the studio’s long-standing desire to make computer animated movies. (MAGI-Synthevision, the company’s predecessor, had worked on Tron.) Its critical acclaim, including an Oscar, helped the studio get the backing for Ice Age.

Streetcar Named Perspire

Streetcar_cardsStreetcar_Joy Independent animator Joanna Priestley just sent me her most recent film, Streetcar Named Perspire, a whimsical “instructional” film about the roller-coaster ride that is menopause. Ever since her autobiographical Voices (1984), her CalArts thesis film which became her signature piece, every 10 years or so Priestley has attempted to keep viewers up-to-date on what’s going on in her life.

How to Make an Independent Animated Film 01 The 6½-minute film, done using Flash, reminds me of the comic strip she did for Animation Magazine, when I was editor almost 20 years ago, on “How to Make an Independent Animated Film” (see panel on right). (It’s included in her Fighting Gravity DVD.) After screening it, my wife immediately wanted to give copies to all her friends. I noted to Priestley that this must be some woman thing. She replied, “It’s definitely a ‘woman thing,’ especially women over 45.”

Poof, a film in progress by Joanna Priestley Streetcar Named Perspire is just beginning to make the festival circuit and she has begun work on her next film, Poof. She says, “Poof is about proofreading and spell checking. It is based on a poem by Taylor Mali. He has won the National Poetry Slam many times. I am animating it with Flash CS3.”

Priestley once told me that many of her fellow CalArts students were reluctant to make independent films on their own, having been spoiled by all the equipment and facilities they had at school. It was then she decided to use the least costly equipment and techniques she could, some of which seemed to harken back to the early days of Winsor McCay. Although she gradually started to use more complex equipment, she avoided going digital, sticking to 2D and stop motion. (She did play around with computer animation as a student.) However, she did use Flash for Dew Line (2003), for which she expressed considerable pleasure over how the it allowed her to work on a smaller scale again. At the time, she wasn’t sure if she would make her next film with it, but she obviously did and seems to be comfortable with it.

Anyway, look for Streetcar Named Perspire at your local animation/film festival, even if you are not a woman over 45.