Coincidentally, the day before I was planning to see Flushed Away, the latest feature from the brilliant English animation studio, the new Variety arrived with a relevant story. “An Aard-Knock Life,” reveals that “After the second commercial disappointment in as many years from the quirky British claymation studio, insiders say DreamWorks Animation is unlikely to put any more Aardman toons on its sked. Instead, the Blighty company is believed to be looking for a new theatrical partner—likely one that doesn’t have ‘Shrek’-sized expectations for its releases.”
If that happens, maybe Aardman should also make sure that its next studio knows how to sell a movie.
The first “disappointment” for DreamWorks was Wallace & Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit. That film was so disappointing that it won the 2005 Oscar as best animated feature and was a hit virtually everywhere in the world except the USA.
I’m irresistibly reminded of Disney/Buena Vista’s releases of a few films by Hayao Miyazaki . Not really knowing what to do with these complex, poetic masterpieces, they essentially gave up on the first, Princess Mononoke (American release, 1997), doing almost nothing to publicize it and letting it play to nearly empty theaters in a relatively limited release. Spirited Away (2001) got a lackluster release from Disney, who at least had the decency to make both dubbed and subtitled prints available. Once the movie won the 2002 animated-feature Oscar, the studio gave it a half-hearted re-release. Howl’s Moving Castle (dubbed, 2005) must have gotten most of its business as a result of sterling reviews rather than publicity.
One thing DreamWorks and Disney have in common in these cases: both of them seem not to have noticed that they didn’t make these films. That does matter when you’re trying to find an audience for them.
You could argue that three of the greatest sources of animation, at least theatrical feature-length animation, are Pixar, Aardman, and Studio Ghibli, Miyazaki’s company. (On this level of brilliance, it’s hard to choose among them.) Buena Vista distributes both Pixar and Ghibli films. Pixar films clean up at the box office; Ghibli films pick up rave reviews and awards. (Outside North America they set box-office records.) Distributing Aardman films has been an iffy undertaking for DreamWorks. Chicken Run succeeded, Curse of the Wererabbit didn’t, and, if Variety is right, DreamWorks hopes for no better from Flushed Away.
Why the disparity, when these three studios have walked off with the past four best animated picture Oscars? I’d suggest it’s because Disney and DreamWorks have made no attempt to make their imported films into recognizable brands. They sell them as if they were their own products. Then they wonder why people are mystified when they see “Disney’s” Spirited Away or “DreamWork’s” Flushed Away and find that these films are not what they’re used to from those studios.
Pixar, on the other hand, succeeds in the U.S. partly because it’s a brand. These aren’t Disney films, they’re Pixar films, with the cute little lamp that jumps around in the logo. Even now that Pixar has been bought by Disney, you can bet that the films will go out under the name “Pixar” and have that little lamp.
Disney has never really tried to establish Ghibli as a brand. I think Miyazaki’s films are awkward for the American market. They’e too grown up for the kids who usually go to animated features, too much “cartoons” for adults. Still, given Miyazaki’s reputation—the reviews, the awards, the success in other markets—I suspect Disney could succeed by stressing the Ghibli name and reputation and marketing them as art-house films. They get trampled in the multiplexes.
Similarly, DreamWorks keeps trying to market Aardman films as DreamWorks films. Flushed Away is, according to the ads, “From the creators of Shrek and Madagascar.” If you lure people into the theaters with that claim, of course they’re going to be baffled when they get sophisticated, witty tales instead of broad, obvious comedy. (I enjoyed Shrek, but it’s been considerably overrated. That it rather than Monsters Inc. should have won the first best animated feature Oscar shows why hype and box office can do.)
If DreamWorks instead had made any effort to make Aardman into a brand as recognizable here as in Britain (well, nearly as recognizable), these films would undoubtedly have a bigger success here in the States. Releasing the three Wallace & Gromit shorts as a feature-length program, as was done in Europe, could have won a devoted following for them and things Aardman. Such a release would have cost very little and could have prepared the way for Curse of the Wererabbit and others.
So, back to Flushed Away and its supposed failure. From my reading of the box-office figures over the mere 12 days the film has been in release, it looks like a moderate success. If DreamWorks is ready to write it off already, then Hollywood really has become so focused on opening-weekend grosses as to be blinkered to all other indicators.
As everyone noted, when Flushed Away opened on November 3, it split the family audience with The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause. With Borat’s “surprise” success (a surprise only to Twentieth Century Fox and a few pundits), taking in $26 million in 827 theaters and grabbing the Monday infotainment coverage, the Santa Clause came in second at $19, 504,038 and Flushed Away a close third at $18,814,323. After 12 days, those two are still bringing in similar grosses: Santa Clause totaling $42,312,847 and Flushed Away $41,017,254.
But, as I suggested in my piece on Borat , the top three films of the November 3 weekend looked like they would have legs and hold up remarkably well on their second weekend. Sure enough, Santa Clause dropped off a mere 13.2% and Flushed Away only 11.7%. These days, a drop-off of significantly below 50% on the second weekend is considered good. These two drop-offs are very, very low.
If DreamWorks can accept a modest success rather than a Shrek-size result, they may emphasize Flushed Away as a hit, let it play through the holidays, and see what happens when kids are out of school.
DreamWorks also might look at its own history with Aardman. Chicken Run’s opening weekend gross was $17,506,162. (Given inflation, that’s probably comparable to Flushed Away’s opening). Its domestic total was $106,843,564. Not a smash, but good enough to put it twentieth on the box-office chart for that year. Moreover, Chicken Run’s opening weekend was 16.4% of its eventual domestic gross. These days some films take in half their total on the first weekend. Let’s compare it with another long-legged film. The Fellowship of the Ring (a December 2001 release which was still in theaters in August 2002, two weeks after its DVD came out), made 15.1% of its domestic gross during its opening weekend.
Maybe DreamWorks is doing what I suggested not to do: looking on Monday morning at what won the horse race  and jumping to conclusions.
So, what did I think of Flushed Away? I thoroughly enjoyed it. I kind of miss the thumbprints you could sometimes spot in the clay of previous Aardman films, but otherwise this first venture into CGI looks very similar. (The studio says they went to CGI in order to make the many water effects seem realistic.) Like the Pixar features and other Aardman films, it has a clear, tight storyline structured around goals, the primary one being that of the hero, a pet mouse, trying to get home after being flushed down the toilet to the sewers.
The world under London’s pavement is dense with the usual clever references and puns and bizarre characters that populate Aardman’s features. More so than usual, in fact: a whole city full of shops, advertisements, and miniature objects that have been put to new uses. In fact, there’s so much to see that I frequently felt the pace was too fast, whipping you past sets before you could do more than glimpse the details. The references to other films, from Finding Nemo to The Two Towers, come thick and fast.
The movie also benefits from the trend of recent years toward all-star vocal casts in animated films. With Hugh Jackman for the hero, Kate Winslet for the heroine, and Ian McKellen for the main villain, the characterizations are wonderful.
And as for the singing chorus of slugs that wanders through the film … well, it has to be seen and heard to be believed. As with other Aardman films, stick around for the credits.