Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Not all 3D Animated Flicks are created Equal

One might see this weekend’s Box Office leader Megamind as just another hero triumphing under the cape of 3D CGI Animation. After all, over the past three years, 2 out of 3 of these animated comedic adventures gross at least $200 million dollars, and with production budgets of maybe a quarter that amount, that’s a pretty profitable cape. The similarly super villain themed Despicable Me or How To Train Your Dragon have hit giant $500 million dollar takes. Up and Shrek Forever After posted $750+ mil, and Toy Story 3 grossed over $1 billion worldwide.

3D CGI Animation seems to equal mega B.O. success.

But at second glance, it isn't such a simple formula. The story-telling quality of these animated pics directly correlates to the B.O. success. Paramount/Dreamworks may celebrate Megamind's opening, but the story's shortcomings spell a more limited run than some of Megamind's more profitable counterparts.

This Will Ferrell helmed super villain movie has an amusing premise, in which bad boy Megamind accidentally kills his rival superhero Metroman (Brad Pitt) and ends their battle of good and evil. With no adversary to challenge him, Megamind finds himself bored and alone, until he concocts a plan to create a new hero whom he can battle. Unfortunately, Megamind falls for Metroman's old flame, Roxy Ritchie (Tina Fey), and must battle his new moody adversary for her affection.

It’s a wildly entertaining romp, with some great voice acting and amazing visuals. And it pulls off a very strong first act, bonding the audience to the misunderstood and ostracized Megamind, who has no choice in the beginning but to drift into a life of villainy. But the story falls short in three major areas, which is why the mixed reviews are coming in on Rottentomatoes at 67%.

Where Megamind Falls Short

1. Mild Comedy

First off, most of Megamind's comedy comes from the improv rantings of Will Ferrell, who once again portrays an egotistical man-boy character. Some of the funniest CGI animated movies of the last couple years, like Toy Story 3, Up, or How To Train Your Dragon, derive their humor from the story's conflict. A movie like Toy Story 3 mines all sorts of laughs from the prison break scenario, then builds on those laughs, like those moments with Spanish Buzz and Tortilla Style Mr. Potatohead. Megamind limits itself to dialogue-driven jokes and back-and-forth banter, much like other Will Ferrell-type moments from his live action comedies.

When test audiences request more laughs, often producers race back to recording studios have the actors embellish moments with inserted jokes and improved exchanges. But often, this will slowdown the story, eliciting only more eye rolls and moans. And that's what seems to have happened with our friend, Megamind.

2. Outdated

Megamind also feels dated, with a soundtrack that sports classic songs like Welcome to the Jungle and Michael Jackson's Bad, and fails to relate to its modern audience. Plus, when you are a teenager, and a character delivers several flat jokes, well, they start to remind you of your parents. Megamind and his love interest Roxy just feel old, lacking a hip energy that younger audiences need to relate to the characters.

3. Slow Story

Finally, the story lags at points, and getting into too much analysis of the writing, it tries to do too much in the middle, and doesn’t lock in enough conflict to carry it smoothly to the finish line. Plus the central relationship of the story, that of the romance between Roxy Ritchie and Megamind doesn't live up to Shrek and Fiona or Wall-E and Eva.

Where Does Megamind End Up?

So how does our blue egomaniac stack up to other 3D heroes? Compared to Despicable Me or Monsters vs Aliens, Megamind grossed $10 million less in its first weekend. It had an attendance of less than half that of The Incredibles, which was released during the same November weekend in 2004. A movie like How To Train Your Dragon may have come behind Megamind at the Box Office with $43 million, but amazing reviews and word of mouth gave that Dragon time to fly well over the $500 million mark. Megamind doesn't have those great reviews to keep it going.

And with an expensive production budget of $130 million, and a P&R campaign of probably $50-60 million, one can see how clearing $100 million at the Box Office isn't exactly a winning situation for our evil mastermind. Suddenly those little pitfalls in the story and shortcomings in the comedy prove to be far more expensive then perhaps expected.

Megamind might be celebrating his promising $47.7 million debut, and sure, he’ll be fine in the long run, but someone should have told him once these movies clear $100 million dollars, a little more story quality can bring some to climb into the mega B.O. takes. He might have changed the setting on his story-telling death ray from "Cloudy Meatballs" to "Pixar".

It’s a lesson to all studios out there that a solid premise and some artful CGI animation does not alone equal big bucks. Even past the $100 million dollar successes, there is a lot of gradation that can spell the difference between a small and mega profit margin. Pixar has proven that the extra time and focus on story does equal long term profit, and even though the genre of CGI animation may be safer in the Box Office than most right now, it still requires story-tellers pay some mind to the story.

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