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No good blog is complete without an "underrated" list, but that's not why I wrote this. Actually, there is a fascinating type of market forensics that comes into play after a film that was expected to perform well... doesn't.
Some movies that didn't perform well in theaters are considered classics today (Wizard of Oz, Willie Wonka, etc). SO many more movies performed well in theaters that are considered crap today (do I really need to list them?).
For a select few, there is a sad limbo designated for films that are great movies but are being held back by the metrics by which they're judged: critical rating or profit. And that’s the setup for this list…
You can also listen to just this 30 minute segment on SoundCloud
Disclaimer: I have to clarify something, because I know as well as anyone the nerd-rage this post could garner... I'm talking about the top five quality animated films that are also underrated. This is not a worst to best list or a "most overlooked" list because those are different. All of the movies below are outstanding and some are more underrated than others. But feel free to tell me what you think in the comments regardless!
To the list! Starting with...
"The Iron Giant" (1999)
Rotten Tomato Rating: 96%
Production Budget: $70 million
Domestic Total Gross: ~$23.2 million
This could’ve easily been number one on this list if it wasn’t for the recent re-release in theaters. Yes, the film has enjoyed cult status up to this point but I think it’s mainly the breakout success of Brad Bird as a “name” director that was the ultimate seal of financial approval this movie needed to even get that opportunity. It went underrated for a long time, and relative to its greatness it deserves to be on this list… if at least the end.
The story is a fantastic “boy and his dog” type mixed with a bit of “lovable/misunderstood alien” (think E.T, Batteries Not Included, even ALF). The screengrabs of the film really don’t sell what a masterpiece this is. The themes are mature but accessible, the humor is cute but layered and the animated acting is top-notch!
But it’s really the heart that gets you in this one. Everyone knows “that one part where he says Superman, OMG all the feels!” But seriously… it’s a very touching moment. This isn’t a review, however, I’m saving that for a RubberOnion Viewing Party (#ROVP) episode of the podcast down the line.
SO WHAT HAPPENED?
First let me address what wasn’t the problem.
“2D” a dead/dying artform? False.
The Iron Giant opened in August 1999. Let’s rewind two months prior to that when Disney’s Tarzan opened to over $34mil and went on to rake in +$170mil. As a matter of fact, Mulan, Prince of Egypt and even Rugrats each made more that $100mil that same year!
Critics loved it, but people didn’t. False.
The audience exit polls held fantastic results, showing that 96-97% of the people would recommend.
Warner Brothers didn’t promote it. Maybe
At least it wasn’t for lack of trying. The studio spent around $30mil on marketing for the movie (tally that into the “production budget” above) and even arranged sneak previews on the Sunday before it opened. Although there is a case to be made about its effectiveness (or lack thereof).
Bad timing for the film’s release. Probably.
When 20th Century Fox set mid-May for the release of Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace(remember when that was anticipated?) every major studio except for Universal got out of the way and pushed their released back to July and August.
The Blair Witch Project was a runaway success in July that nobody could’ve predicted… fair enough. But the weekend that The Iron Giant opened it was competing against six movies that pulled in over $10mil. It opened against The Sixth Sense, The Thomas Crown Affair and Mystery Men, the previous weekend saw the opening of Deep Blue Sea and Runaway Bride and The Blair Witch Project was still in expanded run. That weekend was the second-highest Box Office ever at the time with ~$153.5 million… The Iron Giant had less than 4% of that. It got buried under all those movie releases like a young calf getting trampled by the wildebeests running away from the crocodile (Phantom Menace in this particular metaphor).
Also, let’s reflect a little on the fact that they were still ruining huge surprise moments in trailers in 1999 (the end of the trailer below)
“The Secret of NIMH” (1982)
Rotten Tomato Rating: 96%
Production Budget: ~$6.4 million
Domestic Total Gross: ~$14.7 million
The rights to the book Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH was offered to Disney in 1972… but they passed. In September 1979, Don Bluth and 10 other animators left Disney to start Don Bluth Productions (two of those 10 animators were co-founders Gary Goldman and John Pomeroy). It quickly formed a partnership with other Disney “Ex-Pats” (former executives) in Aurora Productions and Don Bluth and Goldman, Pomeroy and Bluth urged Aurora to snatch up the film rights to the NIMH book that Disney slept on seven years earlier. They did, and gave Don Bluth Productions $5.7mil to make the movie in only 30 months! For reference to what Disney was doing then, that’s a movie with less than 1/4 the budget in about 1/2 the time.
The animators wanted to use the more traditional methods that were going away in favor of faster, cost-cutting techniques that were becoming the norm at Disney (remember, this was the early ’80s). Among these was the insistence on using varying color palettes to achieve different lighting conditions instead of overlaying a tinted sheet on the characters representing the new light (i.e. blue for nighttime and yellow for bright sunlight). Mrs. Brisby (I encourage you to read about why the name was changed) had 46 different color palettes to her design to accommodate all the lighting environment changes she encounters in the film!
By avoiding these time-savers in favor of chasing quality, it meant that they had to work even harder on a production that was already under funded and had a very small window. To hopefully compensate for this extra effort and increased risk, they were offered a piece of the film’s profits – that was common for producers, directors and actors in live-action films but was never before offered to artists on an animated feature.
SO WHAT HAPPENED?
To start with, United Artists (UA) was the original distributor and was very happy with what the animators were putting together. They started press releases and tried to leverage the artistic skill:
“18 distinctive characters, over one million drawings (full animation, not limited), 2,000 lush backgrounds, [and] multi-plane animation cameras, producing depth and realism.” (link)
But then MGM bought UA and became MGM/UA… the new distributor. And these new MGM guys (pre-Turner days, mind you) wasn’t entirely confidend in NIMH. They basically didn’t do any promotion for the film and Aurora had to finance it themselves… you know, the company that was barely able to put up $6mil for the production of the entire movie. Not to rail on MGM but… lets. They started with a limited release on opening weekend in only 100 theaters and even its widest release was in only 700.
It also had some seriously stiff competition! It opened against E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Poltergeist,Rocky III, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Diner and Disney’s own Tron! Rough break.
But even with the limited release and a gauntlet of movies we look at as classics today, the only two movies to beat it (in the theaters it actually showed in) were E.T. and Diner. It would ultimately find some success on home video but it’s the “cult” status following that kept this film alive – but there are still those who forget of its existence and profound impact on our art-form and even the business surrounding it.
“The Black Cauldron” (1985)
Rotten Tomato Rating: 55%
Production Budget: N/A
Domestic Total Gross: ~$21.3 million
When’s the last time you saw a Disney animated feature aimed at teens… like legitimately aimed at actual teenagers, none of this “tweens” stuff. The Black Cauldron was the first Disney animated theatrical feature to get a PG rating. As a matter of fact, it’s actually the first animated film to use CGI!
The plot is about a boy who is tasked with a mission to destroy an object of terrible power, forged in darkness, that a dark lord wants for himself. Sound familiar? It’s basically Lord of the Rings. But in this story, the group who accompanies him on the quest are all completely unprepared and that vulnerability adds more to the threat. I have to mention that there is a princess in this movie as well making Eilonwy the only forgotten Disney princess. There’s also a pig who can induce hallucinogenic visions, so there’s that. But let’s talk villains!
The villain in this movie is actually never directly named but people call him The Horned King. He’s basically Skelator without the sense of humor. There’s nothing really relatable about him – no vulnerable moments like Jafar or Scar – he’s just an evil, undead king with no soul. And who voices the villain? John Hurt!
This was also the first Disney animated feature to not have any song numbers in it… that’s good or bad depending on who you are. But ultimately this movie is aimed at teenagers, has a bad-ass villain voiced by an excellent actor, is set in a world of sword & sorcery with a zombie army, dragons and the sets are all swamps and bogs and dungeons… and being the first PG animated film from Disney must’ve counted for something right?!
SO WHAT HAPPENED?
In short? Editing. Specifically Jeffery Katzenberg’s editing. During production of the film, there were some changes in Disney management. Katzenberg got a screening of the film and… yea he didn’t like it. It was too dark and he wanted at least 10 minutes taken out – the parts that were thought of as too scary. Joe and Roy Disney managed to cut 6 minutes, which they thought would eliminate the darker parts while still maintaining some continuity in the story. Katzenberg didn’t like that either.
Jeffery Katzenberg reportedly took the movie into an editing bay and started cutting it up, himself, ultimately taking out 12 minutes of film. What was left was kind of a mess. The villain’s grand finale was making a zombie army… take that out… and he’s basically just a guy with a horned helmet. Not the threat they were going for. What resulted from the cut was a movie that wasn’t quite suitable for kids and wasn’t cool enough for teens… and ultimately was a little sloppy (because of the harsh editing). It completely bombed at the Box Office, critics’ reviews were mixed, and supposedly parents walked out from the theaters who had brought there little ones to the movie… who were also crying. So… fail.
Now I don’t know this for sure, but maybe part of the reason that Disney decided to greenlight the film in the first place (which took 5 years to make) was because of Don Bluth’s walkout to produce his own animated feature aimed at a more mature audience (#4, above). Again, this is just speculation, but whether they wanted to compete directly with Bluth’s first film in order to crush the uprising, as they say, or just to get ahead of a potential market that might be created by Bluth’s NIMH, the decision was made somewhere and backtracked too far into production to make a positive difference on the outcome. It was a massive stutter-step that backfired and nearly shut Disney animation down for good.
“Treasure Planet” (2002)
Rotten Tomato Rating: 68%
Production Budget: $140 million
Domestic Total Gross: ~$109.6 million
Every once in a while there’s a movie that comes up in conversation where everyone involved is eithercultishly for or completely ambivalent about its existence: enter Treasure Planet. It’s a Sci-Fi adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. It was directed, developed, and basically a passion project for Ron Clements & John Musker (Ron & John) who gave us The Little Mermaid and Aladdin. Ron actually pitched the idea in the same meeting in 1985 when he and John also pitched The Little Mermaid. Jeffery Katzenberg (there’s that name again) didn’t like the idea so it was scrapped.
The animation is beautiful. I’ve said many times that the first time I saw 3D animation that had the vibrancy and fluidity of expressions that I thought would bring in the next wave of excellence in “computer animation” was in 2010’s Tangled. But that’s because I hadn’t seen Treasure Planet’s B.E.N. yet.
It’s not like computer-modeled and hand-drawn animation hadn’t coexisted before (see #5, obviously), but this was a very successful merging in that B.E.N. had vibrant character animation, John Silver had his robotic harm (which was computer-modeled and “placed on” a hand-drawn character), and Disney used its Deep Canvas program which was created for Tarzan to let Ron & John work relatively traditionally with hand-drawn characters but have a free-flowing camera like Steven Spielberg or James Cameron.
The character designs are fantastic, the action is well staged, the music is top notch… you’ve got a recognizable story, a teenage protagonist, surfing in space, all perfectly blending the old and the new whether it be story, look, or animation techniques!
SO WHAT HAPPENED?
This one is a little harder to pin down.
- Pirates? No, I don’t think it’s because people didn’t like Pirate stories because the hugely successful Pirates of the Caribbean movie came out the very next year, and the writers even have credits on this movie. That could just be a special case of Johnny Depp + “zombie pirates” + theme park ride = OK I’ll buy a ticket and woah this is actually fun! So OK, pirates… maybe.
- Hand-Drawn Animation? No! There it is again – traditionalists on the internet won’t let the conspiracy theory die that Disney actually tanked the movie on purpose to kill the hand-drawn animation department in favor of the growing CG trend. This is ridiculous but I had to say that, yes, it’s a thing that people think and, no, I’m confident that didn’t happen. Well what about the audience, maybe they were just done with hand-drawn stuff in 2002. Mmmmaybe, but Lilo & Stitch was a hit and it came out the same year. Spirited Away won the Oscar. I’m going with no… it doesn’t add up.
- Stiff B.O. Competition: Maybe. This came out Thanksgiving weekend in the U.S. while Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and Disney’s own Santa Clause II were still in theaters. Even though it was in its 3rd week, the target audience of kids/teens knew what Harry Potter was… their parents knew what Treasure Island (the source material) was. But still, that couldn’t have been the only thing. Something else had to keep kids from getting their parents to buy tickets for a brand new movie in favor of ones that had been out for a bit or just not going at all… on a holiday weekend, no less.
- Animated Sci-Fi Epic: Yes, I think this is the problem. A lot of people today mistake this movie for one that came out two years earlier from Bluth Productions, Titan A.E. Now that movie could’ve also been on this list but I already had a Bluth movie (I know Black Cauldron andTreasure Planet are both Disney but what do you want from me, move on). Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within came out the next year and tanked as well… the one thing they all have in common is that they’re all animated Sci-Fi epic, Adventure movies. That is a very risky premise. Wall-E did it, but it also was more comedic and “human” than the three I just mentioned.
Yes the story isn’t as tight as it could be, and sure B.E.N. can get a little annoying at times – but I could say that about a lot of movies. It had some competition in theaters but it wasn’t anything that should’ve killed it so swiftly. Hand-drawn animation, while in the popular decline, still had weight to throw around as Lilo & Stitch and the previous year’s Spirited Away showed. It may have just been a time that kids didn’t want to see a more serious (as the trailers made it look, see below) animated Sci-Fi, Adventure film and instead preferred the likes of straight up comedy or fantasy (Harry Potter). Genres are a weird thing to play with and for the kids + marketing combo, comedy is almost always the key. If it’s not, you’ve got to be riding a wave of current fascination (like magic). Space pirates just happened to not be that wave.
Rotten Tomato Rating: 34%
Production Budget: $34 million
Domestic Total Gross: ~$54 million
Maaaaaaaaaaan you knew it was going to be something Turtle related but seriously, this movie has a lot going for it. For having a modest budget and not being one of the big CGI players in the industry, Imagi put together a great looking animated feature! The dynamic between the Turtles themselves are all great. Sure, Mikey and Donny take a back seat a bit, but everyone does have their moment… including Splinter, April and Casey.
The real stars though are Leonardo and Raphael. Their perspectives on life, family, the team, the city, and their forms of problem solving are all fully fleshed out. As far as character development, these two have fantastic arcs that really hit a high point with a showdown on a rooftop during a storm… what’s more comic book than that?! This isn’t just the most memorable moment of the film, it’s one of the most memorable moments in the franchise!
The voice cast was a nerds dream:
- Chris Evans (future Captain America) was Casey Jones
- Sarah Michelle Gellar (Buffy, herself) was April O’Neil
- Legendary actor Mako played Splinter
- Laurence Fishburne (Morpheus from The Matrix) was the narrator
- Patrick Stewart (Capt Picard, Professor X) played the villain (kinda… I’ll get to that in a bit)
- Veteran voice actors John DiMaggio (Bender) and Kevin Michael Richardson (current Shredder in Nickeleon’s Turtles series) played bad guys
- … even writer/director Kevin Smith played a bit part!
And can I just take a moment to praise the fact that the four Turtles, the stars of the film, are all voiced by legit voice-over artists and that so rarely happens (also, Mikey’s voiced by Mikey)!
- Leonardo – James Arnold Taylor
- Michelangelo – Mikey Kelley
- Donatello – Mitchell Whitfield
- Raphael – Nolan North
The makers of the film clearly tried to please everyone. They kept the humor without making it too kid like. The action scenes were more intense than any previous movie. Even the world is in a direct continuation from the live-action films which came before it… even the ooze canister has a crack in a strategic spot so you can’t see if it reads TGRI or TCRI – that is a level of fanboy dedication I can respect!
SO WHAT HAPPENED?!
In a word? Threat. More specifically, there wasn’t any.
Director Kevin Monroe wanted to go darker for the movie, closer to the source comic books. He pushed for a PG-13 but was granted PG. So what happens in that case is that you end up taking out too much “dark” to get that general rating that the more serious tone you’re going for gets diluted.
Everything with the Turtles is great! The family dynamic is fantastic. The story is well fleshed out and all the motivations are clearly understood. There’s humor and heart there. The villains just kind of… happen. And even at that, the main bad guy (voiced by Patrick Stewart, see I told you I’d get back to this) makes a good guy turn at the end. Karai is also an interesting character, in principle, but she doesn’t get much time to develop either so the tenuous allegiance that the Turtles strike up with her and the Foot clan is confusing (to anyone who didn’t read the comics or see the amazing 2003 cartoon).
Honestly, the plot is the part that confused people the most. The most common complaint I still hear is…
“Why’d they have to go all magic? Why were there monsters running around? Why did they have to collect them like Pokemon?”
Those are all completely valid questions. If I had to venture a guess, it’d be that after taking out anything sufficiently dark to act as an intriguing antagonist the gamble was that their family in-fighting and then make-up dynamic would be enough to carry the plot forward in an interesting way. To be fair, every Turtles film except for the first one (and arguably the second) suffers from the villain problem.
And lets be honest, this was pre-Nickelodeon buyout. This movie didn’t have the type of exposure needed to get people there in a big enough way… although it did open up #1 on opening weekend. But ultimately, it’s one of the best Turtles movies to grace the screen and if you watch it for anything, watch it for the Turtles themselves… they’re in top form!
WHAT WOULD YOUR TOP 5 UNDERRATED ANIMATED FILMS BE??
TL;DR The 2007 “TMNT” movie was loved by fans, looked great, and stayed true to the spirit andcanon of almost every Turtles incarnation, but it suffered from the “villain problem” and didn’t yet have the promotional might of Nickelodeon and Michael Bay behind the property to make it mainstream-relevant at the time.