Disney's latest animated movie (well, distributed by Disney, produced by Robert Zemeckis's now-defunct ImageMovers Digital) Mars Needs Moms opened this past weekend with receipts of around $6 million. Considering the movie cost between $150 and $175 million to make and release, this is a bomb on the scale of Cutthroat Island. Which is to say, it's a big, big bomb. So is this just some random fluke, or does it say something about a bigger trend? Some folks are saying it does.
The New York Times posits that it might be something of a revolt against high 3D ticket prices, which are regularly $13 for children, $15 if the theater is IMAX. That is very high! And while folks might be willing to pay around $60 for a family of four to go see, say, a Harry Potter event picture, it seems they were not willing to fork it over for some random thing starring Seth Green's motion-captured body (but not his voice, oddly) called Mars Needs Moms. The lesson being that you can't just slap a 3D sticker on a movie and expect people to pay extra without question. The gravy train on that little phenomenon might be pulling out of the station, if this dud is an indicator of anything.
Personally I'm hoping it marks the beginning of the end of the computer animated movie trend. Well, it's hard to call something that's been building momentum for fifteen years a trend, but you know what I mean. All the How to Train Your Despicable Shrek Monsters vs. the Ice Age stuff. While one studio, Pixar, is reliably churning out Art — the melancholy whimsy of movies like Up and Toy Story 3 rivaled any live action movie in terms of quality the years they were released — the lesser studios are going more for the fatty middle, creating mere passing entertainments. Which is fine! It's a business, after all, a big rich business. And kids do seem to love these things. But is it so much these days to ask for a "family movie" that's live action and, y'know, good? When's the last time one of those came out? Maybe it's just the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia, but in my day you got Home Alone and Uncle Buck, and other non-Chicago-set movies that weren't written or directed by John Hughes, and they were great! Fun for the whole family! Now what do you get? A hammy Race to Witch Mountain redo and the bulk of the Shawn Levy catalog. And it's because everyone talented is too damn busy cozying up to the robots and making their movies to make anything good with actual people in it. Let's get more of a mix, is all I'm saying. I may not be the target demographic for Horton's Happy Feet in Madagascar Hear a Kung-Fu Panda, but I do have to deal with them cluttering up the multiplexes and I'm sick of it. So there.
And maybe Mars Needs Moms — which had a strangely anemic marketing campaign and very little Disney brand recognition attached to it (right?) — is a harbinger of a cooling of the trend. These lush computer animated movies are insanely expensive to make, and now, perhaps, aren't the sure bets they once were. So maybe folks could divvy up those budgets and get a camera and a few actor friends and make something good. We need some new kids classics that aren't animated. Otherwise, how will the child robo-brains of the future learn what people looked like? And hey, if they want to do another lavish hand-drawn animated fairy tale musical while they're at it, I wouldn't object.