Tim here. It’s been a weird week for fans of old animation. Nathaniel already said his piece (which is indistinguishable from mine) on the news that Warner is re-rebooting Scooby-Doo a mere 12 years after the first grisly first live-action/animated reboot of the ‘70s cartoon (the recent death of Casey Kasem, mere days before the announcement, now looms as some sort of grim karmic metaphor). And in the last couple of days, we’ve been hit with the first promotional artwork for an in-development Popeye feature at Sony Animation, and the news that DreamWorks has purchased the rights to Felix the Cat from the family of the 95-year-old slapstick animal’s creator.
At least Sony’s Popeye is in the hands of Genndy Tartakovsky, one of the few brand-name animation directors in the world today with a real visual flair and sense of the medium’s possibility, the wretched script for his sole feature to date, Hotel Transylvania, notwithstanding. But there’s something both depressing and disquieting about seeing all of these icons and not-such-icons being snapped up by big studios (though it’s better than what Disney’s doing with Into the Woods: taking the guts out of somebody else’s story to protect the brand viability of the fairy tale characters over whom it wants to declare complete ownership).
It’s frustratingly lazy: an admission that everybody is more concerned with marketability and branding than creativity – both the Popeye and Felix news happened at a thing called Licensing Expo – and it’s easier to absorb the wonderful characters made by long-dead artists than to encourage today’s animators to use the resources of a big studio to come up with new characters on that level themselves. Because these were big studio projects, back in the day: Felix was one of the big movie stars of the ‘20s, popular at a level that the $1 billion-grossing Frozen couldn’t even compete with.
But this isn’t just a rant about the lack of creativity in modern animation, and it’s not going to be a rant about how They can’t treat old characters with respect (if I can survive the knowledge that the studio behind Ice Age: Sometimes with Dinosaurs, Other Times with Pirates is going to have its way with Charlie Brown and Snoopy in 2015, nothing that Sony might do with Popeye can phase me). It’s not even a rant at all, but a fear: this isn’t just symptomatic of normal healthy, Hollywood corporate thinking, where commercial viability is more important than art. That’s been going on since Felix was around the first time. It’s coming from a weird, dysfunctional place where the executives in charge of spending money to make these films don’t seem to understand why they’re doing it in the first place.
Because buying brand names is one thing – the 2015 Peanuts movie and the new Scooby-Doo are cash grabs, but explicable ones. But for all that most people recognize Popeye the Sailor as an iconic figure, it’s hard to say that there’s much of an audience around these days for the extreme grotesquerie of the character designs and the surrealist humor (if they’re following the original comics) or the violence and gender archaism (if they’re following the ‘30s cartoons) that are so inextricably linked to the property that to change them would mean ignoring everything but character names. And poor Felix, I don’t even think he’s recognized on that level – maybe for the kitschy cat clocks that were a rip-off of his success, but when was the last time you saw one of those, even ironically? Aging animation buffs aren’t the target audience for broadly appealing family films of the sort that Sony, DreamWorks and everybody else obviously wants to make, and especially so soon after Mr. Peabody & Sherman failed to impress much of anybody and lost money, it has to be asked who on earth the studios think are going to flock to these movies.
And that’s the fear: not that DreamWorks is going to lose its shirt over too many ill-advised updates of characters beloved only by grown-ups, and a niche audience of grown-ups at that. The money that studio does or doesn’t make is of minor interest to any of us who aren’t shareholders. But the mentality on display in all of this is of deep concern to anybody who hopes that there still might be hope for good and great American animated features on a regular basis, because it reeks of such bald desperation. These aren’t well-considered choices but manic grabs for anything that might have a trace of recognition and something resembling a built-in audience, just by virtue of being old. Desperate studios aren’t healthy studios, and while I can imagine things getting hilariously, absurdly awful before the whole thing runs out of steam, I certainly can’t see how this mentality could possibly produce anything of real merit and heart, either in the reboots themselves, or the original properties being overseen by the same executives. Though if somebody decides to do a modern take on Betty Boop that hews to contemporary gender roles, I’ll take it all back and apologize, just out of awe for the sheer ballsiness of it.
Especially if it's the version when she was still a sexy dog.