Wednesday, January 10, 2018

The Fate of Fox Animation

It's too early yet to say what's going to happen in the historic acquisition of the 21st Century Fox entertainment assets bt the Walt Disney Company. All sorts of regulatory and legal hurdles have to be cleared first, but I'm pretty certain that the deal is going to go through eventually. And Disney being Disney, they're going to clean house and we're going to see some of the Fox divisions closed, reorganized, or downsized the way we did after the Lucasfilm acquisition. There's a significant likelihood that we might see the axe fall on FX programs, the more adult-oriented "X-men" movies, and more.

However, right now the most vulnerable looking piece of Fox is Fox Animation and the Blue Sky Studios, which has been responsible for twelve feature films over the past fifteen years. This includes the "Ice Age" and "Rio" movies, as well as titles like "The Peanuts Movie," "Epic," and their recent "Ferdinand." Disney already has two major animation studios, PIXAR and Walt Disney Animation, and several smaller ones. Are they going to keep Blue Sky actively producing features, or will they see their future slate cancelled the way that LucasArts did? Currently in the works are a pigeon buddy comedy called "Spies in Disguise," an adaptation of Noelle Stevenson's "Nimona," and a new Chris Sanders picture, "Call of the Wild." There's plenty more in development too.

One might be tempted to write off Blue Sky as a minor player, but they've been around since the 1980s and made some significant contributions to the early development of computer animation. Ironically, their predecessor company, MAGI, worked on the graphics for Disney's "TRON." Blue Sky operated independently for roughly a decade, creating animation for commercials and live-action films before they were acquired by Fox. Shortly afterwards, they won an Oscar for "Bunny," the lovely 1998 short directed by Blue Sky founder Chris Wedge. The win would give them the opportunity to pursue work in features, starting with the first "Ice Age" movie in 2002.

It's worth remembering that not too long ago Disney was really the only producer of big budget animated features in the pre-CGI age. The growth of Blue Sky, along with Dreamworks, Illumination, Sony, Warners, Laika, and all the rest has done a fantastic job of fostering competition and renewed success in the American animation industry. We're seeing more feature animation produced now than at any point in history. And, sure, we didn't really need five "Ice Age" movies, or even three, but I did love the recent "Peanuts" movie, and "Horton Hears a Who" remains the least objectionable Seuss feature by a wide margin, and I've been happy to see Blue Sky continue to be ambitious and stretching themselves. Their output has been more interesting than what Illumination Entertainment or Sony Animation have been doing lately, certainly.

And now Scrat and company are going over to the Magic Kingdom, along with the rest of Fox's IP. "Ice Age" is still a valuable brand, and I expect that we'll still see it pop up in some form or another over the next few years. It would translate very easily to a television series, for instance. However, after five movies, the latest of which only made an anemic $64 million domestically, I don't think we'll be seeing more theatrical features for a while. Even if Disney weren't part of the equation, "Ice Age" clearly needs a break. There's not much else that's done well for Blue Sky recently either, with "Ferdinand" posting especially disappointing numbers over the holidays. Still, the studio is far from creatively out of juice, and I want to see them have the chance to keep doing good work.

Meanwhile, Disney is also getting some of the old Fox Animation library titles like "Ferngully: The Last Rainforest," "Raggedy Ann and Andy," Don Bluth's "Anastasia" and "Titan A.E." and to the immense displeasure of Ralph Bakshi, his early features "Wizards" and "Fire and Ice." And over on the television side, Disney will also also have rights to "The Simpsons," "Futurama," "Bob's Burgers," "King of the Hill," "Family Guy," "Archer," and a lot of other adult-oriented programming that is very lucrative and completely antithetical to everything family-friendly that Disney stands for. But that's a post for another day, I think.


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