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When the magic isn’t there: how animation studios are grappling with changing consumer expectations

Sep 11, 2019

It’s a tale as old as time.

An embattled Hollywood executive scrambles to find a property that’s guaranteed to make his studio bank. He  reaches deep into his studio’s archives, holds aloft a beloved classic from the 90s and cries, “this’ll do it! Nostalgia always sells!”

Over the past year, Detective Pikachu, Sonic The Hedgehog, and Disney’s The Lion King have all been subject to resurrections based on this kind of thinking. If we’re to believe the reviews, all but the first of those titles have failed to earn that sweet, sweet critical acclaim.

For context, The Lion King is currently sitting at 52% on RottenTomatoes, while Sonic The Hedgehog’s release date was pushed back by a whole year to address fan outrage.

So how did Hollywood heavyweights -- especially Paramount -- get it so wrong? And why didn’t anyone stop them? 


Talking to the wrong crowd, selling to the wrong crowd 

“With any film - and especially with blockbusters - production studios will do a lot of consumer research to understand  audience expectations,” Jumbla Senior Motion Designer Richard Shilling said.

“That would have included talking to focus groups to see what they wanted from the revival of a big-name property like the Lion King, so they could deliver on those expectations and ensure a box office success. 

“But if you’re reviving stories that audiences have already seen, there’s added pressure to bring something new and unique to the table. Like the use of photorealistic animation if that’s in-trend, or combining real life and animation. Otherwise, why wouldn’t you go and watch the original property?”

Herein lay the problem with Paramount’s execution of Sonic. Richard speculates that while focus groups would have been convened and canvassed, it’s quite possible they focused on audience members who were unfamiliar with the property in comparison to invested fans. 

“It’s a matter of wanting to make the reboot just as successful and groundbreaking as the original property, while simultaneously gaining new fans. But If you look at the history of something like Sonic, you’ll see there’s an incredibly enthusiastic fanbase who love the character, even in times where the games SEGA produced were critical flops,” Richard said.

“Plus, a character like Sonic is a huge cultural icon, with a history that spans over 30 years. That means there’s a wide range of people who care about Sonic. They could be very  young, or an adult male.

Which is why, he explains, panelling the wrong focus groups could’ve caused the massive misfire. 

”It’s a large fanbase -- which is what would’ve made it a safe bet financially for Paramount and Sega. If the original design of Sonic had matched their expectations, Paramount would have done well financially. The story would need to be taken into account as well.”


Unrealistic visions 

Of the Internet’s many gripes with Sonic’s redesign - say, his uncomfortably athletic-looking legs, the lack of his signature eyes, the way his limbs now blur into the rest of his body,  - the biggest is how far Sonic’s plunged into Uncanny Valley.

(Uncanny Valley: shorthand for when an object looks and acts like a human, but still misses something fundamental.) 

While Richard stopped short of defending Paramount’s approach, he suggested that Sonic’s design has been driven by commercial demand. 

“The biggest challenge with something like Sonic would be how you’d integrate such a graphically designed character into the real world. He’s a hedgehog, although he really doesn’t look like a hedgehog. Given that the film’s set in the real world, animating Sonic so he belonged there would have been a requirement of the production from the get-go.. And that decision -- to set the Sonic film in real life -- would most likely have been guided from the initial focus groups.

“As for how they picked the design? It could’ve been as arbitrary as lining up a range of character concepts in front of an anonymous focus group and having them pick their favourite, then combining them with a range of influences from executives, the production house, and more.” 

Why live action? Richard suggests it again relates to audience appeal. These days, ‘3D cartoons’ are (unfortunately) perceived as childish. By comparison, when transposing an animated character into the lived-in grittiness of the real world (a la Detective Pikachu), it immediately makes films feel more mature and accessible to a wider audience. 

That decision would’ve eaten away at the animation budget.

“When it came to designing Sonic, producers would’ve done the math on what they consider to be the minimum requirements for what constitutes successful character design in a modern movie,” Richard said.

“So they would’ve factored in the need for realistic fur and ‘modernising’ and ‘adultifying’ the design so it felt more widely acceptable, as well as the physical requirements of where Sonic would’ve stood alongside other actors, and more.

“I’m sure there would have been a lot of research on what the minimum requirements were for the character design, specifically focused around how to reimagine Sonic as a brand-new property that could be marketed. But honestly? The actual technical and visual considerations of animation probably wouldn’t have been a discussion until in the later stages of pre-production.” 

In a twist of irony, for all the work trying to please viewers, the opposite has been achieved.


A question of rights 

Of all Sonic’s defenders, one would’ve expected SEGA to step up to the plate and veto anything that looked a bit … ‘off’...

So the question is why didn’t they? 

Back in 2013, SEGA sold the Sonic rights to Sony/Columbia, where a film concept lingered in production limbo for another three years. After Sony decided there was little prospect of profit from the film’s release, Sonic’s rights were signed over to Paramount. 

“When you consider that Sonic’s been passed from studio to studio, and languished in development hell in-between, it’s really not hard to imagine that SEGA would’ve been pushed to sign away more creative control than usual - if they even had much to begin with at all.

“I don’t believe that SEGA, or rather the original creators of the character, would have gone down the same route in redesigning what is essentially the biggest icon of its company. That would’ve damaged its brand.”


Storytelling in the digital age

Hell hath no fury like a digital population unleashed, especially upon films that have drawn its ire. In the case of the Sonic the Hedgehog revival, the collective wrath and mockery on platforms like Twitter and Instagram forced director Jeff Fowler to postpone Sonic’s original release date by three months, to February 2020. 

“Thankyou for the support. And the criticism. The message is loud and clear,” he wrote. “The message is loud and clear … you aren’t happy with the design & you want changes. It’s going to happen.” 

While the internet may have chalked this up as a success and (or a gloomy sign of the millenials’ capability to interfere), Richard posits that audience feedback has always been an integral part of movie-making (in some regards, this is what early focus groups are for).

“The honest answer is that this has always happened. Test screenings and private viewings always influence the end product of a film. Take WALL-E. Audiences felt the ending was too bleak and uncertain, so to combat that, Pixar decided to show the happy ending through credits,” he said.

The difference between WALL-E and Sonic is that the Sonic debacle is much more prominent.

“Social media has changed things at a fundamental level. There’s no filter or barrier stopping prospective consumers from voicing an opinion. So when you have even a relative minority of people start talking about these things, but loudly, their opinion tends to gain traction very quickly,” he said.

“That said, I don’t think Paramount ‘bowed’ to any sort of pressure, so much as it determined these people represented a substantial portion of the market they were trying to capture, and were very loudly railing against what Paramount had to offer. If it was just a bunch of disconnected voices saying those same things, I doubt they would have cared as much.”


Commercial? Or critical? 

At the end of the day, some would say, it’s all about the bottom line. Regardless of critical failure, they would explain, the fact that Disney’s The Lion King grossed $1.5bn worldwide and became the highest-grossing animated film matters more than what the pundits thought. 

The particularly savage among them might even go on to ask that if properties like The Lion King and Sonic were originally revived in order to make their studios money, does critical acclaim matter so much as milking a cash cow? 

It’s an understandable sentiment -- but Richard disagrees, claiming that such an approach ultimately costs a studio both in the present and the long run. 

“When you follow the path of least resistance on the basis of buzzwords and trends without any creative backbone, you end up with something like Sonic,” he said.

“Sure, you can make commercial gain your main focus. But your audience will see right through it. “The evidence for that is all around us, be it with the success of the original LEGO movie [which grossed $469.1M USD] or Pokémon [Detective Pikachu grossed $431.6M USD]. They succeed because they accepted the absurdity and worked with it.” 


The bottom line 

So, what’s a film studio to do? 

In Sonic’s case, Richard notes Fowler and Paramount had little choice in committing extra months of work on Sonic’s redesign. 

“The checks and balances still need to be made, the same approval pipeline needs to be resurrected and the same decisions need to be made again,” he said. “Then you have to build the new model and have it approved and rigged -- and that;s if everything runs smoothly. I don’t envy the artists. But there’s no other way around it.”

He suggests that in the future, when it comes to resurrecting beloved icons, production companies need to honestly read the room.

“While I have no personal attachment to Sonic, I’d put serious time into understanding why people do, before even putting pencil to paper. Yes - it’s difficult to negotiate artistic and creative versus financial interests. But if Sonic’s reboot has illustrated anything, it’s that the two are intimately connected.”

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