A film that Makes you Sad Day 3: 30 Days of Animation

(Disclaimer: my opinions are mine, and nobody else’s)

The question for today is:

What animated films make you sad?

The question is pretty straightforward, but there’s a couple ways you might choose to interpret it. The obvious interpretation is that something in the movie itself is sad. With that in mind, I’m going to go ahead and get the obvious answers out of the way.

Second Runner-Up: Up


I don’t think I need to say anything. You were all there, you know what I’m talking about.

First Runner-Up: Toy Story 3

The last 15 minutes of this film hit me like a ton of bricks every time I see it. In the theater, I was really, really glad that we chose to watch the film in 3D — because I was able to wear the 3D glasses to hide the fountain of salty water gushing from my face.

all the tears.

all the tears.

That moviegoing experience was one of the best in my life. We went to a special showing of all three films, back-to-back. It was a moving experience, to see the technology evolve, and re-live the last decade of knowing these characters from Andy’s room. Toy Story 3 had a pretty decent first and second act, but once Woody, Buzz and company find themselves on the way to the dump… Oh man.

I’m somewhat amazed that the film managed to get a G rating — a stark reminder to the rest of the film industry that violence and the F-word aren’t the equivalent of drama.

I don’t know exactly why this movie gets such a strong reaction out of me. If I watch this movie with company, I have to quietly excuse myself for the scene when Andy says goodbye to his toys at the end. It’s that bad.

seriously... all the tears.

seriously… all the tears.

And the winner is…

There’s a story I heard about a producer in Hollywood who would stand and clap after every movie he saw, no matter how terrible — because he knows just how hard it is to make a movie. If that is true of traditional filmmaking, then it’s doubly true of animated films. I’ve touched on this on Day 1 and Day 2. Because of the expense and the exacting nature of the work, traditional wisdom says that you really should leave these kinds of films to the well-funded experts like Dreamworks and Pixar.

It’s a bitter pill to swallow, but there’s a lot of truth to that. For now.

The age of the independent CG animated film isn’t here yet. There are examples of valiant efforts, even a few success stories, but even those successes rely heavily on technology developed by the big-budget, big-studio production houses.

So what does any of this have to do with a movie that makes me sad? Let me introduce you to Delgo.

This is the only scene where Delgo uses a flute to magically levitate rocks. Most of the time he just uses his mind.

This is the only scene where Delgo uses a flute to magically levitate rocks. Most of the time he just uses his mind.

This movie makes me very, very sad. Not because the movie itself is sad, but because of the story of its inception and ultimate failure.

Starting production in 1999, Delgo represented one of the first-ever efforts at making a CG animated film outside of the traditional Hollywood machine. The premise was harmless if pretty derivative: Teenagers from two races must learn to set aside their differences to prevent all-out war instigated by an evil empress.

A somewhat weak premise aside, Delgo was a hugely exciting prospect. The filmmakers were certainly passionate about their movie. In an interview with Marc Adler, the… well, his official title was apparently “Sublime Patron of Dreams” which translates to CEO, of Fathom Studio in Atlanta, Adler said:

Our project is fully-financed and has the benefit of a veteran animation team and highly acclaimed marquee actors as voice talent. However, I sincerely believe that it’s not the production value that drives the project but rather the story. We have spent years refining the script to capture what we believe is the essence of an inspiring myth with global appeal.

This interview took place in 2001, and Adler confidently predicted a 2003 release date. Everything seemed to be going pretty well.

It took nearly six more years of painful production to realize the final film. Along the way they hosted “digital dailies” (still available) on their website, so that fans could watch the film being produced, and see the feedback that the animators got. This backfired a bit when large hollywood studios started hiring away the most talented artists, in part due to their work on the dailies page.

Still, from an outside perspective it seemed like they were taking their time, making sure everything was right.

See, no flute necessary.

See, no flute necessary.

The studio pulled out all the stops to get big names for their voice talent, too, including Freddie Prinze, Jr., Jennifer Love Hewitt, Chris Kattan, Louis Gossett, Jr., Val Kilmer, Malcolm McDowell, Michael Clarke Duncan, Eric Idle, and Burt Reynolds.

The fact that this movie exists should be a triumph of the creative spirit. I don’t even care if it wasn’t a great film, a little outfit in Atlanta managed to make a fully-animated CG film, using talent and financing outside of the Hollywood system. That should be enough for us to celebrate this film as a pioneer for all the indie-animations to come.

So how did it do, anyways? Via Wikipedia:

Delgo is notable for producing, at the time, the worst opening ever for a film playing in over 2,000 theaters, earning $511,920 at 2,160 sites. According to Yahoo! Movies, this averages to approximately 2 viewers per screening

Delgo is also the worst-performing animated film of all time, making less than $1,000,000 worldwide, with an estimated cost of around $40,000,000.

I wanted to like this movie. I wanted to see it as a triumph regardless of its box-office returns. I can honestly say that it deserved better than it got – we live in a world where Grown Ups 2 can turn a profit.

But not by much. What seemed like enthusiasm from the filmmakers in my opinion turned out to be hubris. They neglected marketing while calmly predicting a bigger hit than “Shrek”. They focused on the stardom of their actors rather than their performances. They hired kids right out of school not because they were an underutilized talent pool, but because they were cheaper. They focused on spectacle instead of story, and in doing so failed at both.

The script for this film is terrible, oscillating between painfully dull and painfully unfunny. If you ever watch the movie, try to figure out what target audience they were going for: Delgo is full of cartoonish violence, realistic violence, dull alien politics, Chris Kattan trying to out-annoy Jar Jar Binks, and the occasional piece of scatological humor.

The fact that this movie exists should be a triumph, but it’s not. Instead, with all the effort, all the money and time that went into this thing, the vision from the start was flawed. Delgo was never going to be a good movie.

Chris Kattan is easily the worst thing about this film, and that's saying a lot.

Chris Kattan is easily the worst thing about this film, and that’s saying a lot.

It didn’t have to be bad, though. The fact that I can sit down and watch Delgo means this movie had the funding and the willpower to produce something amazing. Instead, all that effort seems to have been wasted on a vanity project without a chance of success.

I believe in independent CG animation. I believe that one day very soon, the big studios won’t have the same kind of corner on the market that they do now. The same revolution that is currently happening on Netflix and cable TV is going to happen to animation. But we have to remember that these kinds of movies are still incredibly hard to make — not ONLY because of the constraints of technology but because telling a worthwhile story is itself an incredibly difficult thing to do. You have to understand and respect your audience, you have to accept that part of making a movie is selling a movie, and you have to be willing, above all else, to jettison a bad idea instead of clinging to it.


  1. […] the best. The moment when Andy realizes that Woody is in that box for Bonnie punches me in the gut every time. Woody is letting go of Andy, practically his sole reason for existing. He’s moving on, and […]

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