Monday, December 27, 2010

Goodbye to You: Franchises That Left Us This Year.

While every year brings its share of would-be franchise starters, 2010 marked the would-be finale for a surprisingly large number of ongoing series. Here is a rundown, in alphabetical order, of the film franchises that were either officially cancelled, fittingly finished out their arc, or likely will not return based on lackluster box office numbers. I have no idea how to make music play when you click on a blog entry, but feel free to boot up your favorite farewell song. Me? I'm currently playing Elton John's Candle in the Wind (the original, not that wet-fart 1997 remake).

The Chronicles of Narnia (12/09/2005-12/12/2010)
In the aftermath of the one-two punch of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and Fellowship of the Ring in late 2001, studios all went digging for various fantasy-lit series to turn into their own long-running franchises. Of the many would-be contenders, only two of them received a sequel. The Twilight Saga will be ending in 2012, but this year we likely said goodbye to the only other notable contender, The Chronicles of Narnia. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe debuted in December 2005 to an earth-shattering $65 million, completely knocking the wind out of King Kong, which debuted a week later. Spurred by a major Disney ad blitz that highlighted major big-budget fantasy spectacle which was based on a book that pretty much everyone read in elementary school, plus an 'on the side' ad campaign based on the book's (and author C.S. Lewis's) well-known Christianity, the film was the first fantasy-lit film post-2001 to really hit it big. It ended its leggy run with $290 million domestic and $745 million worldwide. But the first book was really the only popular one in the series.

Prince Caspian debuted in May 2008 and opened to a rock-solid $55 million. But the film crashed quickly, hurt by both heavy summer competition, the darker and more violent nature of the story, and the lack of a real Christian push. It ended up with $142 million domestic and $412 million worldwide on a $225 million budget. That might have been the end of the series, as Disney decided not to pursue a third Narnia picture. But 20th Century Fox decided to partner with Walden Media to embark on The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, at a reduced cost ($140 million) and the same pre-Christmas release date that had served the first film. But lightning did not strike twice.

Fox frankly completely dropped the ball on marketing, with a barely-there campaign that raised no pre-release awareness and an ad campaign that highlighted the more kid-friendly and 'safe' nature of the story at the expense of actually establishing what the film was about. The film debuted with just $24 million over its opening weekend and it took just over two weeks to even match the $65 million opening weekend of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. The film is doing well overseas (current worldwide total: $300 million), but massive worldwide grosses were not enough to save the His Dark Materials trilogy, which stopped at the $372 million-grossing The Golden Compass in 2007 (just $70 million of that was from domestic dollars, creating the impression that it was a bomb). Unless another studio needs a tent-pole to fill a hole in their schedule and/or the fourth film can be made for under $100 million, there will likely be no film adaptation of The Silver Chair.

The Fockers saga (10/06/2000-12/22/2010)
In a decade filled with fantasy epics and comic book adaptations, the 'Fockers series' was arguably the only real comedy franchise that survived past a single sequel. Meet the Parents was in fact a remake of a foreign picture, complete with even more squirm-inducing humor and an unhappy ending. The remake was intended as a star vehicle for Ben Stiller and Robert De Niro, the idea being 'What if your father-in-law turned out to be Travis Bickle?'. It debuted with a knockout $28 million, which was an October record at the time. It had mighty sea legs, ending its domestic run with $166 million. Ten years later, it's still the highest-grossing movie ever released in September or October. Warts and all, it worked because of a relatable premise and a certain willingness to make the audience uncomfortable for the sake of a long joke. It may have been farce, but the cast played it like it was an August Wilson adaptation.

A sequel came four years later, opening with a monster $46 million three-day/$70 million five-day opening weekend over the Christmas holiday. While the film received lesser reviews, Meet the Fockers added Stiller's 'nebbishy', liberal parents played by Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand to the mix. While it is a sloppier, less disciplined film, I actually preferred it to the original, mainly because the addition of Streisand gave Blythe Danner (De Niro's wife) more to do this time around. It was an unbeatable choice for casual moviegoers and big groups through the first chunk of 2005, and the film grossed and astonishing $279 million in the US. That's the second-biggest comedy in history (behind Home Alone's $281 million).

But while the first sequel was powered by the longterm popularity of the first, the newest installment, Little Fockers, had to contend with middling word of mouth for the sequel. Six long years went by, and the audience disinterest over opening weekend was palpable. The $100 million picture debuted last weekend after months of reshoots, mediocre test screenings, and an ad campaign that contained no real laughs to advertise. The film opened with just $43 million over the five-day holiday and just $30 million over the Fri-Sun portion. It will probably crawl to $140 million and Universal will probably make its money back with overseas dollars. But the desperation was obvious and the actors' discontent was noticeable. Unless Universal is desperate enough to pay everyone on board record-high salaries and/or they just reboot the series with new actors, the Focker series has ended as a trilogy.

Saw (10/29/2004-10/29/2010)
I've written quite a bit about this series over the last few years, so I'll try to not repeat myself. Say what you will about the uneven quality of the franchise, but Lionsgate pulled off something genuinely unique. For seven years in a row, they had a new Saw installment all set to go for Halloween, and for five of those years, the films each opened to boffo box office and stayed alive just long enough to be massively profitable. Eventually the series became so hopelessly convoluted in its own web of continuity and mythology that only the fans could keep up. The sheen wore off ironically enough right at Saw VI, which was the best film in the whole franchise. While the series should have ended at that perfectly solid finale, Lionsgate overplayed their hand and unleashed Saw VII in 3D, which resulted in the very worst film in the series and the least-satisfying series finale since, I dunno, Seinfeld?

The Saw franchise is the biggest-grossing horror series in history with $415 million in domestic grosses and $859 million worldwide. It helped Lionsgate produce and/or distribute all manner of prestige films (Crash, Away From Her, Precious), arthouse cinema (Rabbit Hole, Buried, The Lucky Ones), and documentary films (More Than A Game, Sicko, Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man) and turned character actor Tobin Bell into a movie star. It defined horror for an entire decade, rescuing the genre from the safety of teen-friendly PG-13 trifles and plunging it back into the take-no-prisoners grindhouse zone of the 1970s. It was rarely torture porn, it was only halfway decent, and it was often frustrating. But the Saw franchise matters, and I shall miss it.

Sex and the City (05/30/08-05/28-10 - movies only)
Count this one as dead before its time. Warner Bros. officially killed this ongoing adaptation of the popular HBO television series due to one soft-performing sequel. Said sequel grossed $288 million on a $100 million budget, which if it were based on a male-driven comic book probably would have merited a third entry. But this 'Star Wars for adult women' was always held to an unfair standard. Before the release of the first film, everyone crowed about how Warner wouldn't recoup their $65 million investment. When Sex and the City: The Movie opened to $57 million in three days (a record for a romantic comedy), the pundits held up the film as an example of 'Why they hate us'.

The first film had legs, and grossed $415 million worldwide. Sex and the City 2 did not fare as well, grossing just $32 million over the three-day portion of its opening weekend and just $51 million over the five-day Memorial Day holiday weekend. No one noticed that maybe releasing a film aimed at adult women on a family-centric holiday weekend might be a bad idea (can't do 'Girls Night Out' when the kids are all home and there's a barbecue to prepare). The film limped to $95 million in domestic grosses and Warner Bros. officially announced that there would be no third film. I'm not saying either of the films were 'good', but there was still money to be made on this series, so call this one 'gone too soon'.

Shrek (05/16/01-05/19-10)
The fourth Shrek film is entitled Shrek: The Final Chapter, and it literally ends with a character closing the Shrek book and putting it up on a shelf, so regardless of box office, the fourth film was indeed intended as a series finale. The first Shrek debuted both as a hail Mary pass from Dreamworks ("We can make a cartoon just as popular as Disney.") and a personal bit of revenge from Jeffrey Katzenberg. The villain of the first film was modeled after Disney boss Michael Eisner, and the film was filled with token pokes at Disney and slight deconstructions of the classic fairy tale model. The first film opened with $42 million (a record for a non-Disney cartoon at the time), and ended up ruling summer 2001 with $267 million in the domestic till. Me? I knew it was going to be a monster on opening night, when I looked around during the end credits and a packed audience was dancing in the isles to "I'm A Believer". But had the film just been one big inside joke, we wouldn't still be talking about it nine years later.

Mike Meyers's incredibly endearing vocal work was instrumental, as were the sharp screenplays that emphasized drama and character interaction over frenetic action. Take away the glossy animation and pop-culture references, and the Shrek series is basically a big romantic comedy. Ironically enough, all four Shrek films (even the comparatively middling third installment) were arguably more intelligent and realistic romantic comedies than most of what passes for rom-coms actually aimed at adults. The films were always about the illusion of storybook romance versus the reality of making a relationship work, and the films never shied away from the less glamorous aspects of marriage and family.

The first two films were genuinely hilarious and moving relationship comedies, and the latter two films paled only in comparison to the high standards set by Shrek and Shrek 2. But the story is indeed over at the conclusion of Shrek: Forever After. Unless we really want to see Shrek and Fiona go through real marital difficulties and, deal with the inevitability of empty-nest syndrome, and then grow old and die, it's best to leave them now when they are close enough to how we remember them from back in 2001.

Toy Story (11/24/1995-06/18-2010)
Call this one 'wishful thinking', as I really and truly hope Pixar decides to let this franchise end with the perfect trilogy as it is now. Sure, if you want to do cartoon shorts dealing with peripheral characters like Ken and Barbie, go for it. But the saga of Woody, Buzz, and Andy is over. Toy Story was of course the first computer-animated cartoon and the feature-length debut of Pixar, a company that would change the animation game for good. Toy Story established the template for their first several pictures, as it was a film taking place in our world with a look at another world just out of sight (the toys that come to life, the bugs beneath us, the fish in the sea, the monsters in the closet, etc).

Tom Hanks may have won his Oscars for Philadelphia and Forrest Gump, but he did no better work than his heartbreaking performance as Woody the sheriff. In 1995, Woody was that young parent who didn't want their children to grow up too fast. In 1999, Woody was the parent who wasn't ready to watch their children grow up and leave for college. In 2010, Woody was the parent who finally came to terms with their son or daughter's adulthood. He knew that his time with Andy was done, and that it was time to make a new life someway, somehow.

All three films were about the fear of abandonment, of being left behind by those you love. The first film was almost innocent, dealing with accidental abandonment, complete with a reassuring ending. The second film went into darker territory, dealing with the idea that yes Andy will eventually stop playing with his favorite toys, and it offered no happy ending other than the idea that Woody's eventual obsolescence was a price worth paying for a life well-lived. The third film, of course, finally delivered on the theoretical 'end', as Woody and the gang had to decide what to do now that their owner had no use for them. The Toy Story series is perhaps the finest trilogy in cinema history, give or take The Lord of the Rings, and the wrap-up is hopeful and heartbreaking, while playing fair on both counts. All indications point to Toy Story 3 being the final Toy Story film, and I sincerely hope that turns out to be the case.

And thus ends our obituary of sorts for the franchises that departed. Next year will be a big one, as we finally say a tearful goodbye to 'the boy who lived'. Please catch up on the continuing '2010 Year in Review' essays as we wind down to the best/worst of the year.

Scott Mendelson

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