The abject failure of Disney’s Mars Needs Moms, which reportedly cost $175 million including marketing, but earned just $6.8 million in its opening weekend, has caused Disney to get out of the motion-capture animation business, shuttering mo-cap maestro Robert Zemeckis’ unit and pulling out of his Yellow Submarine remake (see “Mars Kills Yellow Submarine”). The fate of the motion-capture animated feature category may lie with the success or failure of Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson’s Tintin movies, the first of which, The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn, debuts on December 23rd.
In spite of the failure of pricy mo-cap features like Mars Needs Moms it is important to note that the same “motion-capture” technology that was behind the Disney “bomb,” was also a key ingredient in the success of James Cameron’s Avatar. There is little doubt that this process will continue to find all sorts of applications in various sorts of special effects as well as in science fiction and fantasy films (think the Gollum). The question is whether complete mo-cap animated features like The Polar Express, Beowulf, and Mars Needs Moms will continue to be made. The genre’s short term fate will likely depend on the box office success of the Tintin movies.
Spielberg told the LA Times that he decided to use the mo-cap process on the Tintin films “based on my respect for the art of Herge and wanting to get as close to that art as I could.” The ability of the mo-cap process to bring comic art to the screen with a fidelity that is hard to match with straight live-action filming is certainly one of its strengths. The question is a practical one--will the Tintin movies have the kind of success that will justify the enormous cost of the project? Will using the process with the stylized Herge characters avoid the “creepiness” near-reality factor that appears to be behind the rejection of the previous mo-cap films by the mass audience.
Since the Tintin graphic novels, which have sold over 200 million copies in the rest of the world, have never really caught on the U.S., Spielberg and Jackson may have to depend on overseas markets to make the Tintin movies successful. It’s a tall order to earn enough box office coin to put a film that cost $135 million to produce in the black without enjoying at least a moderate level of success in the world’s most lucrative cinema market, the U.S. If any property could do accomplish that, it is probably Tintin, but it will be a challenge.