The Case of Amblimation

So we all know Steven Spielberg as a groundbreaking director that brought us classics like Jaws and Jurassic Park. But even though his live-action achievements are well-known, his contributions to the animation world might be overlooked from time to time. 

Spielberg’s love of animation drove him to collaborate with Don Bluth on movies like The Land Before Time and An American Tail, beloved classics that are likely still enjoyed at grandparents’ houses all over America. But the director wanted to do more with the medium. So, he teamed up with Universal Pictures to create his own animation studio: Amblimation. 

This week, we’re taking a look at the short-lived history of this defunct studio, and its three films. Amblimation may not have lasted long, but its movies will live forever in the hearts of viewers everywhere. 

  • In 1981, only 6 years after Jaws took a huge bite out of box office numbers, Steven Spielberg, Kathleen Kennedy, and Frank Marshall launched their own film production company, Amblin. Its logo would later become the iconic image of Elliot flying with ET over the full moon. 
  • Under Amblin, Spielberg teamed up with Don Bluth to create the highest grossing non-Disney animated film of the time: An American Tail. The movie even beat Disney’s The Great Mouse Detective in box office numbers, and proved that Spielberg could be successful in animation as well as live action. 
    • An American Tail tells the story of Fievel Mousekewitz and his family as they emigrate from the Imperial Russian territory of Ukraine to the United States for freedom.
  • Amblin continued to work with Bluth, creating the childhood classic The Land Before Time. This film was also a major success, prompting many sequels. If these two films weren’t enough of an indication that Spielberg could succeed as an animation producer, it was the wildly successful Who Framed Roger Rabbit that really sealed the deal. The hybrid animation/live-action film drew in massive crowds, beating out the box office numbers for the previously mentioned films. 
  • Spielberg wanted to continue to work with Bluth, and had ideas for An American Tail sequel. Bluth reportedly turned him down, as he didn’t like the lack of creative control he had had with the other two films. So in 1989, Spielberg made his own animation studio with Universal Pictures. He based the studio in the UK, and sought out animators outside the United States. Walt Disney Animation essentially had a monopoly on all the best animators at the time, except of course the team at Don Bluth (which Spielberg wasn’t about to try and poach). It would be difficult to convince someone with a job at the most historically successful animation studio to jump on a new and uncertain venture. 
  • Once Spielberg had his team, they set to work on their first feature film, An American Tail: Fievel Goes West.

AN AMERICAN TAIL: FIEVEL GOES WEST (NOVEMBER 22, 1991)

Don Bluth has a unique animation style that can be imitated, but not replicated. He was noticeably absent from the second installment of the “American Tail” franchise, so Fievel Goes West had a different tone and animation style from its predecessor. 

When asked about it in an interview, director Phil Nibbelink said, “Don Bluth made a beautiful movie with American Tail. We tried to live up to it and go beyond it. We would never be able to match Don Bluth’s style. He had such a distinct style. We had a completely different set of artists. It forced us to go in a different direction.”

SYNOPSIS

  • Fievel is up to his old tricks as the family moves out west for a better life, as New York is not the catless dream they expected it to be. They are once again deceived by a smooth talking cat, that plans on exploiting the labor of the mice and eventually turning them into “mouse burgers.” (Ew.) But, luckily their old cat pal Tiger has followed them to Green River, and will help them face off against the evil Cat R Wahl. 

PRODUCTION

  • This film was directed by Simon Wells and former Disney animator Phil Nibbelink.
  • Like we said before, Spielberg had to go to Europe to find more animators to fill his team. He built a production crew of 280 people, 120 of them were animators. The rest were ink and paint, background artists, layout artists, etc.
  • All voices for the film were recorded before animation, which is a common film practice. Usually, voices are recorded after the storyboard process, but before the animation. This ensures that animators don’t draw extra scenes that end up not working, and they can hear exactly how the characters will speak as they draw. 
  • Spielberg wanted the movie to have a live-action cinematic quality to it. He pushed for the animation to not have very many cuts. He wanted the animators to save that for building tension. For most of it he wanted a moving camera, and this meant that animators had to draw really long backgrounds so they could keep the shots moving. The movie relies heavily on its western setting, and this technique helped establish that. 
    • The background was watercolor underneath, and artists used pastel, crayon, and a little bit of airbrush to create depth! 
  • Animators also worked with a variety of angles, which was not common in animation.

MUSIC

  • The music was composed by James Horner but the film does feature the song Rawhide from the movie “The Blues Brothers” in which Spielberg cameoed in! 

STARRING

  • Phillip Glasser returned to lend his voice as Fievel
    • He is an actor and producer known for The Illusionist and Agent Cody Banks.
  • Veteran film actor James Stewart plays the heroic Wylie Burp! 
    • He is known for Anatomy of a Murder, Vertigo, The Philadelphia Story, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and fittingly, How the West Was Won
    • This was his final film credit before his death in 1992.
  • Erica Yohn as Mama
    • She has been in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, The Godfather: Part II, and Corrina Corrina.
  • Cathy Cavadini as Tanya
    • She is best known as Blossom in the Powerpuff Girls.
  • Nehemiah as Persoff
    • He has been in Some Like It Hot, Twins, and The Wrong Man.
  • Dom Deluise as Tiger
    • He is known for All Dogs Go to Heaven, Blazing Saddles, and The Secret of NIMH.
  • Amy Irving as Miss Kitty
    • She has been in Traffic, Adam, Carrie, and Crossing Delancey.
  • John Cleese as Cat R. Waul 
    • John Cleese is known for Monty Python and A Fish Called Wanda.
    • Fun fact- He turned down Cogsworth in Beauty and the Beast for this role! Which is especially interesting because the two movies released the same day.
  • Jon Lovitz as Chula
    • He has been in A League of Their Own, Happiness, Rat Race, and Loaded Weapon 1.

RECEPTION/IMPACT/AWARDS

  • Although it did not win anything it was nominated at the 1992 Golden Globes for Best Original Song for “Dreams to Dream.” The music was by James Horner with lyrics by Will Jennings.
  • It grossed about $40,766,041 worldwide. Alternatively, Beauty and the Beast, which released on the same day, was the first animated movie to reach 100 million dollars in its first run.

In order to maintain a consistent release schedule with their movies, Amblimation worked on all three of its projects simultaneously. Originally, the next feature planned was an animated version of the musical Cats. But as that ran into problems, the studio focused on releasing another film, based on Hudson Talbott’s book, “We’re Back! A Dinosaur’s Story.”

WE’RE BACK! A DINOSAUR’S STORY (NOVEMBER 24, 1993)

SYNOPSIS

  • Captain Neweyes travels back in time and feeds dinosaurs his Brain Grain cereal, which makes them intelligent and nonviolent. They agree to go to the future in order to grant the wishes of children in New York city. Their plan is to meet Dr. Bleeb of the Museum of Natural History, but they get side-tracked with some new friends and later run into the Captain’s evil brother, Professor Screweyes, who has other plans for the dinosaurs.

PRODUCTION

  • Hanna-Barbera was the first company to contact Hudson Talbott about obtaining rights to his book We’re Back! A Dinosaur’s Story (1987), only months after its release. It may sound funny to hear of the “Scooby Doo” animators making full-length films, but they produced some great animation, like the 1973 version of “Charlotte’s Web.” Universal Pictures then paid off Hanna-Barbera and purchased the rights for Spielberg to produce the film.
  • The film was directed by Phil Nibbelink and Simon Wells, who also directed Fievel Goes West!
  • Although Talbott had little involvement, he had many encounters with the creators of the film during production, including Spielberg who would make several calls to the author. 
  • Storyboarding of We’re Back started in 1990 during the production of Fievel Goes West. The first screenplay draft was written by Flint Dille and the film’s director Simon Wells. But, the initial script was not well received by Spielberg, and he hired John Patrick Shanley to write another draft, which was done quickly and ultimately used. 
  • The book was only 20 pages and lacked any antagonist or any major plot points, making it difficult to adapt. Talbott felt the film had none of the tongue-in-cheek humor that he wrote in his book, so the voice actors changed a few lines while recording. However, this was not approved by Shanley, so his original lines were used in the final film. 
    • And funny side note; John Goodman started recording his part just shortly after having his wisdom teeth removed!
  • While Amblimation was working on the film, Spielberg secured the rights to Michael Crichton’s book, Jurassic Park. The animators knew that even though they had been working on the animation for years, the films would likely release around the same time. When Nibbelink saw the ILM’s computer work for Jurassic Park, he said he knew that the film would be a game-changer. There’s no doubt it overshadowed “We’re Back” as the best Dinosaur film of the year, probably decade, maybe even century?

MUSIC

  • The music for all the Amblimation films was done by James Horner. His work is the emotional cornerstone of “We’re Back,” as the movie can be quite silly. 
  • Horner wrote the melody to, “Roll Back the Rock,” with lyrics by Thomas Dolby. Horner proved time and time again that he was a talented songwriter, and Spielberg utilized that to great effect. 

STARRING

  • John Goodman as Rex
    • He is known for things like Roseanne, The Big Lebowski, and Monsters Inc.
  • Blaze Berdahl as Buster
    • She has been in the 1989 Pet Sematary and the show Ghostwriter.
  • Rhea Perlman as Mother Bird
    • She is most known for being in Matilda, and the shows Cheers and Taxi.
  • Jay Leno as Vorb
    • He is of course known for being a big tv personality for The Jay Leno Show and The Tonight Show.
  • René Le Vant as Woog
    • He has been in Rocky II and the 1977 The Incredible Hulk.
  • Felicity Kendal as Elsa
    • She has been in things like Good Neighbors, Valentino, and Parting Shots.
  • Charles Fleischer as Dweeb
    • He is known for movies such as Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Zodiac, and A Nightmare on Elm Street.
  • Walter Cronkite as Captain Naweyes
    • He was a news reporter and journalist who lended his voice to just a few movies and shows. 
  • Julia Child as Dr. Bleeb
    • This movie was her only acting role as she is most known for her cooking and cook books.
  • Kenneth Mars as Professor Screweyes
    • He is known for Young Frankenstein, The Producers (1967), and The Little Mermaid.
  • Yeardley Smith as Cecilia 
    • She is Lisa and other characters in The Simpsons. She was also in Maximum Overdrive and As Good As It Gets.
  • Martin Short as Stubbs the Clown
    • He has been in Father of the Bride, Three Amigos!, and Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause.

RECEPTION/IMPACT/AWARDS

  • We’re Back! A Dinosaur’s Story released during the start of an economic downturn for animated features in the early 1990s. It opened during the Thanksgiving holiday with other new entries including Mrs. Doubtfire, A Perfect World, and a film adaptation of The Nutcracker. It grossed $3.7 million on its opening weekend and ended with a total gross of $9 million in the United States. The film was generally considered to be a poor performer, and it was the highest grossing children’s film of its opening weekend only because it was a poor weekend for the genre.

By the mid 1990’s, animation wasn’t lucrative for anyone except Disney. Other studios were struggling to make films that competed with what would be later known as The Disney Renaissance. In an LA Times article dated January, 1994, an anonymous Disney animator was quoted saying, “Animation–even bad animation–is a lot of work, and if you do that much work, you want people to see it, but the reality of the situation is that people won’t go see it unless it’s a Disney film.”

We’re Back was considered a flop, and certainly had its problems. But, after its video release, more fans were drawn to the wacky storyline, mysterious villain, and John Goodman’s stellar performance as Rex. The components of a good animated film were there. In 1990, producer David Kirschner expressed concern that studios would start releasing films that weren’t quite ready for consumers, in an attempt to push forward with an animation renaissance. His worries proved valid, as more animated projects seemed to flounder throughout the 90’s. 

After Amblimation’s second flop, it pushed forward to release its third, and ultimately final film, “Balto.” If you grew up in the 90’s, you might think of Balto as a success, as it seemed to constantly air on TV and in waiting rooms at the pediatrician’s office. Unfortunately, the popularity of the film didn’t manifest until after it was in theaters. 

BALTO (DECEMBER 22, 1995)

SYNOPSIS

The film is loosely based on the true story about a sled dog team that helped save children infected with diphtheria in 1925, by performing a serum run to Nome, Alaska. The movie focuses on a dynamic main protagonist, Balto, who is part wolf and Siberian Husky. Despite the challenges that Balto faces as a social outcast, he ends up taking charge and leading the team on the treacherous journey to Nome, saving the children in the process. https://www.youtube.com/embed/ucfHDO4k9gM?wmode=opaque&enablejsapi=1

PRODUCTION

  • It is a 1995 animated adventure film directed by Simon Wells, produced by Amblimation and distributed by Universal Pictures. 
  • Writer Elana Lesser recollected being told the story of Balto by her grandfather when she was younger and as an adult thought it would be a beautiful animated feature. She and writer, Cliff Ruby, pitched the idea to Amblin with their screenplay in tow. It was then relayed to Phil Nibbelink and Simon Wells.
  • Director Simon Wells had to heavily persuade Steven Spielberg to make this story. It was close to his heart and he felt it needed to be told. It was a tough sell as Spielberg was apprehensive of a movie that he felt would not be colorful enough. In order to quell these fears Wells showed him dozens of small color studies done by the production designer Hans Bacher. They proved that the movie would not be solely black and white dogs on a desolate background. It ended up being Simon Wells’ first solo directed movie, as Nibbelink would leave the project to return to working on We’re Back. David Cohen and Roger Schulman would fine tune the story into the final screenplay that would be accepted.
  • Since the budget was tight, a lot of tough decisions had to be made. An example of this would be that they would have to choose between either shadows or footprints in the snow. In the typical shot they could not afford both so they would try to figure out what they could get away with not having or showing.
  • In order for the voice actors to get a sense of the characters they were portraying, several model sheets were drawn up for the actors to look at. These sheets were done in the early years of development and would show different aspects of the character-like facial expressions, movement, and size comparisons.
    • The team brought in 7 siberian huskies to study! They were used among many other references in order to get look and character movement correct.
  • When asked about the decision not to reveal the identity of the white wolf, Wells said “We wanted to keep it mystical and vague – is this a real event or is it some kind of hallucination that Balto is experiencing? All of these were reasons to not have the White Wolf speak or in any way explain himself. Perhaps the Wolf is a manifestation of Balto’s inner voice, telling him to take ownership and use that part of him that he has always been ashamed of – certainly that is the message Balto takes from the encounter, real or not.”
  • Unfortunately the morse code used within the movie is just gibberish with no hidden easter eggs.

MUSIC

  • The music was once again composed by James Horner. Wells said that, “James preferred to present his score as the orchestral finished product, and make alterations based on notes from that finished product…”
    • This process made sense because Horner was in California while the rest of the cast and crew was in the United Kingdom
    • Balto is considered to be Horner’s best Amblimation score, with beautiful and enchanting music that remains one of the best features of the film. 

CASTING

  • Kevin Bacon as Balto 
    • He is known for Footloose, Tremors, and Mystic River.
  • Bob Hoskins as Boris
    • He was in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, The Long Good Friday, and Unleashed.
  • Bridget Fonda as Jenna
    • She is in A Simple Plan, Point of No Return, and Single White Female.
  • Jim Cummings as Steele
    • He has been in Princess and the Frog, Aladdin, and the 2018 Christopher Robin.
  • Phil Collins as Muk and Luk
    • He is a music composer, that we all know. Tarzan, etc.
  • Juliette Brewer as Rosy
    • She was also in The Little Rascals and Vegas Vacation.

RECEPTION/IMPACT/AWARDS

  • The film earned over $11 million at the domestic box office.
  • It was forced to compete with classics like Jumanji and Toy Story, which absolutely destroyed Balto in terms of numbers. 
  • It was nominated for the Young Artists Award for Best Family Feature – Musical or Comedy and three different Annie Awards. Unfortunately it did not take any wins home.

WHAT HAPPENED TO AMBLIMATION? 

  • When Balto opened, it only earned 1.5 million dollars opening weekend. It was in 15th place, and even though it seems to be the most well-known and successful of Amblimation’s films, its failure to draw in crowds seemed to be the nail in the coffin for the studio. 
  • Originally, the plan was to release a new film every year. The fourth feature in the making was an animated version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Cats.” 
    • The film was to be set during the London blitz, with traditionally animated characters set against 3D miniature sets. The art style was inspired by German expressionism. Animator Hans Bacher said he roamed the “ugliest” parts of London to take reference photos, and the team had been working on the project since they had wrapped “Fievel Goes West.” 
    • Of course, this version of “Cats” never came to be. There were disagreements about the screenplay, and production stopped after 6 months. The studio moved on to the other two films that it produced. When Spielberg relocated the studio to California, a new team started work on the project. But, it eventually stopped and Amblimation folded in 1997. 
    • Since Amblimation was gone, Universal bought the rights to the play. And well…we know how that story ends. Imagine if Amblimation had held on for just a few more years, we would have an entirely different version of cats than the monstrosity that clawed its way into our collective psyche in 2019. 
  • Now, you could say that Amblimation never REALLY disappeared. After the devastating box office loss for Balto, Spielberg saw the writing on the wall, and shifted his attention to a new venture. 
  • Throughout the early and mid-90’s, Amblimation was attempting to compete against the Disney machine. Like we said before, this was the Disney Renaissance. Fievel Goes West was overshadowed by Beauty and the Beast. By 1994, audiences were only gambling their movie money on Disney animation. And when Balto hit theaters, it stood against the first ever full-length computer animated film. 
    • Things didn’t seem to be slowing down for the animation giant, but in 1994, the company lost its president, Frank Wells, in a tragic helicopter crash. The death sent shock waves through the institution, and prompted the resignation of one of the architects of the Disney Renaissance: Jeffrey Katzenburg. 
    • Katzenburg had struggled with Disney’s CEO Michael Eisner for years. We talk about this a little more in our episode on The Disney Exodus from last year. 
    • So, what’s one of the most successful animation producers to do when he finds himself out of a job? 
    • Well, luckily for Katzenburg, another producer and director had already rounded up some of the best talent in animation outside of the US. Katzenburg, Spielberg, and businessman David Geffin created Dreamworks SKG, and named Katzenburg as the head of the animation division. 
    • Of course, as Spielberg focused more on the new venture, Amblimation fell to the wayside. Many sources report that all the animators currently employed at the studio moved to Dreamworks Animation by 1995, and Amblimation was defunct by 1997. 

Amblimation might not have lasted long, but its legacy will live on in our hearts forever. It didn’t make the most groundbreaking or popular films, sure, but it wasn’t afraid to try new things. Looking at the box office, it’s easy to say they were an undisputed failure. But, that’s okay. Amblimation wasn’t afraid to fail, and success isn’t always measured in dollars. They made three perfectly respectable films that entertained millions of kids, just not in the theater. They learned from their mistakes, and they moved on to make more films at one of the most successful animation studios today. Without Amblimation, we would not only be missing these movies, but we might’ve missed out on films like The Prince of Egypt and How to Train Your Dragon. There’s something to be said for the lesson that Amblimation taught us. Steven Spielberg is one of the most successful and respected filmmakers of all time; and if he’s not afraid to fail, maybe we shouldn’t be, either. 

Before we go, we’d like to thank our Patrons! Joel, John, Jacob, Jacklyn, JD, Anthony, Shelli, and Linda.


SOURCES: 

https://www.slashfilm.com/the-short-but-animated-legacy-of-amblimation/

IMDB

We’re Back:

https://www.syfy.com/syfywire/roll-back-the-rock-an-oral-history-of-were-back-a-dinosaurs-story-for-its-25th-birthday

https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1994-01-04-ca-8386-story.html

Fievel Goes West:

Balto:

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