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'Gulliver,' 'Persia,' 'Narnia' Rank Among the Big Botches of 2010

by Brandon Gray
Gulliver's Travels
 

 
January 20, 2011

With a year chock full of lackluster movies, whittling down a list of 2010's biggest disappointments is a more daunting task than selecting the most impressive. It's easy to kick movies like Jonah Hex and Extraordinary Measures, which realistically never stood a chance. Some movies' box office performances (Robin Hood, The Wolfman) were unfairly maligned, and perhaps only disappointing to the producers who spent too much to make them. Quite a few movies were so fundamentally off the mark that it's hard to imagine that their producers expected to attract large numbers (Furry Vengeance, Repo Men, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole).

The following are some of 2010's lowlights. As with the most impressive movies, these disappointing performers were determined mostly by how effectively the movies courted audiences in regards to their premises, genres, predecessors, release dates and marketing hype (budget size was a tertiary concern, because it is not relevant from an audience perspective, and, besides, profitability or lack thereof is not accurately available):

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time - As an example of this movie's incompetence, looking at last spring's outdoor advertising, one would have thought it was called "May 28," which was in giant type. Turns out that was the release date, and the title was in fact Prince of Persia, which was treated as if it were a brand so established that people would just know it from the slightest of visual cues. That wasn't the case: Jerry Bruckheimer's adaptation of some video game needed all the help it could get from square one, not a marketing campaign that took the audience for granted. Disney's ads were incoherent, visually and in terms of story, and they lacked any striking spectacle in their golden brown blur. The backers even had the audacity to think that Jake Gyllenhaal was the equivalent of Johnny Depp. This all led to an uneventful $90.8 million gross, dashing dreams of a new franchise.

The A-Team - In the past, over-the-top action movies have often prospered in June (Con Air, The Rock, Live Free or Die Hard, etc.), but not The A-Team. Those movies had hooks, while A-Team just had its brand. With blockbuster pretensions, it was marketed as a generically slick action picture with no story, as if seeing Liam Neeson, Bradley Cooper and company in absurd, computer-generated, out-of-context action scenes such as a parachuting tank were enough (between that scene and Jessica Biel, flashes of the bomb Stealth came to mind). Its $77.2 million haul was low for an adaptation of a major action television show.

Jonah Hex - This feeble attempt at counter-programming Toy Story 3 led to the second-worst numbers of the year for a large nationwide release (only MacGruber was worse): $10.5 million in its entire run. On paper, this was a disaster in the making: obscure comic-book basis, Western-fantasy-comedy hybrid, disfigured main character, etc. The final product and the marketing did no favors: ads sold an incomprehensible blur of explosions and Megan Fox, while the titular character (played by Josh Brolin) and plot were marginalized. Jonah Hex had a cheap Wild Wild West vibe to it, and, curiously, both movies were Warner Bros. stable mates. In a similar vein, the more modestly released The Warrior's Way did even less business than Jonah Hex ("Ninjas… Damn!"). Should the producers of Cowboys & Aliens be quaking in their boots?

Knight & Day - This was supposed to reassert Tom Cruise's bankability, but it wound up grossing $76.4 million and turned out to be Mr. Cruise's least-attended star vehicle since Legend in 1986, before his Top Gun breakout. Knight & Day was Cruise's first full throttle go at the action comedy genre, but 20th Century Fox's marketing sabotaged it: the ads weren't clear about the movie's story or tone, making it look like a more brightly-lit version of Collateral and causing Cruise to seem unhinged in a self-referential nod to his off-screen behavior of recent years. It was bizarre to hear Muse's dramatic song "Uprising" pumped over what's supposed to be a summer romp. Not helping matters was an amateurishly abstract poster that offered white silhouettes instead of showing the stars.

The Sorcerer's Apprentice - Loosely adapting the Mickey Mouse cartoon from Fantasia, hopes were high for this Jerry Bruckheimer production, which reunited his National Treasure star Nicolas Cage and director Jon Turteltaub and had a July release like his first two Pirates of the Caribbean movies as well as the same mid-July, Wednesday-opening pattern as recent Harry Potter movies. But The Sorcerer's Apprentice came off as Enchanted for boys and wasn't serious or relatable enough to gain traction as a fantasy. Disney's marketing repeated its Prince of Persia mistake by just offering a murky, cheesy blur of special effects. The consequence was a $63.2 million total.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World - As with Kick-Ass, hype from the media and the small-but-vocal Comic-Con crowd created unrealistic expectations for this video-game-and-comic-book-inspired rock 'n' roll romantic action comedy. That breathless description is partly why Scott Pilgrim was such a weak geek, grossing $31.5 million: genre mash-ups often get rejected. Pilgrim's marketing seemed on point. It's just that the movie's self-referential, hipper-than-thou premise was obviously unappealing to a mainstream audience from the get-go, and yet this niche player was given a $60 million production budget.

Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole - While How to Train Your Dragon successfully sold what has been unsellable in the past, this awkwardly-and-blandly-titled animated adventure was another action-oriented animation disappointment, earning $55.7 million. The marketing presented generic and unrelatable fantasy, inspiring few to give a hoot.


You Again - 2010's hidden turkey was well-positioned as Disney's big fall comedy, had an aggressive marketing campaign behind it and featured the supposedly golden touch of Betty White. It should have been a hit, but the movie and its advertising seemed to take an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach (evidently not learning from Disney's Old Dogs the year before), convoluting the movie's premise of a woman dealing with her high school rival becoming her sister-in-law. Ms. White's quips were predictable and clearly tacked on to the overstuffed affair. The result was a mere $25.7 million gross.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader - While this suffered from the residual botching of predecessor Prince Caspian, it was cast as the comeback movie for the Narnia franchise: new distributor (20th Century Fox instead of Disney), a supposedly better-loved book, the 3D illusion and a return to the early December release that served The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe so well. But the marketers were too smitten with the first movie, rehashing the lion and the witch, and they relied heavily on the visual effects over story. No compelling reason was given for casual fans or the uninitiated to care. This looked like just another fantasy, and it showed in the attendance, which was about the same as Eragon and less than a quarter of the first Narnia. One plus is that Voyage will end up having a comparable post-opening hold to the first Narnia, reaching over $100 million.

How Do You Know - Despite the line-up of Reese Witherspoon, Owen Wilson, Paul Rudd and Jack Nicholson all working in their commercial comfort zones, writer-director James L. Brooks' December release barely eked past $30 million, faring considerably worse than Mr. Brook's last movie, the disappointing Spanglish. A low-key, low-stakes marketing campaign combined with a nondescript, noncommittal title led to audience indifference for the costly production (reportedly $120 million). (How Do You Know distributor Sony Pictures also had a romantic comedy bust in Dec. 2009 with Did You Hear About the Morgans?)

Little Fockers - Another overstuffed comedy, but, unlike You Again, it could still run off the fumes of its franchise and stars. It's difficult to maintain the momentum of a comedy franchise, but, even with that consideration, Little Fockers fell flat: not only will it gross less than the first two movies, it will see an over 55 percent drop-off in attendance from Meet the Fockers. Little Fockers' advertising rehashed scenes from the first two movies and provided no reason for people to care after six years since the last movie (which, though widely seen, was not widely liked). It also made a mess of the movie's premise (Is it about the children? Is it about Robert DeNiro making Ben Stiller the new patriarch? Why is Owen Wilson so prominent?), leaving the impression that everyone involved just reconvened to milk the franchise.

Gulliver's Travels - Movies don't get more rote and lazy than this. 20th Century Fox had a great success with Night at the Museum over Christmas 2006, which featured Ben Stiller playing with tiny people among other things, so they must have figured that enlisting another comic actor (Jack Black) in a similar fantastical family comedy would work like gangbusters. But this formula had already tired with Adam Sandler's Bedtime Stories and the Night at the Museum sequel, and Gulliver's Travels lacked the variety, historical context and heart of the first Night at the Museum. In its ads, Gulliver's Travels was just about Jack Black hanging out with little people, but without the purpose and scope of Jonathan Swift's tale. Gulliver will lumber past the $40 million mark, selling about an eighth of the tickets of Night at the Museum.

Critter Comedy Collapse - It's pretty sad when the top-grossing talking-animal movie of 2010 was Yogi Bear, which tried to mimic Alvin and the Chipmunks with its musical angle and pre-Christmas release but wound up doing barely average business for the previously bustling sub-genre. The biggest disappointment, though, was Marmaduke, which had prime summer positioning. Trying to imitate Chipmunks, Garfield: The Movie and Beverly Hills Chihuahua, the rote Marmaduke grafted on the talking angle to a non-talking property and the result was a not-so-Great Dane ($33.6 million). Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore was a sequel-no-one-asked-for released nine years after the first Cats & Dogs, leading to a predictably skimpy $43.6 million, despite being pushed in 3D. Furry Vengeance didn't even spring for talking animals, offering only the partially anthropomorphized variety. Hoping to recreate his lone family hit, George of the Jungle, Brendan Fraser was on hand to be viciously attacked by the animals in this environmentalist propaganda. Audiences, of course, avoided this human cruelty, and it made just $17.6 million.

Not as Bad as Their Reputations:

The Wolfman - Werewolves have been prominent recently in the Twilight and Underworld series, but those movies starred vampires. Werewolf-only movies have typically delivered modest numbers. The most popular one in recent memory was Wolf from 1994, and the sub-genre has been littered with flops. That's why it was puzzling that The Wolfman was ever thought of as a potential blockbuster, an intent indicated by its massive production budget (reportedly $150 million) and initially-planned release date (Nov. 2009). That said, it fared relatively well at the box office, delivering the top-grossing opening ever for a werewolf-only movie and ultimately ranking as the second highest-grossing werewolf-only movie on record with $62 million.

Kick-Ass - One of the most hyped movies of the year failed to live up to fraction of that hype. However, with a $48.1 million final gross, it would be unfair to call Kick-Ass a complete bust: It ranked as the top-grossing live-action superhero comedy on record, and that small sub-genre has mostly been riddled with failure (Mystery Men, Blankman, Superhero Movie, etc.).


Robin Hood - This could be viewed as a dud considering it was effectively "Gladiator 2:" same director (Ridley Scott), same star (Russell Crowe), similar style, May release, marketing emphasis, etc. But the reality was that Medieval Times movies usually suffer at the box office (including King Arthur and Mr. Scott's Kingdom of Heaven), and it was unreasonable to assume lightning would strike twice ten years later, especially with a property as exhausted as Robin Hood. There has been only one bona fide Medieval blockbuster in recent memory, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, and the new Robin Hood ranked as the second highest-grossing Medieval movie with $105.3 million. That made it a relative box office success, but it was burdened with a hefty production budget (a reportedly estimated $200 million).

Sex and the City 2 - It was surprising that the industry and the media seemed so bullish on this one: Comedy sequels tend to make less than their predecessors, and Sex and the City 2, which opened just two years after the first Sex and the City, lacked the first movie's four years of pent-up demand and audience build-up and the big-screen novelty. What's more, its predecessor was not universally loved, and it wrapped up all the storylines, leaving nowhere for the sequel to go. So the Sex 2 producers eschewed the city and randomly sent the ladies to the Middle East in a flagrant display of sequelitis (it should have been subtitled "The Legend of Carrie's Shoes"). For what was essentially a superfluous second episode, Sex and the City 2's $95.3 million gross and 62 percent retention of its predecessor's $152.6 million wasn't that bad.

Bankability: Actors that each had two duds in 2010 included Brendan Fraser (Extraordinary Measures, Furry Vengeance), Harrison Ford (Extraordinary Measures, Morning Glory), Michael Cera (Youth in Revolt, Scott Pilgrim), Kristen Bell (When in Rome, You Again), Jay Baruchel (She's Out of My League, The Sorcerer's Apprentice) and Jake Gyllenhaal (Prince of Persia, Love and Other Drugs). Matt Damon also headlined two flops (Green Zone and Hereafter) but found slight redemption with a supporting role in True Grit.

Owen Wilson had above-the-title billing in three disappointments, though wasn't the star of any of them, voicing Marmaduke and appearing in How Do You Know and Little Fockers, while Jack Black stumbled with Gulliver's Travels, following the failure of Year One in 2009. Even before his latest meltdown, few cared about Mel Gibson's return to acting in Edge of Darkness and its continuation of his tortured persona. Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson showed greater appeal in a family comedy (the modest Tooth Fairy) than in his return to action (the disastrous Faster), while John Travolta went bald and flopped hard in From Paris with Love. Megan Fox dominated the marketing for Jonah Hex and vacated her bread-and-butter Transformers franchise.

Kristen Stewart showed no drawing power outside of The Twilight Saga: Eclipse. She starred in three other movies (The Runaways, The Yellow Handkerchief, Welcome to the Rileys) that, combined, made 1.3 percent of Eclipse's gross. Robert Pattinson fared a bit better with Remember Me, though that was also a box office bust. Taylor Lautner will get his first test with Abduction later this year.

The big star snafu was The Tourist. While the picture's marketing vacillated between comedy and drama and presented an otherwise generic romp, it made the key mistake of resting on the laurels of star power. And it couldn't even get that right: there was the dissonance of Johnny Depp being shown as the main character and then getting second billing to Angelina Jolie, even though Depp is more popular, boasting the stronger box office track record. What's more, with two exotic stars, there was the issue of relatability, and, since Depp had a schlubby appearance anyway, one wonders why someone more down-to-earth wasn't cast (Mr. & Mrs. Smith worked because both Jolie and Brad Pitt played glamorous characters and there was no mystery or need for an audience surrogate).

A Litany of 2010's Other Follies: Buried, Case 39, Going the Distance, Greenberg, Let Me In, MacGruber (People barely tolerated the Saturday Night Live interstitial for free, so why would they pay for a feature-length version?), The Losers (lived up to its title), My Soul to Take, The Next Three Days, Skyline (Sure, it had a low budget, but it still performed at a fraction of the norm for alien invasion/disaster movies.), Splice, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (despite its topicality, it failed to have nearly the impact of the first movie).

2010 Review Continued:
'Inception,' 'True Grit' Impress Most in 2010
Attendance Crumbles in 2010

Related Charts
2010 Grosses (Only 2010 Releases)
2010 Month-by-Month



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