Like everyone else, I love a good train wreck. I especially love a good Development Hell story and a good Marketing Gone Wrong story. So when I saw this article in the NY Times recently, I thought “Jackpot!”. It was the story of Foodfight!, one of the greatest animated disasters of our time.
Foodfight! is a computer-animated film that intended to do for groceries what Toy Story did for toys. Sure, Toy Story is a classic, but don’t forget that it features already-established products like Slinky Dog and Mr. Potato Head, as well as cameos by Etch-A-Sketch and View-Master. It may not have been true product placement: Toy Story was a huge gamble for Disney because it was the first major feature film to be entirely computer-animated. Still, by including these familiar products, Toy Story appealed to nostalgic adult viewers. Generic versions may not have achieved that. It also lent itself to reviving some of those products. It’s not like Slinky Dog was a hot toy before Toy Story came out in 1995.
With that mindset, in 2000, independent studio Threshold Animation announced that it was making its own computer-animated movie that featured established food brand mascots. In fact, 80 different brand mascots made appearances, although, like Toy Story, the major characters were generic. The intention was to use the movie to turn those characters into food and household product mascots in their own right. While Threshold’s strategy is ethically dubious, it makes some sense when you compare it to Toy Story. Over the next couple of years, Foodfight! merchandising deals were made, then-relevant celebrities like Charlie Sheen and Hilary Duff provided voices, and everything seemed to be on track. Then in 2002, the year the movie was supposed to be released, the studio was broken into and part of the film was stolen with no backups to depend on. Whether or not that actually happened doesn’t matter. The rest, as they say, is history. (Read the article for the rest of the crazy story. The NY Times tells it better than I would.)
However, when you put aside all the production problems and moral issues, I doubt Foodfight! would have reached a Toy Story-level of success. Kids are attracted to animated movies regardless of quality, but it shouldn’t be a surprise that the highest-grossing animated movies tend to be genuinely good ones. Toy Story and its sequels are well-written films that put most of the focus on the story and make even the pre-existing toys well-developed characters. Based on this 15-minute highlight video from YouTube, the brand mascots of Foodfight! are little more than props that occasionally make jokes. Another one of Foodfight!‘s biggest problems is in its concept: kids’ relationships with brand mascots don’t have the same depth that they do with toys. I had a stuffed Snuggle Bear when I was little, but I really only knew who he was because of the TV commercials, where he’s more like a teddy bear. My Snuggle Bear had nothing to do with the two-dimensional character on the fabric softener bottle. Not that the Snuggle Bear appears in Foodfight!, although Mr. Clean and the Brawny guy do, and we all know how much kids love them. The characters on the DVD cover are probably the most kid-friendly ones in the movie, but I doubt there are many people of any age who are particularly attached to Charlie the Tuna or the Vlasic pickle bird. (I accidentally called it the Claussen’s pickle bird before I looked more closely at the DVD cover and saw “Vlasic” written on its hat. That should say it all.)
The lesson here is that brand loyalty is not enough to sell a movie. Threshold Animation placed so much importance on marketing Foodfight! that they neglected to make a decent product. I know hindsight is 20/20, but this kind of thing happens over and over again. Someone thought making a sitcom based on the Geico cavemen was a good idea and look how that turned out.
I blame the California Raisins, who disprove most of what I just said. And yes, they do make an appearance in Foodfight!.