Despite aggressive push, 'Flushed Away' struggles

DreamWorks' animated film may be too quirky for American audiences

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tstanley@crain.com

a bit too british, a bit too quirky and not enough of a storyline to help it break from the animation mold.

That's the take on why "Flushed Away," which seemed to be a surefire winner from hit factory DreamWorks Animation, disappointed at the box office despite a heavy mass-market ad campaign, splashy tie-ins with major food marketers and an online game produced by entertainment guru Mark Burnett.

"Flushed," from the home of the hugely lucrative "Shrek" franchise, has brought in $50 million in box-office receipts despite a production budget three times that amount. The studio, run primarily by Disney alum Jeffrey Katzenberg, said in a Securities and Exchange Commission filing that there could be a significant earnings write-down on the project, estimated by analysts at anywhere from $45 million to $90 million in the fourth quarter.

too much to absorb

The weak performance is partly due to the glut of animation in the marketplace. This year and next, Hollywood will churn out some 30 animated family movies, more than at any other time in film history. Industry veterans say that might be too much for kids and their parents to absorb. Those movies are also competing at the multiplex with live-action fare such as "Pirates of the Caribbean" and "Talladega Nights."

Moreover, audiences that marveled at early computer-generated movies six years ago have now become accustomed to the genre, raising the bar for a fresh story with a unique approach, a la "Happy Feet," which opened at $42.3 million, to engage them. By contrast "Flushed Away," a tale about British sewer rats produced by the U.K.'s Aardman Animations ("Chicken Run" and "Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit") missed the mark with American moviegoers.

"Aardman movies are an acquired taste," said Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office-tracking firm Exhibitor Relations Co. "They're sort of like Monty Python-they're not for everyone."

An executive close to the production said the movie is expected to do well in England and some other international markets, where it hasn't yet opened, but that the film had too many British catchphrases and scenarios for U.S. audiences. For instance, the plot revolved around the World Cup, which isn't as familiar to American moviegoers, and the rats weren't cute and cuddly.

niche audience

"At its DNA, it's an Aardman movie, which means it's an art movie," the executive said. "It has a niche audience."

DreamWorks declined to comment.

The results come despite the fact that the studio aligned with Kellogg Co. for sweepstakes, giveaways and promotions on millions of cereal, snack, cookie and cracker packages and with McDonald's for Happy Meal tie-ins. It also linked with AOL and Mark Burnett Productions on the online game "Flushed Away Underground Adventure." But the efforts weren't enough to lure consumers.

Receipts for the film haven't been that bad, though-until you benchmark it against the production cost. "Taken at face value, $50 million for an animated family movie is not so bad," Mr. Dergarabedian said. "It's just bad when it's compared to the budget.
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