Yellow Submarine may not be departing anytime soon. Disney confirmed to EW that it’s no longer involved with director Robert Zemeckis’ 3-D animated remake of the Beatles’ 1968 movie. Disney says the decision to abandon Submarine was made several months ago, so last weekend’s disastrous $6.9 million opening for the studio’s Zemeckis-produced Mars Needs Moms can’t be blamed. But it surely doesn’t help Submarine‘s prospects for finding another distributor. “This is a monkey-see, monkey-do business,” says one rival studio executive, “and Mars probably will make some people back away.”
Mars was made for a reported $150 million by Zemeckis’ now-defunct ImageMovers Digital studio, which specialized in motion-capture animation. (Disney announced last March that it would be closing the studio once production on Mars was completed). Motion capture involves recording an actor’s performance via computer sensors, and then using that performance data to construct an animated character that may or may not resemble the original actor. Zemeckis pioneered many of the industry’s motion-capture techniques in his last three films — The Polar Express, Beowulf, and A Christmas Carol — before James Cameron’s Avatar took the technology to another plane. The process is extremely expensive, and there is also a delicate balance in making motion-capture characters too human. Zemeckis’ films, in particular, have been criticized for entering what’s known as the “uncanny valley.” That is, the animation is so lifelike that moviegoers become acutely aware of any detail that’s slightly off, such as the “dead eyes” found on characters in The Polar Express.
But the public’s tepid response to Mars Needs Moms shouldn’t be interpreted as the death of motion capture by any means. After all, Avatar, which managed to use motion capture while steering clear of the “dead-eye syndrome,” grossed a record $2.8 billion worldwide. “I don’t think Mars is an indictment of [motion capture] at all,” says a studio executive. “Disney just missed the market. You ought to be able to put Disney’s name on your underwear and open to double digits. But they had a movie that looked real juvenile and a campaign that wasn’t compelling.”
What happens now to Zemeckis’ Yellow Submarine, which would have also employed motion capture and had already formed its cast, remains to be seen. Zemeckis is free to shop the project around to other studios, but the Oscar-winning director has also been reportedly considering a return to live-action for the first time since 2000’s Cast Away. “[Zemeckis] is such a talented guy that he should rise above this,” says an executive from another studio. “I would never say that he’s not capable of coming back with a monster.”