Why’d it Bomb? Most Movies based on Cartoons

More often than not, when animated TV shows try to make the jump to the big screen they fall flat on their faces.  Kevthewriter thinks he knows why audiences ignore movies like last year’s My Little Pony: The Movie.

A while back, I wrote a “Why’d it Bomb?” about live action movies based on cartoons. But there’s another sub-genre many don’t really talk about which is an animated movie based off of a cartoon. Sometimes, like with Smurfs: The Lost Village, it’s an animated movie based off of a cartoon that ended decades ago but there’s also a genre of animated movies that are based off of cartoons that are still running that use the original cast and crew and are released in theaters.

Some of these movies are hits like:

  • The first two Rugrats movies
  • The South Park movie
  • Pokemon: The First Movie
  • The two Spongebob movies
  • And The Simpsons Movie

But then there are a lot that bomb or just underperform at the box office like:

  • Doug’s 1st Movie
  • Any of the Pokemon sequels that were released in theaters (at least domestically)
  • Digimon: The Movie
  • Recess: School’s Out
  • Hey Arnold! The Movie
  • The Powerpuff Girls Movie
  • The Wild Thornberrys Movie
  • The third Rugrats movie (which was also a crossover with The Wild Thornberrys oddly enough)
  • Teachers Pet The Movie (you probably don’t even remember the show, do you?)
  • Yu-Gi-Oh! The Movie
  • And My Little Pony: The Movie

But what is it that causes some of these movies to be hits at the box office while others are ignored?

I’ll tell you: recognizability.

Look at the list of ones that were hits at the box office, whether they were aimed at kids or adults: their shows that most people have heard about. Even if you’ve never watched a minute of Nickelodeon in your life, you probably know about Rugrats or Spongebob somehow. The Simpsons Movie was a hit in large part because The Simpsons is a cultural institution that, even if it has lost popularity over the years, is still a strong enough brand that it’s going to bring butts in seats just by being called The Simpsons Movie. You could make the whole movie Homer using the toilet for 90 minutes and it would still make a lot of money even if it came out today. While The South Park Movie came out while the show was only 2 years old, and therefore is probably the lowest grossing movie of that list, it’s growing popularity at the time helped make it money. And the first Pokemon movie came out at the time the franchise was at its most popular which definitely helped it at the box office.

On the other hand, look at, well, the rest of the list. Pokemon, as a franchise, has had its up and downs, but it’s also a franchise that’s never gone away, it just seem like there are years where it’s more popular than when it’s not. For example, in 2016, the franchise became really darn popular again when Pokemon Go came out. Now, thanks in part to all the glitches in Pokemon Go, it’s back to being more of a niche franchise. That might explain why there were diminishing returns to the Pokemon sequels. When the sequels came out the popularity had died down which, in effect, caused the sequels to make less money at the box office. The lack of popularity also explains why Rugrats Go Wild, the third Rugrats movie, bombed at the box office because, by then, Rugrats was no longer even close to being Nickelodeon’s most popular show as it was now Spongebob that was the flagship show (well that and I’m sure people were turned off by the title). Similar thing with The Powerpuff Girls Movie: while it may have been Cartoon Network’s most popular show when it first came out, by the time the movie hit theaters, the hype died down and, therefore, it got buried at the box office.

Back to anime though, while Digimon and Yu-Gi-Oh! were popular, they were never THAT popular, they were basically seen as Pokemon wannabes by many outside those show’s fanbase (especially those older than 12). Therefore, because they weren’t quite the phenomenons Pokemon was, they just didn’t deliver at the box office.

Let’s also look at the other movies based off cartoons from the late 90’s/early 00’s. The reason The Rugrats Movie did well was because it came out when the show was popular. Doug, Recess, Hey Arnold, and The Wild Thornberrys may have had solid ratings but they weren’t huge. Unless you were a kid who watched Nickelodeon or ABC’s One Saturday Morning or a parent of a kid watching Nickelodeon or ABC’s One Saturday Morning, you probably had never heard of these shows. So, because there was more of a limited audience, these movies didn’t do well at the box office.

While not an animated movie, it could also explain why Good Burger, Nick’s attempt at making a live action movie based on one of their properties, didn’t make that much money. All That itself might have had good ratings but, when it comes to pop culture relevance, it was no Saturday Night Live, it was basically just popular within Nickelodeon’s demographic and, at least at the time, the Good Burger brand wasn’t that recognizable outside of the kids watching Nickelodeon, causing it to not do well at the box office.

That and, well, some of these movies just looked terrible. The Recess and Wild Thornberrys movies basically just looked like par the course for the shows but Doug and Hey Arnold were basically slice of life shows so to turn them into Monster Movies or Spy Movies just looked ridiculous and most likely turned some off (even as a kid I thought it was weird).

But most of them are forgettable, with the exceptions of the ones aimed at an older crowd like Simpsons and (definitely) South Park. Even the kid-aimed ones I mentioned above are forgettable outside those elements.

Therefore, the reason most of these movies bombed is that what causes any one of these movies to be a hit is just how recognizable the brand is. Everyone knows who Spongebob is so his movies did well at the box office. Eliza Thornberry (you probably had to Google that, didn’t you?) and Arnold just aren’t household names, unless your household includes children, so their movies didn’t do well.

Weird thing is, it seemed like Hollywood learned their lesson from this and somewhere in the mid-00’s, with the exception of The Simpsons Movie, stopped doing this and just stuck to making live action movies based off of cartoons. But, after the second Spongebob Movie, it’s back. We’ve already had a My Little Pony Movie and there are some movies based off of popular current children’s shows in development. There’s even a Teen Titans Go! movie coming out.

And, like before, it’s not just limited to children’s shows. Bob’s Burgers is getting a movie.

Yeah, maybe Hollywood needs to take a step back and remember what happened last time they tried to cash off the success of The Rugrats Movie. It…it didn’t last long. If the My Little Pony Movie’s box office results are anything to go by, it does kinda seem like history might be repeating itself. I guess we’ll just have to see what happens from here!


Posted on February 12, 2018, in Why'd it bomb?. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. I will offer a perspective from another generation. We really didn’t have these kinds of movies when I was a kid. Back then, animation was too expensive to make a feature film based on a kid’s TV show. Most animated movies were Disney and they took years to make. Then there were the Don Bluth movies and a few one offs.

    In the mid-to-late 80’s you started getting the cheap movies based on cartoons that were really toy commercials to begin with. Transformers, He-Man and the original My Little Pony movie. When that last one bombed, Hasbro changed their plans for the GI Joe movie to go direct-to-video instead of theaters.

    That’s a key thing here. A lot of these movies are meant to make most of their money on video. The theatrical release is intended to increase DVD sales. The idea is to get the DVD out in time to piggyback on the money you spent marketing the movie.

    Disney got into this business model with Return to Neverland, but they quickly abandoned this approach when they realized that it hurt their sales at Wal-Mart. At the time Wal-Mart was the biggest retailer for DVD’s and their strategy for which movies to feature factored in box office performance. So Return to Neverland didn’t get the same preferential treatment a Disney direct-to-DVD movie would have gotten from the chain. If not for that, we would have seen a lot more Disney sequels go to theaters.

    Recognizability is a factor. So is timing. As you point out, a lot of these movies get to theaters as the show is losing popularity. Kids age out of things or move on to the next thing quickly. It’s tough to get a movie in theaters quickly enough to capitalize on most kids’ shows. And then you have to differentiate the movie from the show in some way. As a parent, I don’t want to spend money taking my kids to see something at the movies that they can watch on TV. It’s pretty easy to delay them a couple weeks and then they have forgotten about the movie. Next thing you know, it’s on DVD or even basic cable.

    A lot of times, these movies benefit from being the only “family” movie in theaters at a time when kids are out of school. I know I suffered through a couple because they were the only options during Spring Break. If they had any competition, they’d have gotten steam rolled.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I saw “Hey Arnold: The Movie” in the theater when I was seven years old, and it was a big staple of my childhood because I was a fan of “Hey Arnold”. (I still watch the reruns.) After reading this excellent article, I can see why it bombed. “Hey Arnold” was in its final season by then, and it was clear the writers were running out of ideas.

    However, “Hey Arnold: the Jungle Movie” was aired on Nickelodeon last year. It wrapped everything up in a perfect little bow. Once you strike out in the theater, you can go back to TV.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Out of those in the pipeline, I’d say only Bob’s Burgers has a shot at breaking the curse, so to speak. The show’s writing is very strong and the characters are multidimensional enough that it could withstand a transition to the big screen without feeling like an extended remix of a regular episode – which, on a surface level, is also one the biggest problems with these movie adaptations.


    • Yeah the problem with most of these movies is they kinda walk a fine line, they have to up the stakes and feel like a cinematic adventure while still remaining true to the spirit of the show. But most of them decide just to make it feel like a 90-minute episode with maybe slightly better animation than you’d see on TV.


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