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Was “Rise of the Guardians” A Victim of the Bill Joyce Curse?

Let’s make one thing clear upfront: this post is not intended to be an indictment of Bill Joyce’s creative abilities. Bill is one helluva of a talent. His self-produced animated short, The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, won the Oscar earlier this year. He’s a bestselling children’s book illustrator and author. He co-created the successful preschool series Rolie Polie Olie that ran for six seasons. He has been instrumental in jumpstarting a burgeoning tech scene in Louisiana. You could comfortably call him a Southern born-and-bred Walt Disney, and not be accused of hyperbole.

The William Joyce brand has been uniformly successful across various media platforms—except for one arena: CG animated features. The irony is that no artist has had as much personal success in having his ideas transformed into computer animated films as Joyce. He has produced three big-budget animated films at three different studios—Blue Sky’s Robots, Disney’s Meet the Robinsons, and DreamWorks’ The Rise of the Guardians. A fourth is on its way—Blue Sky’s Epic.

Deadline reported earlier this week that DreamWorks may take a $45 million write-down due to the poor performance of Rise of the Guardians. The film has grossed a paltry $72.9 million dollars after 29 days at the U.S. box office, and likely won’t break $100 million at the box office.

To put that into perspective, only two other DreamWorks CGI films have failed to reach the $100 mil domestic mark—the studio’s first CG feature, Antz, which made $90.7 million in 1998, and Flushed Away which pulled in $64.7 million in 2006. (The latter film was conceived and largely produced at the UK’s Aardman Animations.)

The performance of Rise of the Guardians falls in line with the tepid performances of Joyce’s other films. The first animated feature that he produced (and production designed) was Blue Sky’s Robots in 2005. That film grossed $128.2 domestically. It ranks as the lowest-grossing Blue Sky feature to date. (In the interest of full disclosure, I wrote the “art of” tie-in book for Robots.)

Joyce’s next feature, Disney’s 2007 effort Meet the Robinsons was based on the popular book A Day with Wilbur Robinson that he wrote and illustrated. That film grossed $97.8 million in the US, and is the lowest-grossing Disney feature in the John Lasseter-era of the studio. Neither Robots nor Meet the Robinsons performed well overseas either.

Joyce has maintained his reputation in feature film largely because the production process has been different on each film, as has his level of involvement. In the case of Robots, he didn’t write the script; he production designed the film and was intimately involved from a visual storytelling standpoint. The other two films have been based on his story ideas, but he hasn’t been involved as much visually as he was with Robots. The upcoming Blue Sky film Epic will be the first time that Joyce will both produce and production design a film that is based on one of his stories.

There’s also a strong argument to be made that Joyce’s involvement has nothing to do with the finished films. The films are only loosely based on his original ideas, and numerous other people mold the finished film besides Joyce.

For me, it begs the question: Why even use Joyce in the first place if studios deviate so wildly from his concepts. This was actually a lesson that Pixar learned the hard way. After Joyce had created concept art for Toy Story, Pixar invited him to direct an animated short at the studio. The experience didn’t end well, and all mentions of the unproduced short have been scrubbed from the studio’s official histories.

However, multiple people have told me that the experience with Joyce was instrumental in Pixar’s decision to develop film ideas in-house instead of working with outsiders and relying on pre-existing books or media properties as source material. Pixar, it has to be stressed, is absolutely unique in this regard; all other major animation studios have used pre-existing stories for their films, including Disney, DreamWorks, Blue Sky, Sony and Illumination. Pixar’s commitment to building ideas from scratch with artists who understand the medium best is among the reasons that the studio’s films are widely respected from a creative standpoint.

If this were baseball, Rise of the Guardians would have been Bill Joyce’s third strike in the world of big-budget CG-animated features. Thankfully, animation isn’t baseball, and Joyce will receive a fourth chance at CG feature success next May. Fox and Blue Sky’s Epic may prove once and for all whether there is such a thing as the “Bill Joyce curse.”

  • wever

    Here’s something you might find interesting: Joyce embraces adaptation changes. He understands that movies cannot tell stories the same way books do, so he allows studios to do what they want with his stories regardless as to what he actually contributes to the films. This may not be for the better, considering that as a result he does not have a lot of creative control or writing control, making each film very un-Joyce.

    • Dana B

      I was thinking the same thing. Somethings are better left the way they are, but if a big shot studio wants to make an adaption of a written work, the author will let them do any changes in the film version to insure the greatest possible success.

      How to Train Your Dragon, for example, Toothless isn’t a large, jet-black dragon. In the book series, that is. He’s really a small, green dragon. The film isn’t solely based on the written series, but look at the sensation it has become.

      It’s a real shame Joyces’ adaptions haven’t fared well at theaters, even when hearing great things about RotG. Maybe things will turn around with Epic. I liked what I saw in the teaser, so I hope they do.

  • Julian

    Didn’t Don Bluth go through a similar phase in the 1990s? Rock a doodle, a Troll in Central Park, and The Pebble and the Penguin all failed miserably, much more so than any of Joyce’s have. Although these movies really were lame (at no fault of Don’s, he didn’t write them) and the lameness mixed with poor distribution and studio politics took a toll on his reputation to the average viewer and only because he had such a legacy was he able to redeem himself with Anastasia. It must be pretty scary making big budget feature films working with all those people, for even if the failure is all their fault, you get looked at as the “brains” behind it and your reputation is the one that gets fried.

  • Bob

    He just won the Oscar. What curse are you talking about?

    The ONLY good thing about Robots is the production design; and Wilbur Robinson would’ve been much better if they followed his book.

    As for Guardians — there are many types of success. It may not be a great financial success, but it’s a terrific, moving and surprisingly subtle film. It’s ‘legs’ will last much longer than box office — and if that’s not success, I don’t know what is.

    • wever

      I don’t think Rise Of The Guardians is as bad as people say it is. In fact, I think it’s the best of his adaptations so far.

  • Now I know this is not your intention (you’ve done your best to try and explain yourself in your opening comments) but for those of us who draw for a living it’s hard not to read this as an underhanded slap at a fellow artist.
    And not some half arsed scribbler, but a talented fellow who is really very good at what he does (which you are smart enough to acknowledge).
    Do you really think a discussion of whether a particular artist is box office poison is really a useful way to stimulate discussion about animation?
    You start off with praise and finish with a threat so your point is a mystery.

  • So that’s why Pixar doesn’t make adaptations. Interesting. Rise of the Guardians didn’t make its money back from the box office in the States, but adding in foreign numbers and it made its budget back (supposedly), so its not a total loss.

    • The rule of thumb is that studios get half of box office receipts. So to make back its $145 million production cost from theatrical release, Rise of the Guardians would have to earn $290 million worldwide. It has currently made $193 million worldwide, and most likely won’t reach $290 million.

      Movie accounting is complicated, but a $45 million write-down sounds reasonable considering how the film has underperformed.

  • Ted Herrmann

    More like the bad-script curse. Robinsons was awful. By the way, I believe Dreamworks touted Antz as a minor success in its day.

    • Remember that $90.7 million equalled a lot more admissions in 1998. Adjusted for inflation in 2012, Antz would have grossed $153.6 million domestically.

    • James

      That’s my view of it too. Robinsons wasn’t as bad as Robots, but it was still quite a mess of ideas and characters. That same “curse” will likely bring down Epic at this rate, though it seems the scripts are getting progressively better along the way.

      • Nik

        IMO, Guardians is also “quite a mess of ideas and characters.” And despite all the souped-up action sequences, the film and the characters weren’t very interesting. The film felt like bits and pieces taken from other stories/films, but that could be the fault of Dreamworks as well as Joyce.

  • Mac

    He seems to make subjects that have an element of fantasy violence and adventure. The idea that you have to go somewhere and do something, and travel a lot, put something somewhere, or turn something on, and bad guys trying to hurt good guys. Moms hate that violent stuff!

    • Rafa

      I agree completely with you.
      It’s a shame that the only genre that truly success in this media is the comedy. I also blame “soccer moms” for the stale status of mainstream western animation.

      • Mac

        I just think its silly to produce these big budget fantasies in this way, in the form of an expensive CG animation productions and distributions, because the audience literally doesn’t exist in any meaningful way. I don’t want to see movies like Epic or Dragons or Guardians, and I’m in huge company apparently. I am basically saying this Joyce guy is as much of a hack as any mercenary creative development type in Hollywood, but he’s very successful. This is not CS Lewis combining his faith and his writing in his Narnia, or even Tolkein with his geeky academic “philology”. This is a Hollywood artist doing the business of creativity, finding new appealing synthesis of “whats already been done by people who copied whats already been done by people who copy whats already been done by people like me.”

  • Justin

    On the bright side, whether or not its one of Dreamworks’ worst performing movies, it is one of their best in quality.

    • Steve

      I completely disagree. Visually, Guardians is one of their worst. KFP, Dragons are far superior. Heck even Puss in Boots looked better.

      The character design, animation (mocap-y looking), hair, lighting and effects looked totally phoned in. There were some shots I wondered if it was just default rendering and no lighting.

      • wever

        “Mo-cappy hair”?? No lighting? Were we watching the same film?

      • Justin

        I’ll give you the hair argument when it comes to North, it was distracting, but also the same thing that they did for beards in HtTYD. And we’re not at too big of a disagreement, because I’d put it in my top three of DWA, with Dragon and KFP2 being the other two favorites.

  • davo

    Rise of the Guardians is a massive failure, it’s ONLY made $193,194,230 worldwide………….

    • Uli Meyer

      Don’t be fooled by the amount of digits. If you paid $290 for something and sell it for $193 you have made a loss. The maths is the same.

  • Tim Hodge

    Let’s see…Mr. Joyce keeps getting paid to have his stories adapted into films. So much that he likely doesn’t have to work any more if he doesn’t want to.

    If that’s a curse, may the Lord strike me with it!

  • Blues

    I would argue that none of the films this man has touched have been any good. That includes the oscar winning Flying Books which was as sappy and nonsensical as they come.

    It’s entirely possible that none of this was Joyce’s fault given that big budgeted feature productions are a ridiculous mess of creative bureaucracy and executive meddling but it’s impossible to ignore that all these films tend to share the same glaring story flaws. Namely a meandering plot, a large cast of flimsy characters, and nauseating sentimentalism. I can’t speak for EPiC of course but I’m definitely expecting more of the same.

    This isn’t a critique on Joyce as an artist, as he certainly has a distinguished career in illustration and children’s literature. But filmmaking isn’t for everyone.

  • SKent.

    This is statistically insignificant. We’re only talking about 3 released films here. And we’re only talking about underperforming here. It’s one thing to end up with less money than you had to start with, it’s another thing entirely to lose almost every penny put into the film. There is a long, long history of animated box-office disasters. Unmitigated studio-destroying catastrophes. These films have not been on that level.

    It’s way premature to start talking about any ‘curse'(even if just as an attention-grabbing headline). There’s clearly a market out there for the stuff. They do respectable numbers, if the production budgets would’ve been more reasonable. It’s a substantial audience.

    Secondly, we can speculate about box-office $$s till the cows come home. Nothing of value will be learned. It’s not why I come here.

    • Three of something in another field might be statistically insignificant, but in feature animation, it is somewhat substantial to produce three big-budget features. You can say it’s premature to discuss, but no outsider producers to my knowledge have ever produced three underperforming CG films for major studios, and then received a fourth chance.

      Further, the three films that have Joyce’s imprint haven’t just performed mildly, but at the absolute bottom of the list. For Disney, it is the lowest grossing Lasseter-era film, and for Blue Sky, it is their lowest grossing film ever.

      • M. Danby

        I strongly disagree that three is statistically insignificant here. While it might be if you were talking about the universe of all movies, however the article is focusing much more narrowly on the oeuvre of Joyce’s cinematic work in which case three is practically the entire body of his work. The point of the article wasn’t that Joyce’s movies were the worst ever, but rather that Joyce has somehow managed to charm his way to a virtually unprecedented fourth crack at the Hollywood nut after an uninterrupted string of three unqualified box office failures.

        • SKent.

          Except that Robots wasn’t a box office failure. A mediocre movie absolutely, but quite a healthy performance financially.

          Which leaves us with 2 movies, one of which hasn’t finished it’s theatrical run.

          And let’s not distort things here, ‘Epic’ has been in production long before anyone could say whether Guardians would hit or miss.

      • Don’t forget Robinsons was also the first of the Disney “Lasseter-era films” and one that he only gave notes on after the film was mostly complete, so he and Catmull had only minor creative contributions to the film.

        Likely because of that, it got a minimal marketing push with few tie-ins (no happy meals, Disney Channel promotions, etc).

        If you compare the meta critic scores of these films, there is no significant plus or minus to these films critically when compared against ALL of their contemporaries.

        Looking forward to the forthcoming “Lasseter curse” headline where it’s pointed out he directed all of Pixar’s worst films, or Dr. Suess for that matter.

  • M.V

    The thing about some of these comments. People need to actually see the movies to realize they had “glaring story flaws” or “flimsy characters” Its not like “Rise of the Guardians” opened big and dropped off. Its not like it had bad reviews. People just didn’t go.

    I think what alot of these lacked is a degree of familiarity or observation. I look at that Guardians picture and not a single one of those “icons” is recognizable. Robots suffered a similar fate. It was just sort of odd and convoluted looking. a lot of production design masturbation but nothing familiar or immediate that people could latch on to, so the fun of the premise is completely lost. Films like “Meet the Robinson’s” are worse.look at the cast of characters, or the trailers. What is that film about? what are those characters about? Who the #&@^ knows unless they actually watch the damn thing, and who is going to want to watch it without a hook to pull them in..

  • B’ini

    The problem is that studios aim for a wider, older audience and Joyce’s work is perfect for the younger set. I thought Rise of the Guardians was way too intense for young ones. The successes mentioned – Morris Lessmore, Rollie Pollie Ollie were made for Joyce’s intended audience. “The curse” is trying to amp up the films for older audiences who aren’t interested in the Easter Bunny.

  • i thought there was an article here recently which stated Rise of the Guardians had quietly become a hit?..

  • Too many innapropiate stories get made into films.Just because a picture book has great illustrations doesn’t mean it’s going to be a great film.I immagine a lot of studio execs who greenlight these stories get swayed by a bestseller without sufficient analysis and plow ahead…

  • hitface

    personally i think pixars movies are getting kind of repetitive and boring because of their tendency to keep to themselves. Its not so much that their movies are unique, to me, as they just have a lot of repeat elements which make them a pixar movie. Even when a Dream works Movie is bad, i at least feel like I’m watching a different movie than whatever they put out last.
    I wont comment on the ‘Joyce Curse’ because I am merely an animation fan, not an animator, and I have no idea how the industry truly works. I just know what I like, and I was a pretty big fan of Rise of the Guardians, though it did have its faults. my main belly ache is that they apparently couldnt be bothered varying the races(and no, 2 black kids that mainly hang in the background do not count)but practically every movie in the history of the earth has this problem.

  • Toonio

    Not because you are successful in one area. it will make you successful in another just by default.

    Agree. The guy is a genius on his own terms but you are always good as your last film. So much for the beleaguered “from the creators of….” CARS 2 *cough* *cough* (68% rating on rotten tomatoes just don’t mention the freaking toy sales).

    I don’t feel the stars will align for Epic though. It’s will be a great film just for some and not all.

  • axolotl

    Not sure if there can be a Bill Joyce curse when those movies look like they could have been made by anybody.

  • C. Svonkin

    Amid, I really enjoy your site and books. Thanks for all that. I think you might have counted Rise of TG out too soon, here. It won’t be a mega-hit, but as of today it’s brought in, according to BO Mojo:

    Total Lifetime Grosses
    Domestic: $79,694,000 35.8%
    + Foreign: $142,900,000 64.2%
    = Worldwide: $222,594,000

    I’ll bet it’ll bring in another 15 million or so domestically and another 50 m. or so world-wide, getting it close to the black. Then, it’ll make a small but decent profit via DVD and TV sales. More tellingly, I think Joyce is a talented and creative picture book author/illustrator and design guy. His Robots designs were great. I’m a lot more positive about the quality of Meet the Robinsons and Rise than many here–I liked both. Joyce’s someone to watch. I’m curious what his Shreveport studio, Moonbot, will become, and I’m intrigued by their attempt to do books, apps, and films. Cheers!

  • bob saget

    I don’t think it’s so much Joyce is cursed as the movie’s just aren’t as good. When I first heard of ROTG I thought ‘great another campy holiday movie’ and it wasn’t until I saw the Jack Frost character trailer that it made me think otherwise, and even then when I saw it in theaters I still couldn’t take any of the other characters too seriously (just look at the number of ‘minions’), except Jack Frost who was amazing. Take Pitch, when I read his back story from Joyce’s book I thought it was really moving, *spoiler* he was basically a general who was in charge of keeping back the dark creatures, but who could only think of his daughter back home Then one day he was tricked by one who disguised itself as his daughter begging to be let out. So he opens their cage, and they drive him to madness. How much cooler is that than the ‘I just want to be loved’ plot?
    To be honest I see the same thing happening with Epic, it’s getting better (except for that talking slug), but they still aren’t taking that leap of sincerity that Pixar or Don Bluth has. I’m not saying you can’t have a fun comedy, I would just like less “oh I’m a guardian but I’m also a rabbit so we’ll make rabbit jokes about me for the entire movie.” That said William Joyce has more creativity in his pinky than I could smoke weed for! haha.

    • bob saget

      * and by loved I mean believed in sorry lol

  • Alison Parker

    What is this article even about?! Are you saying “Don’t see his movies.” or “Do see his movies.”? Seriously, Mr. Joyce is an amazing storyteller. Movie studios have their own problems, usually money driven executives without an ounce of creativity in them. When you take a great idea and throw Robin Williams + a horrific amount of fart jokes in, you’re bound to ruin it. I have 5 children, ranging in age from 2 to 12 and they absolutely loved Rise of the Guardians. We’ve spent a great deal of time talking about the story, picking it apart, and comparing it to real life. It’s been voted our #1 family favorite this year. If William Joyce can create stories like this, I say let him have at it, and get the fart-joke pushers out of his way.

  • What happens at Pixar, stays at Pixar.

  • beau


    “This was actually a lesson that Pixar learned the hard way…The experience didn’t end well, and all mentions of the unproduced short have been scrubbed from the studio’s official histories.”

    So what did happen at Pixar? Was he fired, have a huge falling out or what?

  • aj

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  • Chris

    hey um last time i checked guardians has actually become a succes you know surpassing all expectation grossed over 100 mill in the staes 300 million worldwide and counting and has the biggest cult following ever, and hell dreamworks still wants a sequel they admitted it was a mistake going up against skyfall breaking dawn and the hobbit. now they know what to do with this and guardians will become huge in the future the amazon preorders are already good for the movie

    • Nathan

      Cult following?!

  • I do not agree that this was a bad move on the behalf of Bill Joyce as being a third strike on the diamond. The books are wonderful, children love them, and taking material from the book and animating it for the screen, proves that there is much need for Joyce’s talents.

  • thanatosgrimreaper

    In my opinion rise of the guardians is the most awesome movie ever. And in no way am I a crazy obessed fan girl.

  • gail

    I really loved Rise of the Guardians but it failed in having a Russian Santa, and a scary, unlikeable Easter Bunny. Who the heck chose Santa to be a Russian with that annoying accent? Epic was amazing with its shots and rendering. It will be nominated for an Oscar. I also loved Meet the Robinsons and Robots. I’m sure all of them will exceed their budget by millions of dollars if they haven’t already done so through DVD sales because they are classic. I don’t know about you, but making millions is a success in my book. Bill Joyce is a master at his art.

  • vicki

    I have to say that I liked the rise of the guardians. And I love the books. I didn’t however go to the cinema to see the film as it is ridiculously priced and I believe many people feel the same and wait for the dvd to come out. So of course the box office would not take the money they want but these people need to realise that a lot of us just dont have the money to go to the cinema these days. So in fact I belive its the curse of the box office not William Joyce. Now I hope he releases a novel about jack frost.