24 Frames

Movies: Past, present and future

Category: Animal movies

'Water for Elephants' lawsuit is dismissed

December 1, 2011 |  5:29 pm

A suit against the trainers for the elephant in Water for Elephants has been dropped

Shortly after the Robert Pattinson-Reese Witherspoon film  "Water for Elephants" hit theaters in April, a dark cloud appeared over the delicate period romance.

A video purporting to show the film's elephant star, Tai, being trained with electric shock devices and bull hooks began to circulate. The footage was so disturbing that the animal-protection group Animal Defenders International -- which released the surreptitiously recorded video -- had two of its members file a lawsuit against Tai's owners, the Perris, Calif.-based Have Trunk Will Travel.

On Tuesday, a federal judge dismissed the lawsuit, in which the ADI members, Gail Profant and Leslie Hemstreet, said they purchased tickets to the 20th Century Fox film believing that its animal star had been treated humanely. While the judge did not rule on the facts of how Tai was treated, he said the plaintiffs could not continue with the litigation because they did not allege that "any portion" of the ticket price benefitted Have Trunk Will Travel.

In a statement, Have Trunk Will Travel owners Gary and Kari Johnson said that while they were "thrilled with the result," they still found that having to "defend against these types of allegations is disheartening, especially when the publicity from the movie drew such strong support for elephant conservation and research projects."

After receiving word of the ruling Thursday, Animal Defenders International said its attorneys and the plaintiffs were "reviewing their options." Fox had no comment on the judge's decision. 

In an interview with The Times last year, Witherspoon said she grew so close to Tai on set that she wept on the final day of production.

"The day I had to say goodbye to her, I wept all day," she recalled. "You work with actors and directors, but to have this nonverbal complete relationship with an animal that we were all very connected to was very magical."


2011 Movie Preview: 'Water for Elephants'

Using animals in films leads to a jungle of issues

Animal activists protest elephant rides at San Diego County Fair

-- Amy Kaufman


Photo: Robert Pattinson with Tai the elephant in a scene from "Water for Elephants." Credit: 20th Century Fox

'Dolphin Tale': Who are Winter's real-life friends?

September 26, 2011 |  5:00 am

Dophin tale

If you caught "Dolphin Tale" in theaters this weekend and stayed for the end credits, you saw Winter swimming with some human friends who share similar challenges. We spoke to several of them to find out more about their stories.

When Maja Kazazic moved to Florida 11 years ago, she quickly became a regular visitor to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, a facility that rescues wounded fish, mammals and other animals, nurses them back to health and, when possible, releases them back to the wild. But it wasn’t just her soft spot for dolphins that attracted her to the aquarium. It was the fact that “I feel like a bit of a rescue myself,” said Kazazic, a website designer.

A native of Bosnia, Kazazic was injured by a rocket-propelled grenade in 1993, at the age of 16. The six friends with her all died; Kazazic's left leg was amputated (without anesthesia) in a makeshift hospital. She developed an infection; the U.S. government arranged for her to leave the country, and she underwent rehabilitation in a hospital in Maryland. But she had to endure multiple operations and now uses an artificial leg.  “I ended up being a quilt,” she said.

At the aquarium, Kazazic found a particularly kindred spirit — a plucky bottlenose dolphin named Winter — nearly six years ago. At just a few months old, Winter had to have her tail amputated after she became entangled in a crab trap and was injured. Two prosthetic experts from Hanger Prosthetics and Orthotics (which has numerous branches across the country) came to Winter’s rescue, creating the first artificial limb of sorts for a dolphin. They have continued to create prosthetic tails for the animal as she has grown.

Winter’s story quickly became an international sensation. “She has inspired 3-year-old kids and 99-year-old men,” said David Yates, the aquarium’s chief executive. “We have had a lot of soldiers who have lost limbs or have had some type of brain injury [be inspired by her]. The reason why Winter inspires so many people is that it’s an easily relatable story. You look at Winter. She’s little. She has had massive issues. But she’s happy. She’s not cowering in the corner.”

Now Winter is starring as herself in the movie “Dolphin Tale,” which opened Friday. The end of the film features some clips of Kazazic and other real-life fans of the mammal interacting with her.

“I remember seeing her" for the first time, said Kazazic, whose company designed Winter’s website. “I instantly connected with her missing a tail and me missing a leg, being rescued…. She reminded me so much of me. She was like me in dolphin form. I would go see her once or twice a week. It was sort of my refuge.”

Continue reading »

Life in a time of 'Rio:' Just how dominant could animation get?

April 18, 2011 |  7:30 am


At this point, it's more notable when a new animated movie doesn't win the box office than when it does. The latter has been happening a lot lately. In a winter-spring period when few movies have mobilized us to the theater, animated movies have been the exception.

No film demonstrated that better than this weekend's  "Rio," Carlos Saldanha's fish-out-of-water story (with a bird), which took in $40 million on its opening weekend, the first time in 2011 any picture has done that. (It's already piled on $168 million overseas.) And the movie's U.S. run appears to be just getting going. North American filmgoers gave the Brazil-set, Jesse Eisenberg-voiced picture an "A" on CinemaScore, suggesting that many more of us will  continue to come out in the weeks that follow.

The movie's success is hardly unique among the computer-imaged animal set. Before "Rio," the opening-weekend figure to beat this year, according to Box Office Mojo, belonged to "Rango," the Johnny Depp-voiced western about an outcast chameleon. Not far behind that was "Hop," the hybrid Easter comedy that demonstrated the power of animation: The movie got people into theaters despite the presence of Russell Brand.

Animation has been increasing as a part of our movie-going diet for a while now. In 2010, animated movies made up fully half of the box-office top 10, the first time that's ever happened. So far this year, the above trio of animated releases opened stronger than movies featuring Justin Bieber, Adam Sandler and a superhero. Tweens, comedy lovers and fanboys may be considered the most prized constituencies in moviedom, but none of them turn out like an animated film's core audience.

Why has the category become so dominant?  For one, supporters point out, filmmaking talent has migrated there. There are a lot more animated movies than ever, and they are, on the whole, better than ever. Once a monolithic niche, animation now boasts not only Pixar at the top of its game but a Fox division firing on all cylinders ("Rio"), a DreamWorks Animation finding its stride post-"Shrek" and even live-action filmmakers, such as Gore Verbinski, the "Pirates of the Caribbean" director who helmed "Rango" with the producing help of Graham King, a key force behind "The Departed."

Continue reading »

'Rio' kicks off a Brazilian beauty boom

April 14, 2011 |  8:37 pm

Rio Movies set in Rio de Janeiro have often showcased its grittier side -- the Brazilian city's shantytowns served as locations for the 2002 Oscar-nominated crime drama "City of God," the 2005 documentary of slum life "Favela Rising" and Bruce Banner's hideaway in 2008's "The Incredible Hulk."

But Hollywood is presenting a decidedly more tourist-friendly view of Rio this year, highlighting its bustling beaches, dramatic mountaintop statues and charming locals in everything from an animated family film to a street-racing franchise to the next "Twilight" installment.

In the animated "Rio," which opens this weekend, a domesticated macaw named Blu (voiced by Jesse Eisenberg) ventures far from his cozy home in Minnesota to the exotic, colorful land of his birth. The movie depicts icons of the Brazilian metropolis (which you can check out in this photo gallery) like the massive Christ the Redeemer statue atop Corcovado mountain, the samba dancers of Carnival and the antique trolley cars. The music was executive produced by Brazilian bossa nova king Sergio Mendes.

"Rio is a tough city, and people are very skeptical about it getting better," said Carlos Saldanha, the native Brazilian director of "Rio." "This movie brings a message of hope. Hopefully it will open people’s eyes."

The Brazilian tourism board is also optimistic about the persuasive potential of Saldanha's film, creating a short promotional video titled "Brazil Calls You. Celebrate Life Here" to run before screenings of the film this weekend.

"Fast Five," the next installment of the "Fast and the Furious" franchise is set in Rio as well, and the "Fast Five" trailer opens with a shot of the Christ the Redeemer statue. "Fast Five" will live stream its premiere from Rio this Friday, and has had stars Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson riding the city's cable cars with reporters all week.

These cinematic travelogues come in advance of another event that should set all eyes on Brazil  -- the Rio-set 2016 Olympics.

But the South American location may be gaining favor for another reason -- it helps studios make a strong pitch to a new audience. "Rio," which opened internationally last week, became the top-opening American movie in Brazil, earning $8.4 million there, according to Boxofficemojo.com, while also taking in solid hauls in nearby Argentina ($1.5 million) and Chile ($1.4 million).

And though Hispanics account for only about 15% of the U.S. population, they made up nearly half of the opening weekend for the last film in the "Fast and Furious" franchise, according to studio exit polling, and "Fast Five" is being marketed heavily to Latinos in the U.S. in Spanish-language spots.

Then, of course, there is Rio's steamy reputation, which got even hotter when Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson filmed multiple takes of a kissing scene on the city's busy streets late last year for "The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1." Forget natural beauty: Rio may ultimately garner the most visitors for being the city where Bella and Edward finally act on all that pent-up lust.

-- Rebecca Keegan


 Photo: "Rio." Credit: Blue Sky Studios/Fox


Is 'Hop' a one-off success or the beginning of a talking-animal comeback?

April 4, 2011 |  7:00 am


Even seasoned box-office observers were caught off guard this weekend when "Hop" came out of nowhere not only to win the weekend but also to top the opening of every other 2011 release with an estimated $38.1 million at the box office.

That mark takes into account movies as different as "Paul," Beastly" and "Lincoln Lawyer" ("Hop" bested the opening-weekend takes of all of them ... combined) and also puts the movie ahead of top 2011 grossers, including  "Battle: Los Angeles" and "The Green Hornet," that had the advantage of 3-D ticket prices. "Rango," the film closest to "Hop" on the box-office chart, also wasn't released in 3-D, which may suggest a blog post unto itself. (It's worth noting that overall box office continues to slide; it was down 30% compared with the same weekend last year.)

But perhaps most surprising about the triumph of the Easter Bunny picture is the fact that the subgenre of the talking-animal hybrid film -- movies with real actors and cartoon animals, epitomized in the last few years by "Alvin & the Chipmunks" -- has been in the doldrums lately.

Over the last 12 months, hybrids such as "Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore," "Yogi Bear" and "Marmaduke" all had dismal openings. It was starting to seem as though a modern trend that essentially began 13 years ago with "Dr. Dolittle" (in which the animals were real but also spoke), continued the following year with "Stuart Little" (where the animal was animated) and reached its apex over the following decade with all manner of gabby cats, dogs and guinea pigs (yes, "G-Force" is one of the category's top earners) was coming to a squeaky end.

But it's still far too soon to proclaim the talking-animal picture back. Marketing tie-ins abounded for "Hop," including Kodak (a rather clever spot), Burger King (more traditional for a kids' movie) and the all-important Wal-Mart. The Easter connection, though it perhaps may not have played an overwhelming role in the film's success, didn't hurt either.

And it's hard to underestimate the uncanny knack that producer Chris Meledandri has for predicting and shaping audience tastes -- his batting average is starting to rival Pixar's Ted Williams-like record. (Meledandri has been behind animated hits such as "Ice Age" and "Horton Hears a Who!" as well as last year's "Despicable Me.")

Maybe most important, "Hop" passed the Pee Wee Herman Test -- it was goofy and appealing enough for kids (candy-pooping bunnies, e.g.) but with enough adult material slipped in to allow parents to feel good about going. (Underscoring the point: the movie's references to the likes of David Hasselhoff and "Fatal Attraction," its contributions from "Simpsons" veteran Mike Reiss, the voice casting of Russell Brand and even incidental plugs on the likes of "The Colbert Report.")

It's possible that the next talking-animal movie will try to replicate the "Hop" template. It's more likely, though, that the prospect of simultaneously getting the endorsement or involvement of Wal-Mart, Russell Brand, mainstream parents and Stephen Colbert comes along about as often as a certain holiday animal.


Hop bounds into first place

Movie review: Hop

Hop director Tim Hill: Our movie almost didn't make it

-- Steven Zeitchik

Photo: "Hop's" protaganist, E.B., is voiced by Russell Brand. Credit: Universal Pictures


The best news we've heard all week: David Hasselhoff returns to the big screen

March 24, 2011 |  4:23 pm

Russell Brand might be the comedic attraction in the upcoming bunny movie "Hop," but it's David Hasselhoff who steals the show.

In a turn that's, er, a bit of an Easter Egg, Hasselhoff appears as himself in the live- action/animated hybrid. The former "Baywatch" and "Knight Rider" (and, of course, YouTube) star plays a Simon Cowell-esque TV talent show host who judges the drumming of the cartoon bunny voiced by Brand. "I didn't like it," Hasselhoff says of the rabbit's Keith Moon turn, then pauses for dramatic effect. "I loved it."

The scene caps off with the rabbit and his human caretaker (James Marsden) wondering why the Hoff isn't more concerned that an animal talks and plays the drums. Hasselhoff's response: For a while his best friend was a talking car, so he's not really one to judge.

The bit was inspired by "Simpsons" writer Mike Reiss, who pitched in a little on the script for the film, due in theaters April 1. Reiss had the notion of including Hasselhoff in a different scene, and screenwriter Brian Lynch went on to write the scene that ended up in the movie.

It's a rare case of Hasselhoff playing himself on the big screen (he last did it in a breakdancing movie four years ago called "Kickin' It Old School") after taking a minor part (not as himself) in "Click" the year before.

"He was very sweet about it," director Tim Hill told 24 Frames of the actor's work on the "Hop" set. "He knew the idea was to make fun of him a little for being larger than life, and he went with it.'"

After his work was done on the movie, Hasselhoff apparently asked filmmakers if he could keep some of the billboards and other props created to advertise Hoff's fictitious talent show. They're apparently for a roadside homage to himself he's building in Germany, and his assistant wound up coming by the set and picking up the props.  So if you're ever driving along somewhere near Cologne or Stuttgart, whistling and minding your own business, beware.

Hasselhoff hasn't been above a little self-mocking comedy now. He was the subject of a Comedy Central roast last year, and also signed on for the short-lived A&E reality show "The Hasselhoffs," though the humor there might not have been of the intentional sort.

--Steven Zeitchik



Revised 'King's Speech' comes to theaters April 1

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'Captain America' begins to exact his revenge [trailer]

Photo: A scene from "The Hasselhoffs." Credit: Richard Knapp / A&E Network

With 'Curious George,' Illumination looks to make more animation mischief

July 30, 2010 |  1:04 pm


EXCLUSIVE: Filmgoers soon will have another round of adventures with the Man With the Yellow Hat.

Illumination Entertainment, the animation company founded by former Fox Animation President Chris Meledandri and whose movies Universal finances and distributes, is developing a new version of "Curious George."

The movie is expected to feature the wry animated images of "Despicable Me" and will spin a new story of George the monkey/chimpanzee (depending on whether you favor H.A. and Margret Rey's text or the tail-less images) who's taken out of the jungle by an eccentric explorer to live in the city, where mischief always seems to find him.

Universal and production company Imagine produced an animated "Curious George" just four years ago, in which Will Ferrell voiced the Man With the Yellow hat. Mired in development for years, the movie didn't entirely catch on with filmgoers, grossing just $58 million in the U.S. (A second installment, "Curious George 2: Follow that Monkey!," came out as a direct-to-DVD release in 2009.)

The Illumination film is expected to start from scratch. It's getting a script from Larry Stuckey, who wrote the upcoming "Little Fockers," the third installment in the "Meet the Parents" franchise, for Universal.

Universal is very keen on Illumination, which with "Despicable" gave the studio a long-awaited family-friendly animation hit. After the success of that film, Meledandri's company is also developing "Where's Waldo?" and "Dr. Seuss' the Lorax" movies as well as a sequel to "Despicable Me."

Reboots of movies that haven't been gone very long -- "Haunted Mansion" and  "Spider-Man" -- continue to remain in vogue in Hollywood. They'll be an adventure, but we suppose if any character is up for one, it's Curious George.

--Steven Zeitchik


Photo: Curious George. Credit: Houghton Mifflin


'Despicable Me' turns Universal into a digital-animation player

'Despicable Me' tops box office

Movie Review: 'Despicable Me'

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Sony hears the roar of Christian the Lion

July 6, 2010 |  7:34 pm

Contemporary studios love movies with pre-awareness, and they love family films, so you can understand why Sony would be enamored of the story of Christian the Lion, which takes all that and throws in a tearful animal reunion for good measure.

What in the name of Gunther Gebel-Williams are we talking about? The above viral-video sensation -- about a couple of wacky Australians who raised a lion, sent it back into the wild and then went out to find it -- which is being developed as a feature.

There had been some early word that the studio was interested in a movie about John Rendall and Ace Bourke  who nearly 40 years ago, bought a lion cub at Harrod's department store, raised it and frolicked with it, only to set it free and have it recognize them a year later.  (Hey, it was the '70's.) Now that film is officially moving forward. The studio has brought on writers Piers Ashworth and Nick Moorcroft, who are behind the upcoming John Landis movie "Burke and Hare," to write a script for the adventure story that will be produced by Hollywood mega-producer Neal Moritz (he was behind "Fast and Furious" and "I Am Legend," the latter about a different kind of wild creature) and his Original Film production banner.

A piece of an older documentary about the pair had previously been remixed to the music of Whitney Houston and found millions of viewers on YouTube, and producers are hoping that the built-in love will carry over.

There are echoes of Werner Herzog's "Grizzly Man" (with a happier ending) in the Christian the Lion story, as well as shades of "Everybody Loves Whales," an equally feel-good period story about the rescue of several trapped whales that Warner Bros. is eyeing as a feature with Drew Barrymore. [UPDATE -- Universal reminds us that, while Warners initially developed, it has picked it up, and is set to go into production later this year.]

Sony is already in the beastly business;  it has high hopes for the upcoming "The Zookeeper," which uses a bevy of animals to help Kevin James find romance. With all-ages films doing well, you can understand why a studio would beat their chest about this sort of picture. Plus it has lions acting like puppies. Get the Kleenex ready.

--Steven Zeitchik


Video: A portion of the documentary A Lion Called Christian. Credit: Timeless Multimedia


Sony will open the cage on The Zookeeper nine months later

Is a multiplex full of family films the future of moviegoing?

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