“If everyone would just let go of the past and try to move on…”
In “Lost Cels”, we take an in-depth look at the animated films and TV shows that failed or have been somewhat forgotten by time in order to see if they deserve their less-than-stellar reputation.
This article contains SPOILERS.
Directors: Marc F. Adler, Jason Maurer
US Release Date: 12th December 2008
Budget: $40 million
Before we can talk about Delgo, we need to talk about the making of Delgo. The circumstances that surround the existence and creation of Delgo, see, really alter the view of the final product. I mean, they don’t alter the quality of the final product – an awful, endless, ugly, generic slog with major tone, plotting, and character problems – but they do alter the perception of the final product. Without them, it’s another hilariously inept animated feature. With them, it’s honestly all just kinda really sad, an ambitious passion project that had absolutely no chance at any kind of success, even if the film, from development to finished product, didn’t take a decade to complete.
It’s a story that revolves around one Marc F. Adler. Marc had a dream: he wanted to make a feature-length animated movie. But, more than that, he wanted to make a grown-up animated movie, one that distinguished itself from its contemporaries by, in his own words, not being a comedy but “a very human story told in a non-human world” that would be “compelling, socially responsible, yet entertaining… with universal themes that impart moral virtues in a way that touch audiences both young and old.” If this all sounds very business-like, a string of corporate buzzwords that don’t mean as much as they sound like they do, that’s because Marc is not an animator by trade. He’s a businessman – more specifically, and it physically hurts to type these words, “the Sublime Patron of Dreams” for Fathom Studios, the makers of Delgo and a corporate business prior to making the film in question.
Yet, Marc wanted to make a feature-film regardless, which is rather admirable. I mean, who hasn’t wanted to be able to just chuck everything in and follow their crazy film-based dreams? It is at this point we must introduce Delgo’s other major player, Jason Maurer. Jason was brought into the Fathom fold in 1994 after working in the world of weather package animations and Sci-Fi Channel (when it was spelt in a way that doesn’t make practitioners of the English language want to weep in futility) bumps. Jason also had a dream: to make an animated feature of his very own. One day, Jason was playing around with a CG motion test when Marc happened to walk by, see it, love it, and then set in motion the wheels required to bring to life an animated feature.
What’s more, this wasn’t going to be your standard animated feature production! Oh, no! Adler was going to make a top-quality animated feature outside of the studio system! Much like Walt Disney and Ralph Bakshi before him, he went around scrounging up funds from both the company’s previous profits and small investors who were willing to take a chance on a completely unknown and untested company with a dream and the drive and ambition to bring it to life. And, furthermore, they were going to be open about their production process with the public, allowing them access to what the filmmakers dubbed “Digital Dailies” so that you and I could see the film come together, offer up criticism and feedback, and learn more about the animation process in general.
It’s all a lot of noble intentions pushing forward the creation of Delgo, basically. However, noble intentions aren’t an all-powerful force that can overcome any and all obstacles. To start with, none of the film’s five credited writers had written a feature-film before and only one of them had any prior experience in writing scripts and films of any length – Jennifer Jones-Mitchell, at least according to her IMDb bio anyway. That in and of itself is not a massive problem, Taylor Sheridan hadn’t written anything (that got made into anything, to my knowledge) prior to Sicario and I think we can all agree that turned out alright, but it does underscore a wider problem: Delgo was an animated film being made primarily by people who had never made an animated film before. And it wasn’t going to be a student film or a short, either. It was to be a big, attention-grabbing calling card debut with a real honest-to-god budget – of $40 million which admittedly was sod all in the early 2000s, but still.
Plus, Delgo was an independent production for what amounts to an upstart studio. Most animated films for big, full-on studios with hundreds of staff members often take roughly three-or-so years to make a movie, from development to finished product, although it can still oftentimes run longer. Fathom Studios… well, as mentioned, did not feature hundreds of staff members, so turnaround was never going to equal that of the big boys on the block. Even with that said, however, Delgo took a long time to make. Delgo was conceived in 1996 and initiated pre-production in 1998. Animation work began in 2001. Jason Maurer was quoted in 2001 as believing that the film would be in cinemas by 2003, but it didn’t finish production until early 2008, not least because staff members kept getting poached by major studios who hired them based on the “Digital Dailies” scheme. Spending a decade on one film is a terrible idea anyway, but doing so for an animated movie – a Computer Generated animated movie, no less – is pure madness considering the leaps and bounds that the medium makes visually in just one year.
As a reminder, this is what CG animated films made for $30 million looked like in 2001.
You want an indicator of how long it took to make Delgo? Not only was its supposedly big-name voice cast – which was done, and slowly rolled out over time (allegedly since I can’t find much in the way of press material) in order to (direct quote from IMDb weirdly) “maximise PR impact and address distributor concerns” – laughably out-of-date, with the movie being the first time that Freddie Prinze, Jr. had headlined a non-animated non-Scooby Doo wide-release movie in 7 years, two of its cast had actually died during the film’s production. Yes, Delgo is the final released film in the oeuvre of Anne Bancroft and John Vernon, with the former being the damn villain of the piece.
And still, after all of that, there was the teensy, tiny problem of the simple fact that Delgo had no distribution deals in place for when it finished. Adler went around trying to flog the finished product to anyone who would listen; all passed. So, as one last final roll of the dice, one last commitment to the vision that he and Maurer set out on 12 years earlier, Adler self-released through distributor-for-hire Freestyle Releasing. And he didn’t just dump the film in a random assortment of 10 theatres and call it a day. Oh, no. So committed was Adler to that original vision that he prepped the film for release on 2,000 theatres – 1,500 for the United States, 500 for Canada. One way or another, Delgo was going to make headlines.
It made them in all the wrong ways. Delgo opened the weekend of December 12th 2008, three weeks removed from Disney’s Bolt, and with the only other wide releases being the completely opposed The Day the Earth Stood Still and a completely-forgotten Luis Guizman Xmas movie… and it still bombed. And I do mean bombed. In fact, Delgo had the single worst opening weekend of any film on more than 2,000 screens (it ended up on 2,160). It made $511,920. That’s a per-screen average of just $237. That means that every screen the film was showing on will have been empty for the vast majority of its performances over the weekend. Just imagine that: a film that a small group of people worked on for over a decade, playing to literally thousands of empty screens.
Of course, the problem – besides the film itself, which we’ll get to shortly – was that nobody knew the film was coming out. Sure, it had a trailer, but you probably already looked at the embed above and realised that that wouldn’t have helped its case, and said trailer played before such box office hits as Igor and City of Ember. There was basically no promotion for it, and what promotion there was wasn’t good promotion. Nobody knew Delgo existed. But then it bombed, and everyone knew it existed. Even Conan O’Brien was cracking jokes about it in his monologues. Delgo wasn’t just a flop, it was The Flop. In his My Year of Flops entry on it, Nathan Rabin cracked that his purchasing of a ticket to see the film for article-purposes “doubled its gross for the week” and he’s probably not wrong, in all honesty.
But the indignity just keeps on coming. The film was trashed thoroughly by critics, which should come as a surprise to quite literally no-one. Then, the very next year, a quiet little indie picture called Avatar that nobody particularly remembers ended up doing the whole “love story against the backdrop of war on a distant alien planet, shepherded by a specific auteur(s)” thing much better. Fathom Studios even sent out a press release where they claimed that they were “reviewing what legal options may be available to [them]” that went quite literally no further than that blatant attempt at drawing press and attention to Delgo. And, finally, to rub salt into the wound, its records were stolen from it almost 4 years later, when The Oogieloves somehow opened even worse on the same number of screens, taking Delgo’s one possible shot at remaining relevant and condemning to near-total obscurity – near-total obscurity that has a Blu-Ray available to buy, but you get my point.
And this would all make for a fine, interesting backstory to a complete trainwreck of a movie, the kind that end up as Bad Movie fixtures whose stories and mere existences go down in legend, where a perfect storm of Troubled Production and Terrible Movie come together to create something that couldn’t slip away into the shadows even if it tried… but Delgo isn’t even interestingly bad. There is still stuff to talk about, don’t get me wrong – finding stuff to talk about in films like this is the whole point of this series, after all – but Delgo is bad in ways that should be abundantly clear from everything you’ve seen, read, and heard so far. Nothing more, nothing less. It’s too earnest to be hilariously terrible or fun to rip apart, but it’s too goddamn boring to be worthy of genuine pity. The whole thing, like I said at the top, is honestly just kinda sad.
Regardless, let’s look at all of the ways in which this film obviously sucks. And speaking of “looking”, we may as well start with the look of the film. Not just the animation, which is still a problem but we will get to that, but the whole look of the film is just ghastly. I’m going to let slide how woefully out-of-date the film is when it comes to things like dust particles and lighting, because kicking this film some more for not being cutting edge when it first entered the animation stages in 2001 is unnecessarily mean, but I just cannot let slide the character designs of Delgo. The environments and such are passable, and at times somewhat pretty-ish, but the character designs are just utterly hideous, and them being alien races does not excuse it.
Take a good long look at Delgo’s face, for example. In fact, I’m not even going to make this optional. Take a nice, good long look at Delgo and Kyla’s faces. Soak ‘em in.
The shapes are all wrong. They’re sort of a half-way house between human and animalistic that doesn’t work. Their jaws and noses protrude out too far and look detached from the rest of their heads, like feeding muzzles have been strapped over their actual mouths. Mouth movements are janky and unconvincing, occasionally morphing into, well, morphing. Meanwhile, the sheer whiteness and fake-ness of their teeth draws attention to the distracting eyes which never quite manage to cross the Uncanny Valley, and the differing shapes for each part of the face lead to this dissonance where no part of any characters’ face looks like it shares the same space. They’re just… hideous to look at. And those are just the faces, I’m not even going to get into the overdesigning of the rest of the cast otherwise we’ll be here all day.
Besides, we need to address the actual animation. Now, look, I am giving it some leeway as a film released in 2008, since animation work started in early 2001 and the technology for the medium had come a long way in 7 years. But there hits a point where giving it further leeway is just taking the piss. This is one embarrassingly terribly animated film. Even with the ‘out-of-date tech’ excuse, this is embarrassing. Character movements are unforgivably stiff and almost completely lacking in weight, with the film forgetting to hide this with any level of motion blur. Literally any at all would have helped, but nope. The action-figure level movement and posing is right there, on display for the whole world to see, which makes any scene that’s supposed to be emotional hilariously unconvincing and any action sequence hilariously hysterical.
Everything is just so stiff. If characters need to perform some semblance of acrobatics, it’s akin to watching somebody awkwardly drag Clipart across the screen with a broken mouse. Camera angles are nearly always static, with only the most minor of shakes or dynamic movements, so nothing gains any urgency or danger and it only throws the complete lack of realistic weight into sharper relief – consider the end of Delgo’s gymnastics during the stampede, where he gets thrown off a cliff edge by a branch in a way that I just do not understand, like, at all. Action choreography exacerbates every last one of these problems and creates action sequences and fight scenes that are on the level of The Earth Prison breakout from M. Night’s The Last Airbender, including a final setpiece that’s one of the most godawful I have seen in forever and I’m including Fantastic 4 in that comparison.
Speaking of that final setpiece, and finally stepping away from the animation, Delgo has a really weird tone problem. You may recall a little earlier in this piece that Marc wanted to create an animated movie that wasn’t a comedy and was “socially responsible” and all that jazz. It’s a nice idea, but the problem is that Delgo doesn’t commit to it. In fact, it doesn’t really commit to much of anything, hedging its bets on every possible tone and demographic in the hopes that it can please everybody enough that success will magically rain down on it. As a result, the attempt to appease audiences “young and old” fails spectacularly as the film lurches wildly between its various disparate elements.
Delgo wants to pivot around a big, war-ending, tribe-uniting romance, but said romance hinges on inter-species relations, which drains any possible romance or sexiness out from the central relationship as the viewer is sat wondering if it’s even right for these two completely different species to be wanting carnal relations with one another – and this is all before the godawful writing, which builds this grand epic romance on the foundations of coincidences and bickering, and monotone voice acting finish the job. It wants to be this big message movie about not considering other races as beneath you, about putting aside past transgressions and moving onto a peaceful future… but the villains are a race of savages and the two tribes immediately join forces after making peace to wage a war against them.
It wants to be a grown-up, intelligent movie, but it constantly panders to kids out of fear that they’ll be bored by all the grown-up talk about racism and politics. Hence the appearance of Comic Relief like Spig, voiced by an at least gloriously hammy Eric Idle, whose said Comedy revolves around him misusing big words because that’s supposedly inherently funny. Or there’s also Delgo’s best friend Filo, voiced in the shrillest and most irritating manner possible by Chris Kattan, who is quite literally an utterly useless waste-of-space who, by his own admission, doesn’t even want to be there, but keeps getting dragged along anyway for… I really have no idea. He’s not even a good Comic Relief, so he contributes nothing to the movie. I guarantee you that kids would have hated him.
But, then again, they probably would have hated the film anyway, since it’s too dark and serious for them. There are multiple full-on stabbings, several straight-up on-screen murders including a sequence involving a group of villains being gassed to death, and the very frequent theme of genocide running throughout. Now, I’m not saying that kids couldn’t handle these things – I know for a fact that they could, since I was one once and was fine with all of these things, plus shows like Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra exist – but Delgo is so inept that any time it tries to do anything adult, it falls flat on its face, especially when it tries to moralise and message. For example: during the finale, Delgo saves Sedessa after recalling some wisdom about mercy from his mentor… mercy that is immediately repaid by Sedessa trying to stab him in the back, necessitating Kyla shove her into a bottomless pit to her death. So… don’t show mercy?
You may deduce, then, that Delgo is actually aiming for an older target audience, much like 9 did, but it can’t even do that right. The dialogue and moral compass are at the level of 5 year-olds, and it condescends and takes the viewer to be a moron repeatedly. Every plot twist is explained within an inch of its life and flashbacks are deployed at every opportunity, oftentimes to events we’ve already seen earlier on in the film and don’t need reminding of. And even with those facts, the film’s plot is still needlessly complicated, requiring a 5 minute exposition dump prologue that could (and arguably should) have been a movie or story all by itself, and another 35 minutes for the film to actually get to the start of its main plot, as all the while the film juggles a seemingly endless amount of unnecessary characters, character traits, and subplots that just weigh the film down and drag it out to feature-length.
Basically, Delgo is just a complete and total mess, the clear result of a bunch of first-timers with next-to-no prior experience in any facet of storytelling or animated filmmaking hoping that pure enthusiasm and a (supposedly) singular creative vision can guide them through any pitfalls. The likelihood of it finding an audience if it were released on time in 2003 is slim, because its character designs are ugly as sin and it completely fails on a storytelling level, but it had literally no chance of being any kind of successful as a film released in 2008, when it looked like a relic from a much darker time in the realm of animated features in addition to feeling like one. Despite what The Wall Street Journal attempted to claim, Delgo’s failure did not “reflect a glut of films in the crowded holiday corridor” nor “the challenges facing films made and marketed outside of the Hollywood system”. Delgo’s failure was primarily self-inflicted, because it is awful.
To conclude, then, I’ll answer a question that I know is currently in the back of your minds: what’s happened to Marc and Jason? After all of this, for a film that was also supposed to be the first of a trilogy, what happened to the duo who went through Hell to realise their dreams and were rewarded for their efforts by becoming the laughing stock of the entire film industry? Well, Jason has supposedly gone on to direct two short films since Delgo – Ripening in 2011 and Sweet Revenge in 2014 – although I can’t actually find any evidence of these films’ existence outside of IMDb (if you can and can send me a link to them, I would really appreciate it). Marc, meanwhile, directed and came up with the story for a short film called Chroma Chameleon that was released the same year as Delgo. You can watch it below.
It’s a major improvement on Delgo, which sounds like a backhanded compliment but isn’t intended to be. The animation quality is a lot better, character designs are still not excellent but they’re decidedly less creepy than those found in Delgo, and the short does a better job at character and story with a better understanding of pacing, and a lack of flab. It’s the work of people who have clearly come a long way from where they started and of course they did! Delgo began pre-production in 1998! It feels like Chroma Chameleon was made so that Adler could display some evidence that Fathom was still a studio worth investing in. Proof that those involved had come a long way and that their second feature would be so much better if you kind investors would just take another chance on them.
Unfortunately for all involved, when you sh*t the bed this spectacularly on your first go-around, you don’t get a second chance. When you spend over a decade working on one godawful film that tanks so badly that it becomes fodder for late-night talk show hosts and breaks all the wrong kind of records, you really can’t be surprised when nobody takes you seriously again. Delgo was supposed to be something special, a bold new experiment in independent filmmaking and grown-up storytelling. Instead, it was only special in that it became a fun little trivia factoid for 4 years before fading into more than deserved obscurity. But with everything surrounding its creation, and the ghastly mess that resulted from it, that’s not hilarious. It’s just really kinda sad.
Next time: Histeria!