As we close out the second year of My Year Of Flops I have some very good news to announce. Chances are very, very good that there will be a My Year Of Flops book and that it will be awesome. I can’t go into specifics and things aren’t finalized but the My Year Of Flops book will combine what SCTV’s Guy Cabellero lovingly calls Golden Classics with plenty of all-new material. So thank you, A.V. Club readers. None of this would have been possible without your continuing support.
With the good news out of the way we can now focus on the Case File at hand, a notorious animated endeavor named Delgo whose spectacular commercial failure is rapidly becoming the stuff of pop-culture legend. Failed films are a dime a dozen but Delgo is perhaps the floppiest flop ever to saunter floppily into flopsville and become Dean Of Failure At Flopsville State University.
The story behind Delgo is more fascinating than the film itself. Actually that’s not saying much: the story of how snow turns into sludge is more interesting than Delgo. The film’s sad saga began with a man and a dream. An entrepreneurial animator named Marc Adler fantasized about making a CGI animated film outside the confines of both Hollywood and the studio structure.
Like pioneers before him from Walt Disney to Ralph Bakshi, Adler scrimped and saved and raised money from investors willing to take a huge chance on an untested studio from Atlanta. Early in the millennium Adler’s Fathom Studios assembled what my editor Keith likes to call the hottest voice cast of 1998. To paraphrase Triumph The Insult Comic Dog the C-listers who flocked to Delgo were a veritable who’s who of who cares? We’re talking Freddie Prinze Jr., Chris Kattan, Louis Gossett Jr., Michael Clarke Duncan, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Burt Reynolds, Kelly Ripa, and Sally Kellerman.
The money was well spent. After all, Jennifer Love Hewitt’s line readings are a huge potential draw. Of course by “line readings” I mean “giant breasts.” Alas, Delgo has a whole lot of one of those and none of the other. According to a trivia nugget from IMDB that sounds suspiciously like a press release excerpt:
Fathom Studios signed only recognizable, bankable actors for principle [sic.] parts as part for their production master plan. They then rolled out their cast announcements gradually, thus maximizing the PR impact and addressing potential distribution concerns of the companies they needed to get the film into theaters.
Boy, that sure worked out well. Apparently Fathom’s studios are located in an alternate universe Atlanta where Chris Kattan and Louis Gossett Jr. still qualify as “recognizable, bankable actors.” Fathom maximized PR impact like a motherfucker and addressed the holy living fuck out of potential distribution concerns. Just think: if Delgo hadn’t opened in over two thousand theaters it never would have become perhaps the biggest flop of all time.
Animation is a hugely time and labor-intensive process. By the time Delgo played to empty houses and widespread derision some of its voice cast had been dead for years (villain Anne Bancroft died in 2005, presumably of Delgo-related shame) while others merely watched their careers die unmourned deaths following the Summer Catch debacle of 2001 (Prinze Jr., cough, cough).
In an unprecedented move, the film’s website screened digital dailies of the film while it was being assembled so that the always tasteful, diplomatic denizens of the Internet could offer constructive criticism along the lines of “OMG UR Film lookz totes Gay! LOL. Hannah Montana Blows!”
Fathom did just about everything wrong, including picking a title that was both unpronounceable and suspiciously similar to that of Doogal, another cheaply animated CGI movie with a voice cast seemingly purloined from a late-period installment of Hollywood Squares.
Naming an independent CGI Delgo a mere two years after Doogal belly-flopped is like making an interminable crime comedy-drama called Giggly a year after Gigli, then assuming your film won’t be tainted by Gigli’s failure because the film stars Casey Affleck and Eva Longoria, is about a gay male hood who strikes up a flirtation with a criminal cohort and features a kidnapped kid with cerebral palsy who’s obsessed with Knight Rider and treats audiences to a lusty rendition of “Bust A Move.”
There are other key differences as well. In Doogal much of the comic relief is provided by a figure of almost Jar Jar-level insufferability voiced by former Saturday Night Live cut-up Jimmy Fallon. In sharp contrast,the comic relief in Delgo is provided by a deeply irritating bungler voiced by former Saturday Night Live cut-up Chris Kattan. I honestly can’t see how anyone could possibly confuse these two movies. Or want to see either of them of their own accord.
In my “F” review of Doogal I called its character design, “uglier than Dick Cheney’s soul,” a phrase I’m trying to popularize. The same is true of Delgo. Here’s a look at both:
The freakish aliens of Delgo look like the hideous mutant Muppets of Saturday Night Live’s first season as drunkenly rotoscoped by a slumming Ralph Bakshi.
When Adler and Fathom couldn’t find a distributor for their $40 million fantasy epic they again went the independent route by releasing the film through distributor-for-hire Freestyle Releasing and prepping an ambitious 2,000+ screen release in The United States and Canada.
The tale of Adler’s bold crusade to create a brash new voice in animation was a quintessential Horatio Alger success story minus the “success.” In its opening weekend Delgo grossed $511,920, or 237 dollars a screen. Suddenly everyone was talking about Delgo. It had scored the worst opening weekend of any film debuting on more than 2000 screens in history.
Delgo had shattered box-office records but not in the way its makers intended. The film became opening monologue fodder for Late Night With Conan O’Brien, which showed a clip from the film re-dubbed so that the characters were discussing sub-prime mortgages and house foreclosures. Here’s the ironic part: the re-dubbed Delgo didn’t feel any less natural than the actual film. Where transcendent animated epics like Wall-E offer the glittering illusion of life Delgo provides the dispiriting reality of lifelessness. The character never seem to be anything other than pixels and computer programs tethered to bad dialogue recited by C-list actors. The stiff, lurching animation recalls the cut-scenes of video games more than the dazzling slickness of Pixar and Dreamworks.
Keith became obsessed with Delgo and more or less assigned me the film as a My Year Of Flops entry. So on a snowy Thursday afternoon I trudged over to a local movie palace and purchased a ticket to Delgo, in the process doubling its gross for the week.
“Delgo, Delgo. Delgo, what?” the cashier inquired confusedly after I put in my ticket order. The film had been playing at 600 North Michigan for six days at that point yet this was clearly the first time he’d been informed of its existence. “Oh Delego!” he finally announced nonsensically yet triumphantly. I then headed into an empty theater to experience the year’s biggest, most perplexing bomb.
Delgo immediately digs itself into a huge hole with an incredibly confusing, convoluted opening explosion of exposition via voiceover narration from Sally Kellerman outlining a fantasy realm staggering in its pointless complexity. You see, once upon a time in a land called Jhamora there lived a bunch of slithery lizard-people known as the Lokni. A loss of natural resources forced a bunch of dragonfly-looking motherfuckers known as the Nohrin to settle on Jhamora with the permission of the Lokni. Alas, Sedessa (voiced by Anne Bancroft), the power-mad sister of Nohrin king King Zahn (voiced by Louis Gossett Jr., the young people’s favorite) decides to terrorize the Lokni out of a sense of racial superiority. In the process she and her goons murder the father (Burt Reynolds) of the titular young Lokni boy-lizard (voiced by Freddie Prinze Jr.). Meanwhile, Sedessa is stripped of her wings and banished from the kingdom of the Nhorin as punishment for her brutality. Fifteen years later, Sedessa forms a strategic alliance with a race of ogre people and conspires with one General Raius to exacerbate tensions between the Lokni and Nhorin people so war will break out and she can seize power.
Does that make any fucking sense at all? Incidentally, all of this unfolds in the five minutes of exposition that opens the film. I was immediately lost. I found myself thinking, “Why am I expected to care about this?” and “Am I going to be tested on this?” instead of waiting breathlessly to find out what happened next. Before the action had even started I was hopelessly confused. I can only imagine how puzzled the average ten-year-old must have felt.
The comically convoluted mythology of Delgo reminded me of the similarly complicated backstory of a previous My Year of Flops entry, Dragon Wars. I interviewed Craig Robinson recently and took perverse pleasure in asking him to explain the plot of D-War to me. The further he got into the film’s mythology the more confused and incoherent he seemed. If he wasn’t describing a film I’d seen and he’d starred in he easily could have passed for a paranoid schizophrenic describing a particularly surreal, nonsensical dream. Robinson barely seemed to understand what the hell Dragon Wars was about and he was its goddamned star. Movies like Dragon Wars, Wing Commander and Delgo err in thinking that sci-fi audiences embrace movies like Lord Of The Rings, Star Wars and The Matrix because they have elaborate, involved mythologies, not despite then.
The Lord Of The Rings of the world suck audiences into their fantastical worlds with engaging characters, non-stop spectacle and compelling storylines, then get them to care about their mythologies. Delgo, on the other hand, assumes that the battle is won before it’s even begun and that audiences will give a mad-ass fuck about the complicated interrelationship between the Lokni and the Nohrin races because the film’s mythology was cobbled together from bits and pieces of The Dark Crystal, Lord Of The Rings and Star Wars.
Ah, but I haven’t even gotten to the whole bit about the stone-levitating lizard-man mystic guru. After his parents are brutally murdered, Prinze Jr. becomes a protégé of a Michael Clarke Duncan-voiced mystic capable of making rocks float in the air. Yes, making rocks float in the air. Duncan’s road-show Yoda spends much of the film explaining to his protégé that he must become one with the stones and attain a curious stone/hand/spirit communion if he wants to maximize his spirit force. Suddenly that whole foolishness about midi-chlorians in The Phantom Menace doesn’t seem quite so stupid.
The voice cast in Delgo is just familiar enough to be distracting. Instead of being sucked into the high drama of Delgo’s family being brutally slaughtered (did I mention that his family gets gutted like pigs by bloodthirsty killers? That ought to suck in the family audience) I found myself thinking, “Hey, that creepy yet warmly paternal lizard-man is voiced by Burt Reynolds!”
In these columns I try to single out good work in even the dreariest of boondoggles so I would like to send posthumous props Mrs. Bancroft’s way for the lip-smacking theatrical villainy of her performance. She’s terrific, as are Malcolm McDowell as her chief co-conspirator and Eric Idle as a sniveling toady who takes great delight in misusing big words. They all deliver very stylized performances instead of coasting on their fading name recognition.
Delgo grows up with a fierce hatred of the Nhorin on account of, you know, his whole family getting brutally murdered and shit, but he begins to feel differently after a chance encounter with a Nohrin Princess voiced by Jennifer Love Hewitt. Friendship begins to deepen into something more romantic as the Nohrin Princess, Delgo, and a zany sidekick voiced by Chris Kattan join forces to try to keep Sedessa from inciting war for her own selfish means.
The sexual chemistry between Prinze Jr.’s lizard-man and Hewitt’s dragonfly-lady is fucking explosive. Again, I found myself fixating on the wrong things. Instead of rooting for these star-crossed lovers to overcome the odds and unite their people I found myself wondering if it was even ethical or right for a lizard-man and a dragonfly-lady to knock boots. Should people from different species get married or have sex? Is a union between a lizard-man and a dragonfly-lady like me dating a Catholic girl or a Shetland pony announcing its engagement to a bumblebee?
All this unnecessarily complicated maneuvering eventually leads to big battle scenes as the film grinds to a close. At this point I was so bored that I decided to start running laps inside the theater as a ways of passing time and getting some exercise. It was oddly liberating. Besides, I have a reputation as a ridiculous, ridiculous man to live up to. The other great thing about seeing the movie in an empty theater was that I didn’t just have to think, “Oh man, when will this fucking thing end?” when I could say the same thing out loud without anyone looking at me askance.
Delgo is tedious, stiffly animated, badly written, insanely convoluted and woefully misconceived but there’s something strangely lovable about it all the same, a homemade quality that’s strangely ingratiating. When I got back to the office I told Scott that the film was winningly pathetic. It wants to tell an epic story rich in allegorical undertones about the nature of war and racism, not just distract children for an hour and a half with shiny things flying across the screen, Smash Mouth songs and glib pop culture references. It’s a huge fucking failure, but it’s also a strangely honorable one.
The strange, sad saga of Delgo, a film laughably designed as the first part of a trilogy, sends out the heartwarming message that if you overcome all manner of obstacles en route to realizing your biggest, most ambitious aspiration then you too can become a laughingstock to the entire world. Any film that teaches kids not to believe in themselves or follow their dreams is doing God’s work, especially at Christmastime.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success?: Fiasco