If you were older than, say, 3 when the Teletubbies hit, you probably were a little irked by the late ’90s television phenomenon, with its Grateful Dead-like color scheme, saccharine cheer and nonsensical cooing. Now Kenn Viselman, the man who brought Britain’s Tinky Winky and friends to American shores, has served up something perhaps even more cloyingly chipper, this time on the big screen: “The Oogieloves in the Big Balloon Adventure.”
In so doing, he also has ushered in what looks to be one of the biggest flops in a summer rife with them: The movie, which cost $60 million to make and market, opened on more than 2,000 screens last Wednesday but reaped just $102,564 total on its first day and took in less than $1 million through Labor Day weekend. It is an eye-popping disappointment and, in return-on-investment terms, rivals the year’s other box office bombs, the big-budget “John Carter” and “Battleship.”
But if the movie seems to follow in the steps of these big-budget failures, its path to the screen was hardly familiar. A sort of Willy Wonka of the toy-merchandising industry, Viselman developed and shaped “Oogieloves” from an idea devised by children’s entertainment figures Carol Sweeney and Alex Greene. He produced and even partly financed the movie in the hope of creating, as he calls it, a “Rocky Horror Picture Show” for youngsters and an antidote to what he says is the too-dark fare of Pixar and DreamWorks Animation.
A puppet-filled sing-a-long aimed at moviegoers who are still discovering the art of finger painting, the G-rated film clocks in at under 90 minutes and features characters that look like a hybrid of the Muppets and the Cabbage Patch Kids. Needless to say, these figures live in a make-believe world — that is, one where Pixar and the last decade of sophisticated children’s films do not exist.
To skeptics, Viselman points out that many people didn’t believe in the Teletubbies at first either. “There are always going to be naysayers,” he said. “It’s just one of those things you deal with as a pioneer.”
The movie, directed by Matthew Diamond, has something resembling a plot: the main characters skip through fields trying to recover a cluster of lost balloons. Adults materialize and eagerly help them. Then they all sing songs and impart lessons about love and friendship. The Oogies have names such as Zoozie and Toofie, and they are guided by a Gumby-shaped figure named J. Edgar.
The hook of “Oogieloves” is that it encourages children to get up and dance while some songs play (butterflies float across the bottom of the screen to encourage this). When the songs end, animated turtles meander back through the action to signal that the dancing should come to an end. The movie features songs such as “Windy Window, 1 2 3, Windy Window Please Show Me” and puns such as “It’s Fedorable.” Some established actors turn up too, including Christopher Lloyd and Cloris Leachman.
Creating children’s movie characters out of thin air isn’t easy. With the exception of releases from studio heavyweights such as Pixar and DreamWorks (which prep consumers months ahead of time with large ad campaigns), most kiddie films are based on known properties, such as Dr. Seuss books.
Viselman’s idea is to create a two-way entertainment experience, which he believes has been lacking in the children’s space.
“I’ve never understood why they only have things like ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ for adults. I mean, a place where you can call out and interact with the entertainment. There’s nothing like that for kids,” said the 51-year-old before the film’s opening. (His septuagenarian mother, Barbara, came along on the interview; she chimed in with well-timed nods or eye rolls throughout the meal.)
Viselman says he was inspired to create “Oogieloves” after seeing a Tyler Perry movie in a theater, where “people get into it and talk back to the screen, and it’s great.” (“Oogieloves” is also the culmination of a dream that began with Teletubbies, whose British licensors Viselman could not persuade to make a feature film.)
Viselman, who has no children, initially followed his late father’s footsteps into the East Coast garment business. In the 1980s and 1990s, he worked for department stores before segueing into the children’s licensing business. He helped introduce American audiences to toys, TV shows and other spinoffs for Tots TV, including Thomas the Tank Engine and, eventually, those cooing pajama-clad creatures from England.
Not that Viselman looks like a guy who spends much of his time figuring out what kids want. He’s tattooed, wears ample amounts of jewelry and sports a half-shaved, half-flowing hairdo. His extroversion is matched only by his showmanship. In the span of 15 minutes at lunch, he boasted that he was responsible for $750 million in revenue for the makers of Thomas the Tank Engine and seemed to imply that the filmmakers behind the hit Hollywood movie “The Bucket List” stole the idea from him.
But the goal for “Oogieloves,” he said, is more than just profit.
“Why can’t we have something that’s all love, where we don’t even have the color black?” he asked. “Pixar always has the triumph of good over evil. But why does there have to be evil in the first place?”
(Viselman has other strong opinions about youth entertainment. He also believes that 3D movies are a disastrous idea for children, who are more likely to take off the glasses and throw them than use them to watch a film. “Kids want to be free, and that’s what our movie allows them to do.”)
Viselman and his investors, including a Michigan real-estate developer, Michael Chirco, made big spends on broadcast and billboards, and courted so-called mommy blogs in a bid to attract audiences. On Friday, after the initial tepid results had come in, he acknowledged in a phone interview that he might have handled the marketing differently if he could do it over again, particularly airing some TV spots earlier.
“Look, it hurts your ego when you’re one of the worst openings of in history or whatever it is,” he said. “But this was never about box office, it was about creating entertainment kids could love.”
Viselman added that the production of a sequel was moving ahead next month and that he still had high hopes for home-video and merchandising revenue.
He maintained that there is a genuine need for entertainment that is joyful and simple, and that he still felt proud of the “Oogieloves.”
“We did something that had never been done before,” he said. “We took on the studios at their own game.”