The incredibly strange story of Foodfight
It cost $65 million to make, and disappeared for almost a decade. Ryan looks at the story of the animated family movie, Foodfight...
February will see the UK release of two computer-generated family films, both with big-name casts, and both full of comedy and colourful adventure. One’s Wreck-It Ralph, featuring the voices of John C Reilly and Sarah Silverman. The other’s called Foodfight, which has among its voice cast Charlie Sheen, Christopher Lloyd and Eva Longoria.
While Wreck-It Ralph will appear in UK cinemas amid a wave of good reviews and media fanfare, Foodfight is heading to video-on-demand in the US - providing a quiet end to one of the strangest and most protracted paths from production to release in animated film history.
Foodfight’s production story is one of incredible optimism, surprisingly large chunks of cash, burglary, annoyed advertising watchdogs, bankruptcy and late-hour second chances. It began 12 years ago, when Lawrence Kasanoff, the producer of numerous films including True Lies and the Mortal Kombat series, decided to found his own animation studio. Called Threshold, the company planned to make its own CG family movie in the vein of Pixar’s Toy Story.
“In terms of coming to have an independent digital animation studio making a digitally animated movie right now, I think we’re pretty much it,” Kasanoff told Animation Magazine back in 2002. “We’ve got the movie, we’ve got the property, the place, the equipment, the talent, we’re there. Do we believe our next movie, Foodfight! is going to be a huge hit? Of course we do!”
Both written and directed by Kasanoff, Foodfight tells the story of a supermarket which, when its doors close at night, opens out into a sprawling magical city. The hero among this metropolis of talking animals and foodstuffs is Dex Dogtective (voiced by Sheen) a keen-nosed sleuth who, in an odd mix of cinematic messages, dresses a bit like Indiana Jones, right down to his leather jacket and fedora. When Dex’s girlfriend Sunshine Goodness (Hillary Duff) is kidnapped by the evil Brand X (Longoria), the canine hero sets off to rescue her.
Foodfight caught the attention of an advertising watchdog called Commercial Alert in 2001, who decried the project’s blatant use of product placement. The project’s inclusion of familiar US icons and brands, which included Cap’n Crunch, the Energizer Bunny, Charlie the Tuna, Mister Clean, Coke, M&Ms, Skittles and Spam, led Commercial Alert’s Gary Ruskin to remark, “It raises the commercial assault on children to a new level of brazenness. Some people will stoop to any level to make a buck, and sadly, Foodfight is an example. [It] looks like a two-hour parade of junk food at a time when we have skyrocketing levels of childhood obesity and type 2 diabetes.”
Foodfight would feature references to around 80 individual products or their related characters, but Kasanoff insisted that his movie would be something more than a glorified advert - after all, he argued, a brand mascot’s really no different to an action hero: “In the digital world," he told Time Magazine in 2002, "you're hard pressed to tell the difference between Mr Clean and Arnold Schwarzenegger.”
In spite of this minor controversy, Foodfight moved ahead, with a healthy $65 million budget and the cast of well-known voices mentioned earlier. Apparently sparing little expense on actors, Treshold had big plans for the movie, with press releases talking about tie-in videogames, toys, and a multi-part web series to accompany its launch.
“This is the most complex digitally animated film ever undertaken, with thousands of different characters and hundreds of sets,” Kasanoff wrote. “We’ve searched the world for the best talent and have found extraordinary 3D animation talent in a number of different countries.”
Then, in the winter of 2002, the production received a sudden and incredibly unfortunate blow. Hard drives containing the unfinished film’s assets were reportedly stolen, thus throwing the production into chaos. Once planned for release in 2005 (with Lionsgate in charge of distribution), Foodfight instead disappeared off the face of the earth.
It’s said that, with the loss of its work-in-progress, Threshold was forced to start again from scratch. This may explain why little more was heard from the production until 2011, when a small ad headed “Notice of public sale” appeared in an issue of the Hollywood Reporter. It seemed that the film’s debtors had intervened, and were putting up Foodfight’s rights for auction - starting price: $2.5 million.
It was around this time that footage finally began to emerge. Finally, everyone could see what this enigmatic film looked like. And here it is:
Foodfight’s troubled history is evident in seemingly every frame, so it seems a little cruel to pick it apart in too much detail here. But then again, there are fundamental problems with the movie that can't be explained away by stolen footage or a rushed production. That its animation is closer to The Sims than Pixar is the least of its sins, particularly when the frankly dreadful script - whose choice lines include - "Frankly my dear, I don't give a Spam," and "I'm not the one who's gonna be puppy-whipped, you cold-farted itch" - is full of farting frogs, cringeworthy innuendo, and embarrassing stereotypes of every kind. And what are we to make of the unnerving amount of Nazi imagery, worryingly sexualised female characters, and repeated upskirt photography? These mystifying inclusions - plus too many others to mention here - mark Foodfight out as one of the most disquieting family films of the past decade.
Foodfight eventually found a backer, and received a low-key theatrical release in the UK last year, where it grossed about £13,000 before heading to DVD. Against all odds, this ill-starred film had made it to release, and had even managed to outlive one of its more prominent advertisers (Hostess Brands, the company behind the startlingly sugary American snack, the Twinkie, filed for bankruptcy in November 2012).
Foodfight isn't a pretty film, and it surely isn't clever. But if there’s one thing we can say about Foodfight, it’s that no other CG movie looks quite like it, or has its uniquely strange backstory.
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