When it comes to feature-length films, much of the time fans of adult cartoons are SOL. Thanks to party-pooping producers and geezer film execs, the art form has essentially been ghettoized, forced into late-night TV slots, chopped up into web series, and largely excluded from the big screen. Instead, animated children’s movies have all the fun, with production companies popping out spin-offs and trilogies like there’s no tomorrow, while their aggressive marketing campaigns and box office dominance succeed in driving many of us close to insanity. You didn’t have to be anywhere near a movie theater to be completely, utterly inundated with shrapnel from the $593 million Minions propaganda blitz. (This writer isn’t kidding at all when she recalls, with horror, having run into a guy selling Minion dolls in the Andes. Shudder.)
That’s one reason why Aaron Augenblick and his Brooklyn-based animation studio (they’ve worked on Superjail!, Wonder Showzen) have decided that it’s time for fans of adult cartoons to take matters into their own hands. “I just don’t understand why when you go see an animated feature, it’s gonna be a princess movie about toys,” he said. “Because I don’t relate to that. That has nothing to do with my life.” Hear, hear.
Augenblick Studios, an indie animation and production company that’s been operating in Dumbo for the better part of the last two decades, has beat back against the unrelenting tide of precious animation features by putting out successful, hilarious grown-up, TV-based cartoons for years. They’re the same people behind the animations in Superjail!– which documents in hallucinatory detail the twisted unravellings inside a maximum security prison of a distant, dystopian future– and the concocters of that special blend of absurdist humor, kids’ show parody, and self-aware stoner-ific toilet LOLs found in Wonder Showzen.
“All my biggest influences are either classic cartoons– like Betty Boop, Popeye, Bugs Bunny, and Daffy Duck– or underground comics by Robert Crumb, Kaz, and Daniel Clowes. To me, that combination of animation and underground comics is what we do best,” explained Aaron, the studio’s founder and namesake. “But the dream was always to make an R-rated, animated feature film.”
For the last three years, Aaron and his team of animators have been hard at work on The Adventures of Drunky, which follows, well, Drunky– a down-on-his-luck guy with a permanent five-o’-clock shadow, shit-eating grin, and glazed-over eyes– on his quest to shake off a pretty bad hand he’s been dealt from forces above and below. “He’s the classic barfly hobo drunk and he has the worst luck in the world,” Aaron explained. “God and the Devil have a disagreement over the nature of man and they make a bet.” What hangs in the balance between this epic battle of even epic-er egos, which are proudly flaunted by a boastful and flowy-maned God (Jeffrey Tambor of Arrested Development) and leather-clad handsome Devil (Steve Coogan), is nothing short of “the fate of the universe.”
Aaron described a scene in which the two vaguely Judeo-Christian heroes “conjure up” an enormous slot machine. “They pull the crank and Drunky’s dumb face shows up, and they just pummel him with every terrible thing in the universe, from zombies to lightning bolts to tigers to demons that just destroy his life, to see whether or not he’ll remain good,” he explained.
Obviously, Drunky draws on the Book of Job, which could easily be the most hilarious sub-plot of the Old Testament (and if we’re talking the whole dang Bible, it’s perhaps only second to Revelations– a personal fav of horror fans and sci-fi freaks everywhere). “I’ll be honest, I’m not religious at all– if there was any church I ever went to, it was Saturday morning cartoons,” Aaron laughed. But he admitted that the Old Testament is an “unbelievable book, probably the greatest book of all time,” and that Job always fascinated him. “The sheer lunacy of God and the devil having a disagreement and getting into a bet and doing something as cruel as destroying someone’s life just to prove a point says something about the nature of the universe to me.”
“Job” may be old as hell, and in some ways beaten to death, but if you peel back the outer layers of some of the greatest slapstick comedies of our time, what you’ll find beneath is a cowering, boil-covered sack of skin and bones surrounded by ash and stinking of that sulfuric smell of suffering (something between urine, bile, and dog sweat)– aka, Job. The awareness of inescapable doom, painful awkwardness, and sense of physical suffering that go hand-in-hand with the story of Job are the same things that inspire us to cringe when Liz Lemon attempts to be sexy, Gob Bluth totally fails as a magician, and Chris Farley does literally anything, ever.
But the inherent humor of Job goes beyond a simple sadistic enjoyment in watching other people squirm or screw up– it’s important to recognize the humanity at the very core of these situations. “Every person has a moment where you feel like the planets have aligned just to screw up your day,” Aaron agreed.
So, what could go wrong with a film as universally appealing as Drunky? As Aaron’s animation team was harshly reminded during the pitching process, “The bottom line is, show business is business more than anything else.” After relentlessly courting producers and investors, Drunky came up, shall we say, rather dry. “To be honest, I was pretty shocked at how conservative film financiers are about animated feature films for adults– it’s extremely hard to find funding for an independent, animated feature film. They just don’t make them,” he explained.
But rather than giving up, Augenblick Studios is pushing forward with the project through an Indiegogo campaign. “I’ve never done crowd funding before,” Aaron admitted. “The exciting thing about it is that the people decide what kind of films they want to see– now, projects are going to be completed just based on the sheer will of the fans alone, which is really exciting. To be able to take the artistic choices away from number crunchers and put them in the hands of fans is going to be a big shift. There’s going to be a sea change in the way that you see movies being made.”
So far, the Augenblick team have completed the writing and recording process (the cast includes Tyler the Creator as a cat named Oliver, Sam Rockwell as Drunky and Dave Attell as a wily demon), but now it’s time to move forward with wrapping up the animation, a monumental task for which they’re aiming to raise $100,000 of their overall $2 million budget. The fundraising campaign was recently extended, and with 25 days left to go, they’re just under $10,000 short of their goal. The prizes ain’t bad either– the rewards for throwing down on this thing range from getting “drunk dialed by a wizard” (i.e. a character from Ugly Americans) at the $15 level, to a cameo as a “sex demon” in the film for $250, and even an IRL lunch with Jeffrey Tambor if you can scrounge up 3,000 big ones.
But the biggest reward for contributors, obvi, is getting to see the completed film. (Oh, and the smiling faces of the Augenblick crew, who write on their Indiegogo site, “Making an adult animated movie is our dream and not making it is our nightmare.”) Aaron and his team haven’t guaranteed a release date yet, but as it goes with most crowdfunded projects like this one, they’re promising to keep everyone updated as production proceeds.
In the mean time, according to Aaron, you can feel free to have extremely high expectations. For one, the studio’s approach to recording the voice actors was a pretty brilliant one. “A dirty secret of animated films is that the actors rarely meet each other, they always record solo and it becomes a very slick, artificial sound that you hear in most animated films,” he explained. Instead, the Drunky crew amassed the whole cast together leading up to the mic-up. “So what we got are real performances,” Aaron explained. “And we had everybody ad-libbing together and playing and creating performances that you just don’t hear in typical animated films. ”
And judging by the preliminary animations, “Drunky” will be just as psychedelic, weird, and complex as the work found in Augenblick cartoons like Superjail! “This film has allowed me to dive into that David Lean territory or Ben-Hur or The Ten Commandments, where it can be this big, epic movie, but then, underneath it’s actually this hilarious story about a barfly,” Aaron said.
The studio head also promised that the multi-layered and magic-eye shifting worlds which have become a trademark of Augenblick productions will inform the animations of Adventures of Drunky as well. “We like to fill every corner with something interesting, and I think a lot of that comes from the fact that I’m a New Yorker, I’m a Brooklynite,” he explained. “One of the most exciting things about this city for anyone who comes here, is that there’s life down every single corner. It’s like every bodega has a room in the back, every alleyway has some bar at the end of it. There’s just something mysterious about New York that I also see prevalent in the world of animation, it’s just this dense world that’s alive in every nook and cranny.”
Correction: Augenblick Studios are the animators behind Superjail! and Wondershowzen, not the shows’ creators, as an earlier headline read.