Jaime Pressly dances with the Oogieloves from the movie "Oogieloves… (Matthew Mitchell / Kenn…)
NEW YORK — 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 Wednesday but reaped just $102,564 on its first day and is expected to take in a dismal $6 million through Monday. It is an eye-popping disappointment and, in return-on-investment terms, rivals the year's other box-office bombs, the big-budget pictures "John Carter" and "Battleship."
But if the movie seems to follow in the steps of these expensive 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, distributed 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.
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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 also have names like 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 like "It's Fedorable." Established actors turn up too, including Christopher Lloyd and Cloris Leachman.
But creating children's movie characters out of thin air isn't easy. With the exception of releases from studio heavyweights like 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 was 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 flamboyant 51-year-old at a lunch in a swanky midtown restaurant before the film's opening. (His septuagenarian mother, Barbara, came along; 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.