Mainstream American Animation Today and Tomorrow…

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2016 is arguably a watershed year right now for the mainstream feature-length animated film…

Zootopia, Walt Disney Animation Studios’ wonderful new animated original, not only exceeded expectations, but also became one of the highest-grossing animated films and one of the few original, not-based-on-any-source-material films to cross $1 billion at the worldwide box office. It is a wonderful film that’s a modern day, nuanced Aesop tale about prejudice, jampacked with great characters and worldbuilding. I’m glad audiences actually showed up for it in droves…

Pixar’s Finding Dory was no slouch of a sequel, exploring Dory’s disability and telling a wonderful story about how she comes to terms with it when searching for her parents. It too is on track to make $1 billion, as it’s already the domestic box office champion of animated films, finally unseating the film that held the record for 12 years: DreamWorks’ sophomoric, dated Shrek 2.

Kung Fu Panda 3, from DreamWorks of course, was a good closing to the trilogy, though it didn’t quite reach the heights of its predecessors. It feels as if this installment was rushed and meddled with during production, but fortunately it still turned out to be a solid adventure with a lot to offer. Box office for the picture was overall good, and a much-needed success for DreamWorks, as they continue their road to recovery.

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DreamWorks was finally acquired by a bigger company. For years, the studio had been searching for a parent company. At one time we thought SoftBank would be it, at another time it seemed like Hasbro was the one. Comcast has them now, which means that their future films will be distributed by Universal Pictures. Universal has shown that they can market animated features like a son-of-a-gun! Every Illumination animated feature minus the live-action hybrid Hop opened with over $55 million at the domestic box office, and made boffo bucks worldwide. The Secret Life of Pets recently scored the biggest stateside opening for an original film not based on any pre-existing IP, with a tremendous $104 million.

20th Century Fox, DreamWorks’ current distributor, is not fit for them. DreamWorks blows too much money on their features, as the current crop of features will each cost around $120 million to make. Until Universal takes over distributing, whenever that will be, Fox better step it up with pictures like Trolls (coming Nov. 4th) and The Boss Baby (set for March 31, 2017). Fox also distributes Blue Sky’s films, but less is at stake because their films don’t cost as much as DreamWorks’ films.

Anyways, the acquisition is now set to close as early as late August. With that, we should get a good idea of what DreamWorks’ post-2018 (or post-2017 even) slate should look like. Right now, the apparent plan is to release Shadows in 2019, a re-imagining of the Me and My Shadow project that the studio kicked around for over five years. In keeping with the two-a-year strategy – one original and one sequel – the studio will also ready Shrek 5 for that year. As much as we may not want it, it makes perfect sense in terms of business. Comcast wants big franchises from DreamWorks, Shrek is four movies long, each of them a box office smash, and spin-off Puss in Boots was no slouch either. Of course they’re going to want more, more, mooooooooore!

More than anything, I hope this leads to the long-gestating Puss in Boots 2: Nine Lives & 40 Thieves entering production.

Sequels will fund originals, too, so win-win there for DreamWorks and us. Some still choose to view DreamWorks as that class-clown studio making things like Shark Tale, but if you’ve seen Kung Fu Panda, How To Train Your Dragon, and various other recent films of theirs, you’ll know they are much more than that.

Blue Sky coasted this year with Ice Age: Collision Course, currently set to open with a series-low $22 million here in the states… But that doesn’t matter, worldwide grosses will make it a hit, and the money will fund originals like Anubis and Ferdinand. Blue Sky impressed with The Peanuts Movie last year, showing that – yes- they can make pretty good films. The Ice Age sequels are mere comfort food.

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Illumination’s The Secret Life of Pets – which I have yet to see – has gotten decent reviews, and is doing fantastic at the box office. At the end of the year, the studio will release jukebox musical Sing, which looks to be a departure from their usual work. This year is the first where they have released two films, and thankfully they look very different from each other.

Sony Animation has nothing for this year, their next release isn’t until early 2017: Smurfs: The Lost Village, a complete revamp of the franchise and an all-animated film that will draw from the Peyo comics, not the 80s Hanna-Barbera TV series adaptation or anything else. Sony Pictures did however have an animated release this year, Rovio’s The Angry Birds Movie. Better than it probably needed to be but still nothing special, it at least made its money back.

Outside of the biggest of the biggies, Reel FX has Rock Dog, a feature co-produced with a Chinese studio, which unfortunately tanked there due to nasty theater ownership politics (something that isn’t and hasn’t been a problem here since the 1940s) and may end up just going straight to Netflix here. That’s similar to what happened to The Little Prince. Paramount intended to release that film here, but abandoned it, Netflix swooped up and took it – the film comes to the platform and select theaters in a few weeks.

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Little animation still gets crushed, but some of the biggies really brought their A-game.

We’re certainly way ahead of where we were 10 years ago.

I always looked back on 2006 as being one of feature animation’s weakest years. Aside from a few well-received animated films, 2006 was the year many careless head honchos raced into computer animation, seeing how well the Pixar films did, the Shrek films, and Ice Age. They wanted in. Of course, conventional wisdom said that CG was the future and that traditional animation was primitive, outdated. We’re still reeling in from that, but 2006 did show that audiences weren’t going to eat up every piece of CGI you threw at them.

At first, computer animation was a novelty, for it was new and surprising for audiences. Many not-so-good films did so well a decade ago because computer-generated imagery was all the rage. If released today, things like Shark Tale and Chicken Little would’ve flopped hard. Now, audiences are choosy. If a new animated movie on the block doesn’t look like a must-see, they won’t go. This year saw flops in Norm of the North and Ratchet & Clank, regardless of what level of quality they had. Ice Age cinq will slip hard on opening weekend, audiences have clearly moved on from this series.

The next big animated film is Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s Sausage Party, a rare R-rated mainstreamer, but it’s yet another raunchy comedy and not something truly adult. That being said, it looks fun and hopefully its success leads to more R-rated animated films, not more R-rated animated films similar to it. It’s time to go beyond the PG-rated family film with this medium, in terms of the theatrical animation. Time to catch up to other countries and the indie houses.

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The next few years look to bring us lots of great new adventures, but I won’t sugarcoat it… Animation has to try even harder. People are now finally realizing that animation is, again, a big moneymaker. It’s not some genre, nor is it a fad. Make a movie people really want to see (Zootopia, Pets), keep the budgets reasonable, market them right… You’re all set. Our big companies may just try to replicate past successes, but they should really strive to try new things with such a limitless medium. Zootopia tried new things and had a lot to say without ever hammering it, Finding Dory tackled themes most mainstream entertainment fumbles with, let’s go even further…

Studio heads need to call for sincere pictures. There’s nothing wrong with a fun comedy romp like The Secret Life of Pets, but have it be something more than a Redbox rental. Something I’d want to watch again and again. Enough of this “target audience” fiddle-faddle, if you want a huge success and if you want to make back your money, get the adults interested. The right way! Tell a story that’s sincere, don’t pull this “haha we have inappropriate jokes so you don’t fall asleep!” nonsense. Make a movie that’s only for kids, not too many a grown-up will show up. Kids liking what they see in the commercials can only get you so far, the parent/guardian has to say “yes” to the movie, and pay for the tickets. Excepting the – in my opinion – irresponsible parents who drop their kids off at the movies and buy them their tickets.

I think like Walt Disney. An animated work of family entertainment should treat the audience – young and old – like they are smart, in-tune with what they are watching. Walt Disney Animation Studios, Pixar, Aardman and LAIKA routinely do this, DreamWorks does it a lot these days, once in a while you get that from Blue Sky, Sony Animation, and Illumination. I’m not saying these movies have to be high art, but they should at least try. They should be more than just pretty colors and noise. Quiet down, focus groups and executives. Let movies just be movies.

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Mainstream animation’s healthy now, but it should be running, exploring. Its full potential needs to be unlocked, and CG isn’t the one true bankable medium. Traditional animation and stop-motion need to seriously be considered, and presented correctly so that tons of audiences go see the films in question on opening weekend. Most films fail because no one wants to see them in the first place, regardless of their quality. Kubo and the Two Strings, likely another LAIKA masterpiece, isn’t expected to open huge. Why is that? Audience disinterest. The marketing won’t get in too many folk, which is a shame.

Selling a good animated feature to an audience isn’t easy, because you never know with them. Kung Fu Panda 3‘s trailer emphasized comedy over action, it opened well. Zootopia‘s ad campaign was all about animals taking selfies, opened big. Secret Life of Pets‘ marketing was all comedy and cute critters, opened huge. Ice Age 5 also had joke-a-thon trailers, but they didn’t cut it, so you never know. It’s never an exact science. You can’t just say “Good movies make money, bad movies don’t.” You also have to take budgets into account. A movie can make $800 million worldwide (Batman v Superman), which means A LOT of people saw the movie in question, but since it wasn’t enough to get it into the black, it’s labelled a flop and people cry “Nobody liked it!” or “It wasn’t good!”

Quality is also subjective. Some are saying The Secret Life of Pets is just decent, others are saying it’s fluff and nothing more. So much for “good movies = good box office”…

Yes, “just make good movies!” is what we suggest… But more than anything, marketability speaks volumes. Last summer’s Minions was regarded as a mediocre slop, but it made $1 billion. Home was widely regarded as a forgettable DreamWorks effort, but it opened very well and was viewed as a success. Quality, most of the time, has nothing to do with it. If it did, Minions would’ve sunk like a stone after its opening weekend, and something like Shaun the Sheep Movie would’ve been a blockbuster. Doesn’t work that way. What the audience wants to see, and likes, is the name of the game. Audiences like a lot of well-reviewed movies, but audiences also like a lot of badly-reviewed movies. (Transformers, anyone?)

Risks, however, need to be taken. Like Walt, the filmmakers of today need to open doors, try new things, and enhance what they already have. The summer of 2016 should be like the summer of 1966, the year the pop and rock music world saw an explosion of creativity, established musicians and exciting newcomers giving the world sounds they would’ve never dreamed of…

Where is that in feature animation? It’s done more in TV and independent feature animation, can the mainstream world eventually do it? Will audiences one day make a weirder, ambitious tale a smash hit which kicks off a trend of similarly innovative films? Who knows. It happened to live-action film, it happened to pop music, it happens to other art forms… It’s time for animation to see that. It makes lots of money, adults attend lots of animated features, so the “kiddie” concern shouldn’t even be a thing.

It’s time to break out!

Maybe in a few years, we will be surprised…

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