2011: Life and Animation

I wanted to talk about a certain year in my life for some random reason…

For a while, I had somewhat considered 2011 to be a downer year for feature animation. Why this specific, not-so-distant stretch of 365 days you ask? It just sort of came to mind…

2011 was a year of some firsts for me. I had joined Twitter in January of that year, but for most of the time, I was posting some random stuff. I didn’t quite get the site back then, and when people today tell me that they don’t get it, I just reimagine for one second what it was like for me. Getting the feel for the site and whatnot. It certainly wasn’t Facebook! I eventually began following some Disney fans and animation fans, and little by little I began to mingle with the right crowds. That was by the end of the year, though…

The animation fan I was back in 2011 is not the same fan I am today. I looked at things differently, I talked about things differently, I analyzed things differently. I used to post YouTube videos about upcoming animated films. A taste of who I was is in these things… They’re so bad. I was still in stage-fright mode when speaking for YouTube videos, I didn’t edit out all the noises I made when talking, which makes my misophonia-riddled head go haywire nowadays!

Prior to making these videos, I had done some Disney-centric rambles and also wrote up some blog posts that never got posted. As far back as May 2011, I wanted to blog about animation, but didn’t really start until February of 2012. That was when I established Kyle’s Animated World…

In the year 2011, I was adjusting to my new life, with struggles and joys along the way.

I graduated high school the previous year, and immediately began taking courses at my local community college. Back then, I was still undecided about my major, for my high school experiences had turned me away from taking art courses and pursuing what I needed in order to achieve my goals.

The first semester went over very well, as I was in an environment that was significantly better than the hell that was high school. Community college wasn’t perfect by any means, but I was mostly away from drama and everlasting troubles. Sometimes I’d deal with bull, but that’s because – let’s face it – adults deal in that kind of stuff well after high school. In spades! I basically went in, got my work done, boom. My second semester began in January 2011, as I was still in a great state of mind. 2010 had been such a great year for me, personally, and it was amplified by the abundance of quality and high-grossing animated features released that year… Toy Story 3, Tangled, and How To Train Your Dragon, anyone?

In terms of my personal life, most of 2011 was more a repeat of 2009, which was a year plagued by a loss, family drama, negative happenings, and off-the-charts anxiety. This in some ways probably affected my outlook on that year’s animation.

In truth, and I had realized it later, 2011 was actually quite a damn good year for animated features!

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For me, there were some real gems here. Paramount’s release that year was the Blindwink/GK Films co-production Rango, an exciting Gore Verbinski film whose animation was done by ILM. Rango was an unexpected shot of something fierce in the animation water, a rough-and-tumble, weirdo Western adventure that definitely was more for big kids and adults than anything. It sported more bite than most modern animated features, and it had brains too! Divisive it was for audiences, it’s a rare animated film that we really haven’t seen since. Paramount threw $135 million at this great risky movie, and I still give them serious props for that. Box office-wise, it technically was not a success, but Paramount must’ve been so happy that it even crossed $100 million domestically to begin with… The film’s “success” was partially the reason why the company launched their Paramount Animation label, an initiative that is oddly struggling to get off the ground some six years after it was put into place. Maybe they need to make more Rango-esque films. Hint hint, nudge nudge.

Rango shared a year with DreamWorks’ excellent sequel Kung Fu Panda 2 and their very solid Shrek spin-off Puss in Boots (I unfortunately missed out on both of these in theaters due to circumstances), a solid Blue Sky comedy called Rio, Disney Animation’s lovely Winnie the Pooh, Aardman’s heartfelt Arthur Christmas, and the action-packed Spielberg fun of The Adventures of Tintin. Good stuff, good stuff! Even some of the lesser films wore their weird, like Happy Feet Two. The winning films outshone the tossaways, like The Smurfs and Hop and stuff like that. Heck, even The Lion King was re-released theatrically and its success started a series of Disney and Pixar classic re-releases. (That sadly ended up abruptly not even two years later.)

Since a big amount of films were released that year, the Oscars would nominate 5 pictures again for Best Animated Feature, as 2010 was just a three-way battle between two mainstreamers and an indie film. Rango, Kung Fu Panda 2, Puss in Boots, Chico & Rita, and A Cat in Paris all competed for the little gold man, with the chameleon winning big. The latter two films got some limelight, thanks in part to distributor GKIDS, who were beginning to make it big around this time.

Where was Pixar that year? Not nominated. Why?

Cars 2.

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This marked the first time a Pixar film wasn’t nominated for Best Animated Feature at the Oscars. Cars 2 also happened to be their first film to get a completely undesirable rotten score on the almighty Rotten Tomatoes.

I remember Cars 2‘s shortcomings absolutely stinging the circles I was in, as if animation had died a little bit. Took a bullet. The great Pixar, stumbling big time with a sequel that few had asked for. An action movie that channeled Michael Bay explosion-fests more than the potent emotional adventures that were WALL-E, Up, and Toy Story 3. While a good chunk of the animation community were instantly ready to give up on the studio they so loved and praised for years, I was more ambivalent. I was certainly disappointed with the film, but still liked it enough to buy the Blu-ray. (After a more recent re-watch, I still think it’s very fun and enjoyable on its own terms. I honestly don’t get the hate.) I had hope for Pixar’s future, and was really anticipating what they had in store.

But I just remember that film really piercing a hole in the animation community. It also didn’t help that Brave, which was of course their next feature, went through a very nasty, highly-publicized director change. While director changes do happen in animation frequently, this one stung because the film was supposed to be the first Pixar picture to be directed by a woman. Brenda Chapman later opened up about her bad experiences working on the film, and the fiasco was certainly a bad look for the Emeryville studio. Her ousting from the project was announced back in October of 2010, fans were split. Some said “wait till it comes out,” others were a little more distraught. After Cars 2 came out (which also underwent an eleventh hour director change), the odds weren’t in Brave‘s favor despite the mysterious and intriguing teaser that was out at the time.

Blind as I was, I trusted chief John Lasseter back then and felt that he wanted to give us all a good movie in the end, Cars 2 notwithstanding. (And for what it’s worth, I ended up thinking Brave was a solid good movie. Maybe it would’ve been better under Chapman, maybe not. I may never know.)

Winnie2011

What also stung was Disney’s dumping of Winnie the Pooh, the final nail in the feature traditional animation coffin. What The Princess and the Frog started was over in a flash, but Walt Disney Animation Studios thankfully didn’t cease making quality movies. We knew Wreck-It Ralph was on the horizon, and it sounded pretty exciting and fresh. However, their slate seemed to be rather scant… We really didn’t know what else was coming, and at the time it was a little worrying. Back then, their newest movie was Tangled. Tangled had been their only big hit at the box office in years, and some of us wondered if Wreck-It Ralph would continue that or not. Was Tangled just a fluke? Would Disney Animation continue going despite that a lot of their movies weren’t doing so well in the post-Eisner age? This, combined with the second halting of 2D animated features, added to the downer atmosphere in animationland.

These two happenings, however, shouldn’t have detracted from everything else. Almost all of the mainstream studios putting out good films was something to celebrate, and it only helped show that feature animation was never just Pixar’s game.

As the years go by, I become more and more grateful that Cars 2 even happened. Yes, you heard that right.

From around 2007 to 2010, Pixar had a hype machine behind them. This was when they released the movies RatatouilleWALL-EUp, and Toy Story 3. Four films that arguably formed their peak years, their apex so to speak. Three of these films were ambitious, high concept films that made us laugh and hit us hard in the gut! The other was a rare threequel that managed to be as great as its predecessors. Pixar did what several studios and filmmakers had failed to do for decades! As such, some people began calling them the greatest studio ever.

This was rare for any kind of animation in a post-Renaissance age. All these adults praising Pixar out the wazoo… and it made 2010 all the more exciting for a young fan like me! It was great to see my favorite art form getting the love it needed, but it was really, truly only for one studio and this hype was quite non-inclusive. The Pixar hype train was indeed exciting back in the day, but it needed a little pin prick. Not the studio itself, but the hype surrounding their output. While it was great to see other adults talk excitedly about an animation studio that specialized in family films, it was also frustrating to hear a lot of these adults put down other animation studios, rag on older animated films (mostly Disney’s), and spew ignorance of animation all over the web. The general mindset was “Pixar’s great, then there’s everybody else.” There was little to no nuance in mainstream animation discussion, Pixar was the greatest and older animation was for kiddies and every other studio was DreamWorks Shrek crap. Nevermind that DreamWorks released their acclaimed How To Train Your Dragon and the pretty well-received Megamind that year, in addition to having Kung Fu Panda under their belt.

Of course, animation isn’t just Pixar, and Cars 2 and the output of 2011 finally proved that…

In the ensuing years, feature animation had gotten less diverse. Looking back on 2011, there’s some variety here. Weirdo Western Rango, old-fashioned action-packed The Adventures of Tintin, martial arts epic Kung Fu Panda 2, charming Winnie the Pooh, and heartfelt Arthur Christmas alone make up a very nice smorgasbord. They may all be G and PG-rated films, but they didn’t all conform to Hollywood animation laws. This was before the Despicable Me franchise really exploded and engulfed the industry like the Kraken, this was before The Lego Movie‘s runaway success inadvertently created a monster.

And yet I wasn’t quite feeling this rush of greatness throughout the year, or even in the early months of 2012.

I had written back then that things weren’t all that good, but perhaps that was more based on the fact that not a single animated film – for the first time in six years – had reached $200 million domestically. Cars 2 came the closest with a $191 million gross, Kung Fu Panda 2 – which should’ve been a no-holds-barred blockbuster – opened smaller than its predecessor, and legs couldn’t get it up there. Nothing else had much of a chance. RioRangoPuss in Boots, and such finished up with less than $150 million respectively. 2010 by contrast had FIVE films that crossed $200m stateside, one of which reached the then-coveted $400 million mark: How To Train Your Dragon, Shrek Forever After, Toy Story 3, Despicable Me, and Tangled.

What happened?

I chalk it up to the marketing, the movies not really opening so well, and in the case of Cars 2, weak legs and audience reception. If Cars 2 had been polished, it probably would’ve grossed the $200m threshold. If Paramount had marketed Kung Fu Panda 2 better, maybe it would’ve outgrossed its predecessor. I don’t know…

I used to hang out on forums full of fuddy-duddies who suggested that the animation “fad” was finally coming to an end, and that nothing in the next year would make $200 million domestically. As if animation was finally draining after a big year full of smash hits. Some of the people on those boards simply didn’t get animation, and wanted it to go away. It is quite telling that I haven’t visited those boards in – what? – six years? Animation is still here and healthier than ever, thank goodness. I mean, after so many decades of smashes, why would it go away? Animation being a “fad”… It’s a laughable, utterly hilarious statement. Every year since 2011, at least one animated feature cracks the big 2-0-0 at the domestic box office.

I just didn’t know what could’ve happened with 2012’s crop of features. I even made predictions back then, many of which reflect how uncertain I was at the time. Read here for your amusement! Here’s a telling passage from that old, badly-written post of mine. In it, I am referring to the first major animation release of 2012, which was The Lorax:

This is the big one. Unless this film completely disappoints everyone, from critics to family audiences, then it will be the “great decider” (as I like to call it) of the fate of animation at the domestic box office.

The great decider of the “fate of animation at the domestic box office.” Did I really, seriously buy into what those anti-animation folks were saying on those message boards? Was I that pessimistic back then?

Where was I personally at the end of 2011 anyways? Well, all the drama and hard work and stress had already taken a toll on me. I guess you could say that, by December, I was burnt out. Not quite depressed, but frustrated and hoping for greener grass in the months to come. So what was I doing? Carrying on. I made the fall semester work out fine despite the ludicrous hours (I had a lecture class that went from 7:00-10:30pm every couple of nights!), and despite the stress I battled with elsewhere. See, in the previous summer, I had taken two summer courses. While I barely passed one, I sadly had failed the other one. The first and only F I ever got as a college student. It CRUSHED me, and I felt like such a disappointment for all of that. Later on, I would come to find out that other students had similar problems with that specific class and maybe I wasn’t alone, it’s a very long story that I wish not to get into right now for the sake of length… Either way, it was a real kick in the head and it made me a better picker of classes in the future. Just one more stressful event to make everything else going on more stressful. A Walt Disney World trip provided a decent break from the craziness in the late summer, so that was indeed a highlight. Perhaps all this stress blinded me to the better qualities of 2011’s animation crop. That, and too much fixation on box office grosses.

2011 wasn’t a perfect year by any stretch, and animation’s problems nowadays are more or less the same issues that the medium faced some seven years ago. Nowadays, most of the studio productions comfortably fit into molds, while new studios show promise but then blow their money on kiddie pics.

However, there was one notable change in my life that occurred at the end of 2011 that did help me… I had met some pretty cool people on Twitter, people who are animation fans and some people who are actually – right now – neck-deep in the industry! From here, I finally “got” Twitter. It was more my speed, the people I met were folks I didn’t really meet elsewhere, for a little while I had a sort-of group of Pixar fanatics. I’m still in contact with a lot of these people too after all these years. In turn, that would help me with what was bothering me in life then and would help me in ensuing years when things got stressful again. (And boy did they! I guess I was much more prepared.)

Early 2012 was more or less a sort-of waiting game period. The burnout had subsided and a new, less hectic semester had begun. 2012 promised lots of cool animated movies, and I think that year actually did deliver. At the box office, more than two animated features crossed $200 million on American soil. While some downfalls occurred, there was still enough good to outweigh all of it. For me personally, we saw slumps in 2013, 2015, and this past year, but had two solid years in 2014 and 2016. This year is looking to be solid, too… I guess odd number years are kind of cursed? I don’t really know!

Perhaps 2011 has been on my mind because this year promises such a diverse crop. Now, in 2018, we’ve got Wes Anderson’s new stop-motion wonder Isle of Dogs, Aardman’s oddball Early Man, the dark horse Sgt. Stubby, and… retrograde things like Sherlock Gnomes (a sequel to a 2011 animated film, no less)… Perhaps this year will be one of animation’s best of the decade, as we have potentially great films to look forward to: Incredibles 2, Ralph Breaks the Internet, Into the Spider-Verse, etc. Perhaps the good stuff will really outweigh the tried-and-true, the usual, the generic stuff, the this, the that. Maybe the year is on the mind because it’s also the year I belatedly discovered Wes Anderson’s other stop-motion animated feature Fantastic Mr. Fox. It was my main jam in the last few months of 2011.

Whatever it may be, I look back on that year’s animation fondly. I don’t have fond memories of the year itself, but there were things I did that’ll always be great memories that outweigh the bad ones. Animation kept me going, as it always does alongside many other things. So yes… 2011 was a good year for animation, and I kind of wish I had seen it then. It very much was the worthy sequel to 2010…

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