For the second year in a row, Pixar will not have anything close to the best animated film of the year and will not have the highest-grossing animated film of the year, not worldwide anyway. This is not a rant to bag on Pixar, as they will be fine (I'm optimistic that they are merely experiencing growing pains) and I'm more curious to examine what the animation field looks like without an uncontested leader. The critical disappointments of the likes of Cars 2 and Brave along with the lack of any guaranteed masterpieces for a little while puts Pixar in a position where it's now just 'one of the guys'. Disney has been trying to reclaim its once-uncontested title, but it too now sits in a position where it's 'just one of the gang', as there is no guarantee that the likes of Wreck It Ralph will even out-gross The Lorax domestically (worldwide, Tangled was the first Disney toon to top $350 million since Tarzan back in 1999). Critically, Disney has not had an out-and-out gem since Meet the Robinsons back in 2007, where it was matched by Pixar's Ratatouille. So the question becomes what does the animation landscape look like when neither Disney or even Pixar is the uncontested king of the proverbial hill? The answer is somewhat more exciting than you'd think.
On a worldwide box office scale, Pixar has been met and matched by Dreamworks animation for the last several years, culminating in the stunning $728 million-and-counting worldwide cume for Madagascar 3, which has or will soon becoming Dreamworks' top overseas-grossing cartoon and is easily their biggest non-Shrek earner ever. Dreamworks has been on a roll over the last three years, churning out critically-acclaimed (How To Train Your Dragon, Kung Fu Panda 2, Puss In Boots) and consistently huge-grossing worldwide hits ($421 million for How to Train Your Dragon, $665 million for Kung Fu Panda 2, $554 million for Puss In Boots) that certainly put them on the same financial footing with Pixar. Speaking purely in terms of global box office, few can deny that the consistent success with their 2-3 films per year puts Dreamworks as the would-be king of animation. But is it that simple?
There are real challengers to the throne, even if none of them have truly muscled up as of yet. Fox, via Blue Sky has found the holy grail of animated franchises, as the Ice Age series does so obscenely well overseas that they may eventually start releasing them direct-to-DVD in the states. Fox's overseas marketing might gives it an advantage Rio can gross $143 million in the states while earning $484 million worldwide. Sony is muscling up with the likes of Hotel Transylvania and the delightful Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, although they lack the overseas might of their rivals (at this point, Hotel Transylvania crossing $300 million is not a guarantee). Universal has a real franchise with Despicable Me ($543 million worldwide) and whatever series of Dr. Seuss books they adapt next. What this all means is that a shift is occurring in the realm of major studio animation.
I'd argue that Dreamworks may very-well become the undisputed animation champion over the next few years, depending on whether they can maintain a level of quality with their increased output (and whether their distribution deal with Fox is as good to them as their time with Paramount). Paramount is in a possible pickle, having lost Dreamworks and now struggling to find its own animation identity. But its first such effort in ages, Rango, won an Oscar for Best Animated Film just last year, so let's be optimistic. And that's what this is about. When everyone has a shot as number 01, everyone works that much harder. This year the best American animated feature was ParaNorman, from Focus Features (disclaimer: I won't see Rise of the Guardians until a week from Saturday). My love of Kung Fu Panda 2 aside, the general consensus pick for the best cartoon of 2011 came from Paramount. We have absolutely no idea where next year's great cartoons will come from.
We are coming to a point where every major studio, and even some minor studios, have a shot at the title, both in terms of box office glory and critical acclaim. To paraphrase a classic monologue from Ratatouille, not everyone can make great animated films, but great animated films can come from anywhere. And, speaking in terms of box office, the same new rule applies. It's not a perfect situation, as there is still too little genuinely adult animated product in America, at best merely telling adult stories wrapped up in a G/PG-rated package. But animation is now a field without a genuine uncontested ruler. The result will hopefully be open warfare as every studio does their best to take a shot at becoming the new Disney or the new Pixar. That's good news for fans of Disney and Pixar (ie - all of us) as well. The two former uncontested titans are now wounded and hungry to reclaim their once preordained glory. That means that they will theoretically try new ideas and new concepts, as will Dreamworks who sees their best chance at becoming the dominant animation studio.
And by default of the sheer number of animated films coming down the pike every year for the foreseeable future, there are bound to be a few great cartoons and a bundle of good ones each and every year. Box office-wise, it looks to be Dreamworks versus Pixar for the foreseeable future. But quality-wise tells a different story. We now have no idea from where the next classic animated film will spring. And that's an awfully exciting thing.