Tuesday, November 6, 2012

A kingdom with no ruler: The current animation landscape...

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.

Scott Mendelson


Corey Atad said...

"the lack of any guaranteed masterpieces on the horizon puts Pixar in a position where it's now just 'one of the guys'."

I'm sorry, but what does this even mean? How can there ever be such a thing as a guaranteed masterpiece. And if you're referring to the idea that they don't have enough original content on the way, well, they've got the dinosaur movie from Bob Peterson, the inside-the-mind movie from Pete Docter and the Dia de los Meurtos movie from Lee Unkrich. There's also another film from them that's on Disney's 2015 schedule, though it's not named and it's not known who the director is.

The narrative of Pixar going downhill is getting annoying. The fact that not every movie of theirs can be a masterpiece is hardly surprising. Cars 2 was an unfortunate step, but Brave is a fine film. The truth of the matter is that Pixar is doing whatever Pixar is doing, meanwhile other studios are stepping up their game.

Dreamworks, apparently tired of being an also-ran, has re-focused on delivering better quality films with more heart. I still think their design work needs improvement, and they would probably benefit from being more adventurous in how they choose to appeal to adults and children simultaneously. I love How to Train Your Dragon, but the way the teenage characters are depicted is still pretty typical Dreamworks approach. They're definitely improving, though, and I love that.

The one problem I have with Dreamworks is the number of films. So many films. I'd imagine if they took their release pattern down to 3 films every 2 years they could focus even more on getting the individual quality of each film up there. Of course, the downside to this, as we see with Pixar, is that when there's a failure the stench of it lingers for a whole year.

I think what Pixar did, Cars 2 included if you think about it, was show that making quality films is not antithetical to making big profits. Films like Cloud With a Chance of Meatballs, and even the more childish Despicable Me continued to prove that.

It's actually an important lesson, and I wish the rest of Hollywood would look to Pixar and the animation industry as a whole for inspiration. You can make high-concept films that appeal to a wide range of people but that are also quite good, and guess what, they'll still make money.

Scott Mendelson said...

I actually cut out two sentences discussing that Pixar wasn't doomed or anything of that nature, but in light of your comment I just tossed them back in. In terms of global box office and even critical acclaim, Pixar is no longer guaranteed to be top dog in any given year. And that's okay, there is nothing wrong with Pixar being a mostly consistent animation studio that sometimes hits a high or a low here and there. What irks is the automatic presumption that anything not made by Pixar is automatically inferior to the Lasseter house, to the point of pundits saying we should cancel the Best Animated Film Oscar category last year because Pixar's film happened to be sub-par. But we are now in an age where a Disney animated feature is not presumed to be the top-grossing animated film (or among the top grossing entries) in a given year while the most critically-praised cartoons can now come from any studio. That in itself is very exciting...

Corey Atad said...

Yeah, I'm completely with you. As a huge fan of Western animation, I'm very excited to see the playing field levelled and expanded. The best animated features I've seen this year have come from Laika and Pixar. And despite the Laika film, Paranorman, essentially being an indie film, it's hardly some inaccessible or high-brow work like The Illusionist or Persepolis.

One of the things I would like to see, though, is the ability for animated studios to use a variety of animation methods. There have been three stop-motion features this year, and they get funded because despite not being CGI, they do have a 3D component. In fact, I know several people who saw Paranorman and were surprised to learn afterward that it wasn't actually CGI. And still, those stop-motion films fail to rake in the money.

Disney tried traditional 2D animation twice recently with Princess and the Frog and Winnie the Pooh. PatF made some money, but not nearly enough to justify continuing to use the format, and Winnie the Pooh was really for a niche market of very young children and didn't make much money at all.

I haven't seen the full short yet, but I'm hoping Disney continues to seriously develop the tech that went into Paperman. It's not the same as classic 2D animation, but it has a look that could be sold as modern CGI while also bringing back the feeling and stylization of the Disney films of old.

Looking at Princess and the Frog I can't help but feel Disney failed because they played at something rather than doing something new. They said "let's make a classic Disney film." They made it about a princess, They did it hand-drawn with as little computer effects as possible. They put songs in it and did the whole bit. And yet it never came together. They were working to recapture something from an era that's now over.

I'd love to see Disney move forward. Keep the Disney tradition of making big, grand, universal stories. Do it with that unique style, but using new tech like the Paperman software. Bring in music, but use new burgeoning talent. The Little Mermaid, looking at it now, was an instant classic, but it was also new. It gave serious personality to its heroine. It used all kinds of new technology. So did Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. Once those developments became commonplace at Disney, the films started to go downhill. Disney needs to be innovating again.

I am very curious to see Frozen, which has been in various states of development for years and years. The biggest hope I have is that it'll bring back the Disney musical in a big way with songs by Book of Mormon's Robert Lopez. But we'll see.


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