Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Animation Revolution, Part 2

In my article, "The Animation Revolution", I took a look at the current state of the animation industry in North America and offered what I felt were reasonable suggestions to the studios, suggestions on how to help the art form by opting for better films rather than derivative moneymakers. I am well aware that these studios want to make money, because, let’s face it, who doesn’t? At the same time, however, creativity is being shunted aside. I went over the other films that are dominating the animation scene, the ones that aren’t from whom I consider the “big three”: Disney, Pixar and DreamWorks. I will be honest, I do enjoy some animated romps that don't aim to be serious. I'm not saying "fun" animated films are bad. There's a a place in this world for those kinds of films. The problem is, there are too many in this day and age.

I firmly believe that we are going through The Third Golden Age of Animation. I believe it started five years ago in early 2007, after there wasn't such a glut of animated films but still enough to make it the start of the Golden Age. Fortunately, out of all the animated films released in 2007, we saw some quality endeavors instead of mediocre films that came and went. This would continue in the next few years, and we've seen studios like Disney and DreamWorks stepping up their game while Pixar delivered critical and commercial smashes. So here we are now, in the middle of 2012. Looking at the output, it seems like a very strong year. 2013 looks good too, as does the future projects coming from Disney, Pixar and DreamWorks. The Third Golden Age will continue, as long as these films wow critics and bring in the bucks, but...

In order to really kick things into high gear, mainstream animation in the United States and around the world needs an upgrade. I am perfectly fine with Pixar, Disney and DreamWorks making great, thoughtful family films. Family films are necessary, but the other studios making kid-friendly films that are less mature than what the big three offer need to step up their game. Now I suggested that they try ambitious projects every once in a while, while also making their bread and butter through tame projects. The problem is, if all of the big animated films are family films, some people are still going to perceive animated films as baby-sitters, children's films or films that aren't to be taken seriously.

More and more people are beginning to realize that animation is an art form, and animated family films are also for adults. Some people, however, say things like "These movies are for the kid in you" and "I love Disney and Pixar films because I feel like a kid again". Nostalgia isn't the reason why I admire great animated family films, and it should not be the reason why people enjoy animated family films. I admire them because they are great films. No "little kid in me" gets excited, I admire these films as a mature nineteen-year-old. I admire the storytelling, the heart, the writing, the craftsmanship, everything. What's also annoying is when someone says "These animated films are getting more and more adult these days..." No, they aren't getting "more adult". Are you trying to say they were only for children in the past and not for adults? The Disney animated classics were never only for kids, Walt Disney himself said so. I don't care how Disney themselves markets their films, the filmmakers and artists didn't make these things for kids first and foremost. Pixar's films from the beginning were not just for kids, and so on. These films have no target audience, they are made for anyone.

Also what makes them "adult"? One shouldn't use that term, because a G or PG rated film that's suitable for children (well, not all children of course) can be mature, meaningful and complex. Just look at Pixar's recent films like WALL-E and Up. What kid is going to watch WALL-E and say "Wow, what a great film about the evils of mass consumerism and reliance on technology"? Probably none, unless you spell the message out for them. They'll probably just like the colors, the characters and the funny parts. Also, will children immediately understand some of the deeper themes in the early Disney films? Probably not. Noticing these things as an adult, it's quite mind-blowing. Yes, Bambi's mother's death made children cry, but did kids understand the other themes of the film? Probably not. It makes it all the more frustrating when people write off family films as films that are not "adult". Well you might as well say the same about G and PG-rated live action films that are family film staples like The Wizard of Oz, The Sounds of Music, Star Wars, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and several others.

Unfortunately, people tend to equate specific film content with the terms "adult" and "mature". Anyone with common sense knows that gratuitous violence, sex and language doesn't make a film "adult" or "mature". Pixar's films have none of these, though they do tend to have violence, frightening scenes and humor that might not be suitable for everyone. Same with Disney and DreamWorks' recent films. However, they are still perceived by some as "kiddie" because they aren't rated PG-13 or R. Does a Pixar film need to be gory or loaded with sex and swearing in order to qualify as an "adult" or "mature" animated film? No. You might as well say something like Star Wars isn't adult because of this, but that film seems to get a pass along with every other G and PG-rated live action film because... They are "real" movies. That's another thing, why is live action the only supreme form of moviemaking? Animation is not an inferior way of moviemaking.

I guess if you are making an animated film, it has to be PG-13 or R-rated in order to be called an "adult" animated film. Funny, isn't it? In fact, family friendly live-action films are called "kids movies" as well. So if it's family friendly, that means it's kids' stuff? Lovely logic... As for family friendly animated features being perceived as kids' stuff, what can one do to shake that belief? Here's one way the studios could do it, by marketing a G or PG-rated animated film as something adults would have the desire to see.

One gigantic problem has persisted for a while, what is it? It's the way Disney markets their animated output. Whenever the classics come to home video, they are advertised as fluffy, kiddie stuff. There are exceptions, like The Lion King, where most of the advertising focuses on the more "epic" side of the film. Something like Bambi, a very mature and artistic film, comes off like a cutesy funny bunny romp in the advertising. It doesn't help when the covers from the home video releases always show Bambi as a fawn, smiling and happy with Thumper and Flower. Previews for Disney classics when they hit home video throughout the years usually showed kids enjoying them, implying that these films are nothing but mere baby-sitters. Even worse, some of their animated classics are shown on Disney's preschooler channel, Disney Junior. An animated classic that took years to make, intended for general audiences, being degraded by being shown on a channel for preschoolers... Sickening, isn't it? Disney, being one of the first things you might think about whenever "animation" or "cartoon" is brought up, wrote itself into a corner because of this, especially during the Eisner regime. Disney soiled their image and made themselves look like a shameless money machine that was making "kiddie stuff", rather than a studio that specialized in good quality family entertainment and the occasional adult-oriented films (notice I didn't say "adult" films).

Under Eisner, Disney "had" to be "for kids" some way or another. The films made during the Renaissance were usually watered down to satisfy children. Read up on all the horror stories. Certain films were altered because children got antsy during test screenings. Remember how Jeffrey Katzenberg almost cut "Part of Your World" out of The Little Mermaid? "If I Never Knew You" from Pocahontas got cut (though it was finished and put back into the film for its 2005 DVD release), ambitious ideas were ruined (see Atlantis: The Lost Empire) and unnecessary cuts were made to make certain films more kid-friendly (The Black Cauldron, Lilo & Stitch). Everything had to be for kids. Just look what happened to Dinosaur. Kid-friendly "sidekicks" were inserted into the films, not for comic relief, but to lighten the load for children. Pixar doesn't do that. Walt didn't do that. Even worse, merchandise was everywhere. Must I bring up the "Disney Princesses" brand?

Big difference!
Disney's blatant push to make themselves appear as an overtly kid-friendly brand ruined their image and hurt animation in many ways. Blame the corporate side, because the artists and storytellers at Disney want to make good films, not cheap cash grabs. Not toy commercials. The direct-to-video sequels and the Disney Channel's transition from a good channel into a teenybopper channel made matters worse. This "it has to be for kids" problem also affects other studios, who market their films as "kiddie stuff". Trailers usually focus on comic relief and the more cutesy elements of the films. Look at how Paramount has marketed some of DreamWorks' more recent films. Kung Fu Panda 2 and Puss in Boots are fine examples, with trailers and commercials that focused more on the comic relief than the story. This is probably why DreamWorks' hasn't really scored an opening weekend of over $50 million recently. Even some of the trailers for Pixar's films were pretty bad, such as WALL-E, Toy Story 3 and the Brave trailer from last autumn. Other animated films? Marketed as kiddie fluff. Laika's upcoming ParaNorman focuses more on the comedy, and less on the creepy ghouls. As for films that are fun comedies, there's no need to make something like Despicable Me look like something epic, since it's a comedy, but why is that formula (trailers with comic relief, less story) used to market animated films that aren't necessarily funny comedies? What if these films were marketed correctly? Sometimes Disney's marketing department gets it right. Brave's recent trailer is more in line with the Japanese trailers for Pixar films, which effectively start by introducing the characters and then showing the more dramatic side of the film, while using comic relief wisely. The trailer for DreamWorks' Rise of the Guardians is beautiful, not throwing unnecessary humor at you. The trailer for Frankenweenie is a nice trailer where the humor works. That's about it, though...

Now that I got that out of the way, here's another suggestion I have. Independent animated films... Think about it. They don't cost way too much to make. If a studio like Columbia or Universal were to acquire an animated film like that and give it some pretty good marketing, they could score a profitable success. Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox comes to mind, a $40 million film that was marketed poorly and released at the wrong time. Now what if 20th Century Fox gave it a better release date and marketed it with confidence? I'm not saying they have to go all out and shell out $100 million, but still, make the film look good from the trailers and TV spots. Make sure people know it's coming out. What if that little film took in around $70 million domestically and over $150 million worldwide? It would be a success for them. Instead, they got rewarded with a flop. Did they learn a lesson? Apparently not...

I understand that some independent animated films might not be embraced by mainstream audiences with enthusiasm, but you never know what audiences will accept. Rango scored a decent multiplier, and that wasn't like your usual animated film. Coraline, despite being deemed too scary for kids, had longevity at the box office. Something like Fantastic Mr. Fox or The Illusionist could've been profitable. They didn't have to be big blockbusters, but them being successful would give studios confidence if they don't want to do a big budget risk, like Rango or something like a Pixar film. Why can't that they try that? If that was being done right now, there would be a sort of demand for independent animated films and more foreign animated films. With all of those performing well alongside the big three and the kid-friendly romps, we'll get ahead. These animated films won't be hard to find. They'll get the attention they really deserve. With that, animation will get more and more accolades, and more people will realize that the art form has endless possibilities. Right now, animated films do very well and will continue to do well, and it's the perfect time to be ambitious, to start taking some risks. The medium is not a novelty, and people need to understand this sooner or later.

It can happen. If it does, new heights will be reached. Audiences will appreciate animation in ways they never did before. Animated classics will be sought after by those who once deemed animation as inane "kiddie stuff". Foreign animated films and more experimental endeavors will be the norm. Animation will dominate... It can happen...

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