Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Animation Revolution

The following is all strictly opinion-based and is essentially what I believe is the right direction to go to expand the art of animation into new territories. Any of my criticisms against certain films and animation studios isn't meant to be taken personally, these are only my personal thoughts.

Animation is an art form... Always has been, and always will be...

It’s been nearly seventy-five years since Walt Disney and his crew of highly talented people tried the impossible and produced the ambitious project that was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and premiered it to the public. This film changed the world’s view of the animation medium, which they thought was an outlet for funny six-minute cartoons. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs not only made audiences laugh, it made them cry, a first for anything animated. It also frightened younger audiences, proving that Walt didn’t want these films to be seen as children’s fare.

Critics and audiences loved it. It became the highest grossing film at the time of its release, but the Academy Awards snubbed it despite the fact that it was a great film that signaled a new frontier for cinema. It wasn’t nominated for Best Picture, but Walt Disney ultimately got a “Special Achievement” award as an apology. No Disney animated feature made during Walt’s lifetime would ever be nominated for Best Picture, but Walt did take home the most Oscars than anyone else for not only his animated films, but his live action films and short films. However, the critical reception for most of the Disney animated features was sky high and to this day, they constantly do extremely well on home video formats.

With that, how come animation still isn’t recognized as an art form by the public? Today, animated films usually dent the Top 10 at the domestic and worldwide box office, and sometimes top it completely. The Academy Awards nominated Pixar’s Up and Toy Story 3 for Best Picture for both 2009 and 2010 respectively (the second and third they did this, which they did first was Beauty and the Beast), but yet the category for Best Animated Feature still exists and those two films ended up taking home that award. Aside from Pixar, Disney and DreamWorks, most of the mainstream animated films out there are very kid-oriented and while some of them are entertaining, they don’t try anything new with the medium. Disney also doesn’t help by marketing their films as kid’s stuff, and the classics are surrounded by a merchandising empire that further rams that point home.

Over the last few years, we got such unnecessary films that did nothing for the medium. The heavy-hitters (Disney, Pixar, DreamWorks) delivered the goods, and so did the independent filmmakers, but then we also got a fair share of kid-friendly films that over-saturated the market: Alpha and Omega, Mars Needs Moms, Hop, Hoodwinked Too! Hood vs. Evil, The Smurfs, Happy Feet Two alongside average, sometimes near-mediocre films like Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax and Gnomeo and Juliet.

We’re at a point now where animated films are doing better than ever before at the box office. Toy Story 3 is a fine example, but most of the other big animation outlets are resorting to releasing kiddie films like The Smurfs and Hop, rather than trying to compete with the big guns artistically and expand the art form. Instead, they just want to make films that kids will drag their parents to see, rather than trying something new.

There are exceptions. Films like Rango, The Adventures of Tintin, A Cat in Paris, Chico & Rita, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Coraline, Mary & Max, The Secret of Kells and other artistically interesting animated films have surfaced in the last few years. The problem is, only a couple of them saw some kind of success at the box office. Most of these films are only released in select theaters and only get some form of recognition when they appear during the Academy Awards. As good as Pixar is, no independent films have ever taken home the Oscar for Best Animated Feature. They just come and go, people miss out on them. Rango won for 2011, and that might open people up to alternatives in the animation world, but not likely.

Meanwhile, subpar films do well. The heavy-hitters usually top the box office because their films are the best of the bunch. We’re lucky to have a studio like Pixar consistently making critically acclaimed films, and DreamWorks and Disney have gotten better as well and have churned out solid gold winners. Blue Sky, Sony Pictures Animation and Illumination however, have their ups and downs and they aren’t trying anything new with the medium. Newcomer Laika, after the moderate success of Coraline, seems like a candidate for one of the big animation houses, but we don’t know how their new film ParaNorman will do.

Pixar has revolutionized computer animation and made excellent films with such unusual plots and casts of characters such as Monsters, Inc., Ratatouille and Up. They also gave audiences a film that was virtually dialogue-less for the first thirty minutes. They have moved audiences to tears with Up and Toy Story 3, while also making them laugh. The best thing is, they aren’t even making these films for children. They, like Walt Disney, are aiming for the entire family so they can entertain and inspire adults, children and everyone else. They’re also not afraid of trying something new, and their upcoming films Dia De Los Muertos and Pete Docter’s currently untitled “Inside the Mind” project prove this.

Since Michael Eisner stepped down as CEO of The Walt Disney Company, Walt Disney Animation Studios has been making films that are true to the great Disney tradition while also trying some new things. The Princess and the Frog and Winnie the Pooh are the studio’s first traditional animated films since 2004 and they’re both wonderful films. While poor management lead to them disappointing at the box office, it’s great that they were produced in the first place. The CGI films Bolt and Tangled also showed that Disney could tell good stories again no matter what medium. We should see the same for their two upcoming films, Wreck-It Ralph and Frozen.

DreamWorks’ has worked with better stories for films such as How to Train Your Dragon, and experimenting with different visual styles for films like Kung Fu Panda and its critically acclaimed sequel. While they’ve had a few near-duds like Shrek Forever After and Megamind (spillover from the pre-2008 era), their upcoming slate consists of projects that have a lot of potential such as Rise of the Guardians, Me and My Shadow, Rumblewick and Alma. That’s not even half of what they have in the works.

As for Sony, Illumination and Blue Sky? Sony delivered a critically acclaimed success with Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, but also delivered the travesty that was The Smurfs. Illumination had the cute and entertaining Despicable Me, but they also had Hop and Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax. Blue Sky delivered the goods with the first Ice Age, Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who! and Rio, but also did pointless sequels to Ice Age that did nothing but bring in the bucks, and “Rio 2” is on the way.

What we need is for the big studios to challenge Pixar, Disney and DreamWorks with equally artistic efforts since independent films aren’t going to be given successful wide releases anytime soon. Rango was from a number of production houses, which was lucky enough to get a wide release from a big studio. It was a success, too, but it wasn’t big enough. Why can’t Blue Sky try this? With three non-sequel films in production, now is the time to try something new and risky, especially with the extra billion dollars they’ll most likely make off of Ice Age: Continental Drift this summer. Sony does have some interesting projects in the works, but their slate seems to lack ambition. Illumination’s upcoming slate consists of kid stuff, with a few eye-catchers in-between.

It makes me wonder though, with films like the Ice Age sequels, Despicable Me and it’s upcoming sequel and The Smurfs franchise, how come the studios can’t use this money for a risk every now and then? Think about it this way, Sony (for example) reels in $1 billion worldwide from both Smurfs films combined, and then comes up with something ambitious while making their bread and butter through safer stuff. Wouldn’t that be lovely? Same with Blue Sky and Illumination. Ice Age: Continental Drift reels in another insane amount of money, and some of that goes into something risky. You get where I am going with this?

So if these other studios do what Pixar, Disney and DreamWorks are doing, then we can make a giant leap forward. The medium needs it, because one half is about art and storytelling. The other half is just about entertaining kids and making a profit without caring for quality. If those all do well, people will see animation as an art form and the Academy Awards might also eliminate the Best Animated Feature category and put the best animated films of the year alongside the year’s best live action films. While I personally don't support award ceremonies, it would be lovely to see animation get that respect.

Pipe dream... But it CAN happen. Before the Second Golden Age of Animation fired up in the mid 1980s after the success of Don Bluth’s An American Tail and the Disney classics on home video, the idea of animation doing remotely well alongside blockbusters was unheard of. While films like Disney’s The Fox and the Hound were successful, they didn’t dent the Top 5 or sat alongside blockbusters like Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Grease, Superman, Kramer vs. Kramer and several others. Several other films flat out failed, but toy commercials were beginning to dominate animation in the form of Saturday morning cartoons and cheaply made films based on them.

Flash forward to the early 1990s, the Disney films are now rounding out the Top 5. Aladdin is the #1 film of 1992 both domestically and worldwide, defeating films like Batman Returns and Home Alone 2: Lost in New York. The Lion King was #1 at the worldwide box office in 1994 and became the best-selling home video release of all time. In 1995, Pixar’s Toy Story and Disney’s Pocahontas were both in the Top 5, Toy Story being at #1. That was a pipe dream back in 1985, but ten years later, it happened! It’s still happening. Animated films being in the Top 10 is nothing new now. With that, the market can be filled with artistic efforts instead of mediocre cash grabs. With all of the big budgets the other studios have, they need to take more risks.

Suppose in 2020, the other big studios begin offering works that are on par with Pixar, DreamWorks and Disney’s films. Then we’ll see independent animated films getting picked up for distribution, because that will be a hot property by that time. Instead of seizing money-making opportunities through making kiddie flicks, studios will now give audiences works of art. That way, it won’t be like the early 1990s, when all the studios thought that they could compete with Disney by making derivative films. These studios wonder why they are usually defeated critically and commercially by the likes of the big three, well, they need to make better films. Then we can start seeing more adult-oriented animation catch on, to go alongside marvelous family films. More foreign endeavors could make it big over here. This can all happen... Right now is the perfect time to do it.

All it’s going to take is vision, guts and no cynicism...


  1. I agree with almost all of this, save for a few things.

    While I don't know what you thought, I found Megamind to be a pleasant surprise. The Trailers made it seem deceptively childish, but the movie itself was actually pretty good, IMO. I think you'd be better off listing Monsters Vs. Aliens there, because that one sure stuck out from the rest of Dreamwork's stuff as a wart on an otherwise maturing face.

    The other thing... I can't speak for other studios, but at least for Sony, they lost a lot of money last year. When things are bad, a studio doesn't really want to take risks. Now, should they? Yes, I think so. But a risk like that is not in the cards for most companies... they simply don't want to take that risk.

    And really, that's the problem with why a lot of studios don't want to take risks. The Animation industry (Like the Video Game's Industry) can be a VERY expensive business. With 100 Million + Riding on a film, a flop can majorly hurt a studio. So they'd rather stick with a flawed but safe business plan then risk not being around in 10 years.

    Other then that though, I think I agree that Major Studios should start investing in smaller ones like Rango. That way, they can nurture new ideas while still keeping costs less then it would for their own studio.
    Also, I find it painfully obvious that Animation is a strong and artful way to tell stories that sells tickets. I wish the Academy would recognize that instead of burying it's head in the dirt.
    Also, I'll +1 the idea of seeing more foreign films come overseas. There's some trailers for some animated films I've seen online that I wish would come over here, like Leafie.

    Great write-up!
    ~ Mygames19

  2. Great points.

    - As for "Megamind", I personally found that film to be rather average. Maybe near-dud wasn't a good word to use. I felt that it was somewhat of a missed opportunity, though it had its moments.

    - You also bring up a very good point with the costs of animation. Since something a little more risky might have trouble catching on ("Rango" made back its budget, but it wasn't a huge success), studios avoid them. That said, I have no problem with something like "Ice Age" or "Rio" every now and then, but I was more dissatisfied with the abundance of sequels and films like "Hop" and "The Smurfs". Again, an excellent point.

    - And yes, the studios should try getting their hands on independent films. One ex. is "Fantastic Mr. Fox". With proper marketing and a good release date, that film could've done well and made back that $40 million budget. Too bad it didn't happen. I believe the studios should direct their attention to those films, since they are mostly inexpensive and can really turn a profit. It'll be a nice alternative to green lighting films that'll cost over $120 million to produce.

    Thanks for your input,
    Much appreciated :)

  3. Great read, Kyle!

    A lot of very valid points and a lot of fun to read - always nice to find someone who's as big an animation fan as I am!

    Well done. :)