Sunday, December 29, 2013

Ups and Downs

As the year draws to a close in a few days, I thought I'd look back on the good and the bad of this year in animation…

Coming off of a pretty strong 2012, was this year a good year for animation? If you ask me, it was very up and down. Heavy emphasis on very

Mainstream American feature animation had quite an underwhelming year for the most part, either in the critical or box office department… Sometimes both. What's very notable about this year's batch of films is that it showed that adherence to a formula doesn't always produce good results.

2013's most successful animated films also happened to be the best-received: Monsters University, Despicable Me 2 and Frozen. The Croods, which got decent reviews, was also a hit in North America but did even better worldwide. Sony's Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 was a modest success at best, and it didn't cost too much to begin with. Epic also broke even, but overall it underperformed. Disney Animation, Pixar and Illumination won this year. Sony and Blue Sky did okay, DreamWorks had a big win with The Croods, but also had a good-sized loss with Turbo.

Frozen was another hit for Walt Disney Animation Studios' current winning streak, and it also was preceded by Mickey Mouse's first proper short subject 1995's Runaway Brain, the excellent Get A Horse! While I didn't gush over Frozen, its mix of Broadway songs, great character work on the two leads, sad moments, comedy, modern attitude and little doses of action really worked with many. Then again, I think The Lion King has quite a few flaws but people love it, and they loved this too. Props to Disney for making a film that really resonated with audiences, like they've been doing for, in my opinion, the past six years.

Monsters University, for me, was a fine film and much more consistent than Cars 2 and Brave, had a fine screenplay that balanced everything well and had very little flaws. Sure it was a lot more conventional than Pixar's usual films, but what mattered to me was Mike's character arc, the new faces and the storytelling. Lots of people liked it just fine, while others didn't. It's definitely on the more divisive side. But maybe once this "Pixar is on the decline" dust settles, this film and the one before it may get a fair re-evaluation.

I have not seen Despicable Me 2, so I can't say. Apparently, its crazy Minion hijinks and comedy worked with audiences of all ages. The critical reception was good, and I did think the first one was more than just enjoyable. Apparently Illumination succeeds in this department for now, because let me tell you, The Lorax was as bland and forgettable as they come!

There were no other real winners this year.

It seems like the family-friendly wacky comedy formula is finally beginning to wear thin. Audiences only went to see sequels/prequels to films they liked or loved (Monsters University, Despicable Me 2, Cloudy 2) or things that seemed interesting at the least. The Croods most likely caught on because of how weird it looked in the visual department, plus the aggressive marketing did make it look like fun. Frozen's last-minute good marketing emphasized story, characters and music, which got audiences of all ages into the theater on opening weekend.

Turbo's ads didn't do much for audiences, as it looked like a derivative "for kids only" film. Most reviews seemed to sing that tune as well, thus it had trouble when it opened. The Smurfs 2 only proves that the first film was something of a fad, and the first film also had all of summer to itself to make the amount of money it made. Free Birds was held back by very poor marketing, and the film itself got bad reviews and was soon overshadowed by Frozen. Unlike Turbo, it made its money back. Escape from Planet Earth wasn't going to be big to begin with, so it performed as expected. Planes did okay, but since it was for kids first, most adults and fans stayed at home.

This may be a turning point for American feature animation. Directors such as Chris Sanders, Kirk Wise and Henry Selick spoke about the problems of the American animation industry and the redundancy of many of the films. Meanwhile, our ever-so-understanding press bent over backwards and instead asked stupid questions like "Are there too many animated features?", "Is there an animation curse?"

Of course, people who don't give a damn about animation to begin with (they're still calling it a "genre"!) would ask such things, instead of considering the quality of the various animated features. All of them are computer animated, usually cost over $70 million to make, are family-friendly and happen to be comedic in tone. However, the best films do well because they happen to have substance or something that really ticks with the audience. It's something that can't emulated so easily, why did wacky caveman comedy The Croods do so well yet wacky turkey flick Free Birds didn't? It's really simple.

The films that underperformed consisted of Epic (made its budget back, but still did unimpressive business), Turbo and The Smurfs 2. Escape from Planet Earth and Free Birds were the sort of middle-of-the-road animated films of the year, a bit like Gnomeo & Juliet or Alpha and Omega. Low budget, not expected to be blockbusters, films that didn't make any mark but turned a profit.

This year, we didn't have anything that was really unique or against the norm. Monsters University, good as it was, was one of Pixar's quieter and less ambitious films. (They're saving the ambition for Inside Out, Good Dinosaur and the "Day of the Dead" film.) Frozen might've focused on two sisters and their relationship, but it was dressed in Disney conventions that we're familiar with, unlike last year's Wreck-It Ralph. Despicable Me 2 was… Well… Despicable Me 2. Fun? Probably. (I still haven't seen it.) But anything else? Was it Rango? Was it LAIKA-esque? Nope.

If last year could give us a small variety of animated films that didn't suggest "sameness", this year was the opposite. Everything else was either familiar or a sequel/prequel/spin-off. A year that included the likes of The Smurfs 2 and Planes no less. You know what would've been great? A wide release of a foreign feature, but let's face it, that rarely happens in North America. No big release for something like The Congress, or Metegol, or something from Japan. We're getting The Wind Rises next year thanks to Touchstone, GKIDS will give Ernest & Celestine a pretty decent-sized release. 2013 originally had the feature-length Phineas and Ferb movie and Henry Selick's The Shadow King. I think the year would've been a bit better had those two never been moved/postponed.

2013 was also a downer year in many respects, from the VFX industry woes to the constant layoffs. DreamWorks gave up to 350 employees the pink slip after Rise of the Guardians underperformed (by their expectations), many visual effects houses went bankrupt, protests ensued (remember the "green screen"), the Academy Awards even showed great disrespect to the people who did the effects for Life of Pi when they were on stage. Walt Disney Animation Studios had to lay off ten veteran animators because CEO Bob Iger was having the company's divisions lay people off.

Other woes included Pixar's decision to remove director Bob Peterson from The Good Dinosaur, resulting in some layoffs at the studio. They also shut down Pixar Canada, showing nearly 100 people the door because they wanted to move all of their resources under one roof. A shame, because Pixar Canada could've been what Disney Animation's Orlando unit was to the Burbank studio. The announcement of Finding Dory made more people upset than happy, and Brave winning the Oscar for Best Animated Feature over Wreck-It Ralph led to a massive backlash. While the support for Disney Animation's triumphant video game adventure was nice and all, Brave perhaps got a little too much bashing, methinks. Booting Peterson off of his film - this is the fourth time in a row this director removal thing has happened at the studio - was met with anger and skepticism. Pixar has been a whipping post since the announcements of sequels and the release of Cars 2. This just made matters worse. 2013 really wasn't their year…

On the home media front, there has been disappointment. Disney foolishly believes that people will abandon physical media very soon, thus they have put out lazy Blu-rays of their animated classics, which either lacked bonus features or came with questionable, sometimes bad transfers. Warner Bros. (or more appropriately, their legal department) angered animation fans left and right with their censorship of the second volume of the Tom and Jerry Golden Collection (after years of releasing sets with potentially offensive content to general consumers, albeit with warnings), justifying it and driving WHV to postpone it indefinitely.

With this rush to go digital, what does it all mean for non-feature length animation? What does it mean for more obscure stuff?

But despite the doom and gloom, optimism prevails. You know why? Because it always does!

Walt Disney Animation Studios, despite the recent lay offs, is ready to go full steam ahead with a slate of films that'll open people up to what a Disney animated film can be. Tangled and Wreck-It Ralph were successful enough to support this ambitious new slate (which goes from now to 2018), and now Frozen is a bona-fide blockbuster! The sky's the limit, and honestly, this is something to get really excited about. Of course, the debbie-downers sniped at Disney for simply not telling us what was coming out on the various release dates, or were angry that none of the films are apparently not going to be done in hand-drawn animation. I say it was a wise choice to not reveal the titles.

Pixar is no different, they have films (a good number of which are entitled) scheduled for 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018. Debbie-downers will argue, "Their recent films are weak! They're not the same!" How do you know how the next batch of films will turn out? Why is a studio all of a sudden going to cease making good films just because of some inevitable trip ups? People seem to forget that great artists are still human beings. Also, the oh-so-bad Pixar happened to delight many with its first-ever television special this year: Toy Story of TERROR! It got acclaim, it did extremely well in ratings and it's a great way to keep Disney happy without having to make another film. (Well I sure hope that'll be case! I'll take tons of specials and a show or two over a fourth movie.)

Fox loaded their guns, claiming release dates for DreamWorks, Blue Sky and Fox Animation Studios productions. What's the latest date they have? December 20, 2018. Thinking ahead for sure, and also showing that animation is here to stay. Sony Animation even went ahead and announced that the September 2016 and September 2017 spots were theirs. Illumination also seems to have matured, canceling projects that weren't working and moving some around. What a shocker, since DreamWorks and Sony have these slates that are loaded with in-development projects. Illumination surprisingly removed a few from the line-up, knowing that they wouldn't go through any time soon!

The studios are ramping up their slates, but like I said before, they better start upping the quality and trying new things. Or at least differentiate their work for the time being, before any experimentation kicks in.

We have other studios making the leap into the mainstream world, Dallas-based Reel FX being one of them. Hopefully what they're doing kicks off a trend: A bunch of small-scale studios enter the field and help change mainstream animation as we know it by taking crazy, wild risks. Aardman and LAIKA try as they might, but we might need more studios to help… And a bigger push from someone else. Columbia/Sony Animation hasn't done well with Aardman, Focus Features can only do so much for LAIKA being a small distributor. No one looks into foreign animation, we never get films like Rio 2096 or The Fake in wide release form. It's also hard when you're not being backed by a corporate empire or marketing machine as big as Disney's. Just look at DreamWorks, they've been having trouble because their films cost a lot and they rely on the revenues from feature films to stay afloat.

But the higher ups at DreamWorks are also shrewd, as they are now finding other ways to keep themselves going. They lucked into Netflix, planning to release hours and hours of original programming that's intended to bolster franchises and also move merchandise. It could also make up for losses, Turbo F.A.S.T. is a fine example. That could very well put the film and franchise in the black, though to be fair, DreamWorks announced the show a good while before the film came out.

As for the whole smaller scale animation thing? Well, now is the time for distributors to seriously consider the options out there and not screw around. They can slowly build momentum, and get foreign animation into "modest success" territory at the box office. We can't just have the Academy Awards' token "Best Animated Feature" category giving foreign animation a scrap of recognition. Change needs to take place soon, because audiences this year have spoken with their wallets.

Plus, this year, Kickstarter began launching many interesting animated films, Glen Keane started up his own studio and a small company like Reel FX secured distribution deals with Relativity Media and 20th Century Fox. This is pointing to a promising future for animation, one that should inevitably happen. The big budget world can't always be the bearer of big hits; many blockbuster live action films did poorly or outright tanked at the box office this year while a good number of small films did quite well, great even. Even Steven Spielberg himself talked of the ramifications of everything being big budget.

It's time to go small. Leave the biggies to the ones who can afford to make them. (i.e. Pixar, Disney, DreamWorks…)

Look at Free Birds, the computer animation in it was competent and it was produced for $35 million. That's around half of what the relatively cheap Despicable Me 2 cost to make! France's A Monster in Paris, from 2011, looks good despite the budget it was made on, but no matter, audiences can enjoy that just the same if the story is good. Audiences do like hand-drawn animation, contrary to what the oh-so-wise executives would like to think. Any animation is good with audiences, as long as it is good or marketing makes it look good.

This year saw the announcements of several projects that have a lot of promise. Reel FX is gearing up for The Book of Life, which looks to be a game-changer like RangoBeasts of Burden and W.I.S.H. Police are next, and going by what's been revealed, they both have potential. Paul McCartney will enter the world feature animation with High in the Clouds, which should also be a game-changer. Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg are going for animated food with the raunchy Sausage Party, which could popularize feature-length adult-oriented animation or set adult-oriented animation ten years back. Sony is looking to adapt Ratchet & Clank into a movie, which could signal a new frontier for both animation and video game movie adaptations.

The big studios still have good stuff coming. Disney Animation's Big Hero 6 looks to expand on the out-of-the-box settings of Wreck-It Ralph, being a manga-tinged superhero story with many cool little elements. DreamWorks has some exciting stuff cooking, from the How To Train Your Dragon sequel to projects like Home, B.O.O., Mumbai Musical among several other neat-sound projects that are in development. We got news about films like Flawed Dogs and Larrikins moving forward (Noah Baumbach is directing the former!), showing that DreamWorks has a lot brewing under their roof. Blue Sky even has some interesting stuff coming, from Anubis to Ferdinand. Hopefully those will be well-made and well-written. Sony Animation shows some promise too, with projects like original story Kazorn & the Unicorn and Genndy Tartakovsky's Popeye. Illumination seems to have matured a bit, clearing their crowded slate of re-imaginings up a bit and actually being gung ho about original projects.

Away of the big screens came some good stuff. Television animation is doing alright (despite some annoyances, like Cartoon Network's bigwigs canceling a show because more female viewers were tuning in. Imagine that?), and we've got some cool new stuff airing. Kickstarter, again, has been working wonders for smaller animation that wouldn't normally get picked up. More and more experimental and off-the-wall stuff makes the waves online, and many sites highlight them, which is good. Also, Disney released the excellent Disney Animated app for iPad, which you should definitely get.

On a bittersweet note, Hayao Miyazaki returned with the controversial but critically acclaimed The Wind Rises, which will get a wide release in February thanks to Disney, but it's his swan song. Judging by the reviews, he ended his feature film directing career with a bang!

All in all, we got a lot of exciting announcements and leaked details… But also a lot of bad news, a lot of disheartening happenings and whatnot. It doesn't suggest end times for American mainstream animation, to me it suggests that change needs to take place, and soon…

Maybe this coming year, things will look up. 2012 was a fine year in animation, right? One not-so-great year can't hurt, plus 2014 offers excitement. The big studios, for the most part, seem to be giving us the good, interesting stuff this year. Hopefully many of the films turn out to be good, and not derivative or "been there done that". Maybe studios will start investing in smaller scale stuff. 2014 may be bring good things, given the lesson learned this year. Maybe… Maybe...

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