Twenty-twenty. In less than three years from now, the next decade will be upon us...
What kind of feature animation will rule in the next decade?
Well the first question is... What animation is ruling this decade?
I think it's the cute, often safe comedy that seems to try to please everyone in the audience. I feel Illumination Entertainment embodies that.
In a way, the Despicable Me series is the 2010's equivalent of Shrek. The first movie was the debut feature of Illumination, a studio set up by former Blue Sky and Fox animation producer Chris Meledandri. Despicable Me seemed very derivative of its contemporaries and older animated works. It had Looney Tunes-type slapstick, a cartoonier tone that was more akin to Madagascar and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs than something like Ratatouille or Up, it had some of that early DreamWorks "edge" to it, and it had the "warm fuzzies" (to quote a friend) like a good Disney animated film or a good Pixar film...
The combination clearly worked, as it pulled in over $250 million domestically and over $500 million worldwide, a stellar debut for a new studio. It was not dissimilar to Pixar's first film, Toy Story, becoming a smash hit despite the odds. Of course, the sharp difference between a studio like Illumination and a studio like Pixar comes in...
Pixar technically did something new and perhaps risky, an all-computer animated feature film. They could've taken the safe route after Toy Story miraculously went over well with critics, audiences, and everyone inbetween. Toy Story was fresh for an animated feature in the context of the 1990s animated feature world, Despicable Me in the early 2010s? Not so much. Pixar sought to keep trying new things, while Disney immediately slapped them with a Toy Story sequel. They left a B-team to handle Toy Story 2: Collector's Item, while the A-team (with Mr. T in tow) focused on "Bugs," later known as A Bug's Life. Other projects in development involved monsters, fish, an Ugly Duckling story with talking cars, a robot on a desolate future earth...
Toy Story 2 ended up going from direct-to-video status to theatrical, and its 1999 release was the cause of a rift between Pixar and The Walt Disney Company, which was then being run by an ever-changing and erratic Michael Eisner. Did it count as part of the first 3-film contract signed eight years earlier? Steve Jobs definitely thought so, Eisner thought otherwise, and would play this game with a third Toy Story, which Pixar had interest in doing as far back as 2002. Roughly two years before the whole Circle 7 debacle which helped lead to Eisner's ouster and Disney's subsequent acquisition of Pixar. In the mean time, Pixar focused on originals and originals only. Now that the politics are different nowadays, Pixar does sequels more often, yet they still make time for original movies like Inside Out, The Good Dinosaur, Coco, and Dan Scanlon's upcoming "suburban fantasy world" picture. Three more are on the horizon after that, and no sequels in sight for now.
Illumination on the other hand? Despicable Me 2 opened three years later, and for a long time, Minions would follow in Christmas 2014 before it had to be pushed to the following summer. Despicable Me 3 arrived no more than two years later, and their originals from last year - Sing and The Secret Life of Pets - seemed to get good reviews, but at the same time there was some kind of "they get a pass for being cute" thing going on. No real trailblazing on the order of Pixar, their run is more like DreamWorks' run after the success of Shrek.
DreamWorks, like Illumination, was less a studio full of like-minded creators at their helm and more a vehicle for ex-Disney mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg. Katzenberg and his executives were one-way: The traditionally animated features - such as Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron and Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas - had to be self-important and serious, or as one animator put it, like "Masterpiece Theatre." The CGI films had to be comedies, and hearsay indicates that the animators found themselves having more fun on the looser, more comedic CG pictures. DreamWorks' 2D output went belly-up at the box office, Katzenberg blamed the medium, but now he seems to put the blame on the tone of the pictures themselves. In a more recent review, he was shocked at how rough of a movie The Prince of Egypt was.
With Shrek soaring to box office heights hitherto unheard of for the studio, the new path was "CG comedies." Shrek 2's then record-breaking conquering of the box office more than sealed the deal. What followed were comedies that leaned heavily towards pop culture references, modern snazziness, and quasi-adult humor. It paid off well until the grosses started slipping, culminating in the underperformance of Bee Movie in late 2007. The critical reception of films like Shark Tale and Madagascar did not matter back then, executives knew where the money was at. They weren't interested in competing with Pixar on quality grounds.
DreamWorks saved themselves by changing, because eventually that formula was going to wear thin on audiences. Shrek-ian comedies were out by the beginning of 2008, just mere months before the release of their martial arts adventure-comedy Kung Fu Panda was released. It was a critical darling and their biggest non-sequel film since the first Shrek came out. Then for a little while, DreamWorks made a mix of fun comedies and adventurous epics, with some neat experiments inbetween. That was, until poor management, timing, and budget issues bit them in their collective rears. Now it seems like they'll be Illumination 2.0, specializing in unchallenging comedies and sequels to unchallenging Boss Baby-type comedies in the pipeline. Maybe.
Illumination has stayed the course, for their brand of unchallenging comedy romps that seem to reheat elements from better works is clearly working. Secret Life of Pets and Sing were box office monsters, and while the Despicable Me series is slowly facing a decline, it's still making ridiculous amounts of money. Will that change? Will audiences eventually tire of Minions-lite movies and things that are only just cute? Maybe.
DreamWorks saw that Shrek would wear thin, so they stopped it at Shrek Forever After in 2010. The trailers and ads for that movie sold it as "Shrek: The Final Chapter," rather than Shrek Forever After. The movie made a healthy amount, especially worldwide, but it was clear that the series wasn't going to reach Shrek 2's heights again. Flash-forward 5 years later, DreamWorks now sees that 90s/early aughts nostalgia is big, so they're taking advantage with a fifth Shrek. I'm sure that will open big, but then fly away like an untied balloon. If the 90s nostalgia boom wasn't the thing that it is, I doubt we'd be seeing a fifth Shrek. If they continued past the fourth film, it would be puttering at this point.
Just like how they saw that the snarky comedies were wearing thin, they saw that flagship franchise wearing thin as well. It makes me wonder... Will Despicable Me's next outing do excellently? What will Minions make? The first Minions opened huge, but then had very weak legs for an animated feature. By July 2020, will hordes of audiences still be craving for those jibbering yellow tictacs? Just how low will the series fall at the domestic box office by the beginning of the next decade?
Like Shrek, I really believe Despicable Me is like a flavor-of-the-month. Sure, Shrek had great and very likable characters, you can argue Gru and the girls are good characters as well... But great characters or not, Shrek didn't have the lasting appeal of something like Finding Nemo or The Incredibles or even Lilo & Stitch. Perhaps the same fate awaits Despicable Me, and that by 2030, more people will be talking about Inside Out or How To Train Your Dragon or The Lego Movie. Maybe, maybe. Sometimes, some things are short-term smashes, while other things continue to last. We know the drill. What 2007 movie do people talk about more? Ratatouille? Or Spider-Man 3? Shrek the Third? Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End? Transformers? I think more talk about Enchanted than the 19-or-so movies that outgrossed it.
I ask all of this because I think the success of Despicable Me has cast a shadow over theatrical animation the way Shrek kind of did in the mid-2000s, but in a much bigger way. In the mid-2000s, you saw a lot CG pictures that attempted to bank off of Shrek. Instead of chasing Pixar's inventive stories and imagination, they went after the simple things: Talking critters, potty humor, celebrity casts, and overly-modern touches that did little for the stories. I can name maybe a few mainstream features made in that period - that weren't from Pixar or the recovering Disney Animation - that at least tried to be solid and smart for both adults and kids, like Aardman's final two DreamWorks-deal pictures, Sony Animation's unfairly-rejected Surf's Up, and maybe the uneven first Madagascar movie. Heck, Happy Feet - even in butchered form - is still something of an oddball George Miller movie, so that kind of counts. Interestingly, it seems the animated penguins were our only hope back then. The Polar Express at least felt kind of old-fashioned and well-spirited. If the films weren't trying to do the Shrek thing, then they were just straight-up kidflix. Rental-type movies like, say, The Ant Bully and Everyone's Hero. Remember those?
While studios like Disney Animation, Pixar, Warner, Aardman, and LAIKA remain the way they are for the most part, we see the safe cute comedy with a lil'-bit-o-everything - i.e. the Despicable Me-type movie - succeed and flourish elsewhere in the current climate. It seems that the Zootopias and Inside Outs and Lego Movies don't inspire the executives at other studios, in the same way the Finding Nemos and Incredibles-types didn't back in the mid 2000s. Instead of a movie with the wit and creativity of The Lego Movie, we get a film like The Emoji Movie, which seemingly just wants to bank on the recognizable thing rather than tell a good story based on it. How come we're not seeing more earnest tales like Zootopia and Inside Out? Those were different and those were big hits! And you can do a fun comedy right, as well! Rio, Storks, Madagascar 3, even the first Despicable Me, all good examples!
I guess it all depends on what will be the next sleeper hit that isn't a Disney or Pixar film. This decade and the last one showed that their influence, oddly enough, doesn't ring through. What feature will come about that everyone chooses to copycat? Will it be another safe-as-vanilla comedy that's somehow different from Despicable Me? Will it be some bold new picture that somehow catches the attention of executives? Will it be some amazing Studio Ghibli-esque marvel? Will it be something like a great independent European picture? Or will it be a raunchy Sausage Party-type comedy?
The thing about sleeper hits... No one expects them, most of the time.
A Disney musical in the vein of the early films and the fairy tales with a mix of contemporary Broadway from the guys who did Little Shop of Horrors? Nahhh, it's about a girl. Boys aren't going to want to see that, don't expect it to gross more than Oliver & Company...
A snarky comedy spoof that sends up Disney and fairy tales? This thing has been a troubled production, it'll be lucky to make its money back...
Some generic comedy with these weird little yellow things? That'll probably just do okay...
It's a bit strange that Disney all of things barely inspired this sort of copycattery. In the 90s, yes, you saw plenty of Disney-esque musical movies, but they all either bombed or underperformed. A lot of the Shrek wannabes did the same, but the Despicable-lites do pretty well. It also helps that more studios are realizing that you don't have to blow over $100 million into these things each time out.
What do you think will come about in the next decade?