Looking back at 2017 as a whole, particularly in the animation features department, there have been some hits, such as “The Lego Batman Movie”, “Despicable Me 3”, and “Cars 3”, but there were so many misses this year. It seems that as a whole, we have hit a slump in the industry, while the summer blockbuster had some decent films, “Wonder Woman”, “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2”, and “War for the Planet of the Apes” come to mind, the rest of the year palled in comparison. With Oscar nominations around the corner, I thought it would be a good time to look at why specifically, animated movies, do not do as well at the box office as they once had and why the independent market is worth investing in.
For starters, there are essentially two main players in the animation market in the United States: The Walt Disney Company, and their affiliates, which include Studio Ghibli in Japan, and DreamWorks. BlueSky, who is responsible for “The Peanuts Movie “a few years ago, is rising but are nowhere near in comparison to the two giants. Then there is the odd man out, Sony, who released the disastrous “Emoji Movie” over the summer. Speaking of summer wide releases, let us look at the animated movies released over the summer in order of release.
21st – Captain Underpants: First Epic Movie
Production Company: Dreamworks
Distribution: 20th Century Fox
Budget: $38 million
Box Office: $124.2 million
14th – Despicable Me 3
Production Company: Universal (Illumination)
Distribution: Universal Pictures
Budget: $80 million
Box Office: $1.032 billion
16th – Cars 3
Production Company: Walt Disney Animation/ Pixar Animation Studios
Distribution: Walt Disney
Budget: $175 million
Box Office: $362.8 million
23rd: The Emoji Movie
Production Company: Sony Pictures Animation
Distribution: Columbia Pictures
Budget: $50 million
Box Office: 215.7 million
11th – The Nut Job 2: Nutty by Nature
Production Company: Open Road et. all
Distribution: Open Road
Budget: $40 million
Box Office: $58.6 million
May and August were lackluster, with only one notable film each with June and July carrying the bulk, as they usually do. However, there is a problem, and it is starring us right in the face: Despicable Me 3. The film that grossed $1.032 BILLION. The problem is not the box office, I am legitimately happy that an animated film could gross a billion, the problem is the quality of the content being made in animation studios. What Illumination (Universal) has done is created a genius marketing campaign surrounding merchandise, theme park attractions, and advertisements to build a franchise where a majority of the characters are mooks (expendable, i.e. the minions themselves). That is genius and the filmmakers should be rewarded for that. The issue I have with Despicable Me 3, and it is the same with Cars 3, is not that they are bad films, they are both reasonably good, the issue is that they were both predictable formulaic franchise films.
While the animation and filmic style of the films were fantastic, such as Cars 3, which has beautiful scenery and a great improvement over the lackluster 2, the plot was simply a rehash of the first with roles being flipped and gender being added (because it’s “the current year”). Despicable Me 3 was the main character with a brother having a crisis plot that you see in most buddy films (such as Daddy’s Home, or Why Him?, usually with some comedian at the helm, in our case it is Steve Carrell with a host of other comedians usually from Saturday Night Live).
The predictability of these particular franchises is why I am not so fond of animated sequels, the only exceptions to this were the Toy Story series, but the reason why those film work so well is because there is extreme character development. With these, there is so little character development that the sole reason for their existence then, is to make profit. Certainly, both Cars 3 and especially Despicable Me 3 made profits this summer, but it would not kill people to produce something original every now and again. The purpose of a franchise is to have the characters grow exponentially, not to see them in the same place where you left off the first time.
This is why I have extreme doubts for The Incredibles 2 which released the teaser trailer yesterday. Judging by the ninety-seconds, it already is going into dangerous territory of staying in the same place where the first film left off. There was a point in time when Pixar stayed true to this phrase: do not do unnecessary sequels. The keyword is unnecessary, with Toy Story, which had its sequel as early as 1999, a mere four years after the first one became a global phenomenon, was necessary for two main reasons: first, to prove the concept, second, to generate a base. Without the success of Toy Story 2, Pixar would not exist. In other words, Toy Story 2 is to Pixar in 1999 as Pinocchio was to Walt Disney in 1940, everything rested on the success of one movie to keep the company afloat.
The current Pixar model is have a franchise film one year and then an original film, with some exceptions here and there. An example of this comes with Cars, which, besides Toy Story, is Pixar’s flagship. Cars came out in 2006, Ratatouille came out in 2007, WALL-E came out in 2008, Up was in 2009, Cars 2 came out in 2010, the reason for the gap was because Ratatouille, WALL-E, and Up, all three fantastic films in their own right, were being made the same time Cars 2 was. The problem now is that there is a lack of original material, recently there was Inside Out and Moana, but inbetween that you had Finding Dory, the sequel to Finding Nemo, and now there is Incredibles 2, and coming up soon: Frozen 2, no surprise there really.
I do not have a problem with franchises, what I have a problem with is the frequency, quality, and the purpose, of franchises and original material. In Pixar’s case, while both are successful, there is nothing spectacular about these films. The last film that was spectacular from Pixar that I could remember was Inside Out, and before that, Up, WALL-E, and Ratatouille were phenomenal, but notice what seems to be overlooked here – the franchises. Toy Story wrapped up in 2010, we do not need another one. Finding Dory was fine, it just could have been better and only existed because of Ellen DeGeneres.
The purpose of film-making is, on one level or another, to make money, there is nothing wrong with that, but when the film purely exists to produce money from a public who will stay loyal simply because of the brand attached, is telling of the state of animated films. They are not terrible, they are just bearable, mediocre, lackluster, and could be phenomenally better. In the 1970’s, when Ralph Bakshi was making Lord of the Rings, and Martin Rosen, Watership Down, there was something that those films had that the current fare lacks: intelligence, or, a lack of pandering to an audience, the films caused the audience to think and start conversations that actually mattered and produced change in the world. Now, there is no conversation after animated films, there is just blind applause.
This is why animated films fail in Hollywood, they are not intelligent, lack originality, are formulaic in the predictability and in some cases, only exist to make money. Independent markets then, seem to be open to both the benefits of capitalism and intelligence. New York Distributor GKIDS, which is responsible for distributing the Studio Ghibli films and foreign films in the United States, recently has had success from France. In the past six years, a majority of films GKIDS distributes that come from France receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Animated Feature (most notably: Ernest and Celestine (2013, lost to Frozen, and My Life as a Zucchini (2016), lost to Zootopia), other films that GKIDS distrusted that received Academy nominations or wins: A Cat in Paris (2011, lost to Toy Story 3) and Miyazaki’s masterpiece, Spirited Away (winner of Best Animated Feature, 2001, originally distributed by Disney). What makes GKIDS so phenomenally brilliant is that every film that is distributed through them has an original story, is intelligent, and is watchable for everyone in the family. Appropriately, GKIDS logline on their website is, Redefining what kids animation can be, perhaps Walt Disney and Illumination need to redefine themselves, for certainly, Pixar was founded on that idea, but the company and others like it, have fallen into the franchise trap and cannot seem to get themselves out of it. They have dug a hole full of money but have failed to see a more important goal that is more meaningful at the end of the day – making films that are intelligent and extraordinary – that also make money.