I recently watched Song of the Sea, an Irish animated film by Cartoon Saloon. I considered writing a review of the film, but it’s not currently showing in theatres in most countries. However, I would recommend it wholeheartedly to any lover of animated films. The artwork is stunning, the characters are nuanced and engaging, and the film’s presentation of Irish culture and folklore gives it an identity that is very much its own.
Fortunately, it didn’t take me long to come up with another idea for my next article. Seeing another outstanding animated film so soon after Inside Out made me want to take a look at the animated film industry in general at the moment.
Animated films have been enjoying a bit of a boom period recently, both critically and commercially. It seems that every other film I see in the theatres these days is animated. And most of them are delivering.
Last year was a particularly strong year for animated films. This year’s Academy Awards had one of the stronger line-ups that I’ve seen for the Animated Feature category as a result. The award was won by Big Hero 6: a highly enjoyable Disney film that succeeded in adding some much needed heart to the current superhero fad.
But while this film could have been a thoroughly deserving winner on another year, I’d argue that it shouldn’t have won on this occasion:
- How to Train Your Dragon 2 by Dreamworks is equally thrilling, but more ambitious in its characters and its storytelling.
- Song of the Sea is certainly more original and charming.
- The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (100% on Rotten Tomatoes) is the best animated film I’ve seen in some time. Everything from the story, to the score, to the beautiful hand-drawn animation is pure perfection.
Then there was The Lego Movie which controversially wasn’t even nominated. It was a surprising, yet undeniably brilliant film. When gems like this can appear from completely out of left field, it’s certainly an exciting time to be an animated film fan.
Whether this year’s offerings can live up to those from 2014 remains to be seen. Home received mediocre reviews, despite doing well at the box office. Minions fared slightly better critically, and has done extremely well at the box office, but the consensus seems to be that it’s more of a children’s film than a whole family affair.
However, Inside Out has been a complete success by anybody’s standards. Studio Ghibli’s When Marnie Was There went down well with American audiences, even if the positive reviews weren’t quite as stellar as for their last two films. Shaun the Sheep opened to universal acclaim.
There are still a few other animated features to look forward to later in the year too. For the first time, Pixar are treating us with a second film within the one year when they release The Good Dinosaur in November. The Peanuts Movie will be released that same month; the first feature-length film based on these characters in over 30 years. And an animated adaptation of the novel The Little Prince premiered at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, and the buzz so far has been positive.
So there’s still a lot to look forward to in 2015, despite most of the biggest animation studios putting out a major release in the last year.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the major animation studios and examine how they’ve been performing and what they have in the pipeline:
Walt Disney Animation Studios
After bringing out some of the best animated films ever made during the Disney Renaissance of the 90s, including The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King, the 00s was a slow decade for Walt Disney Animation Studios.
That all changed in 2009, with The Princess and the Frog. It did not perform as well as expected, but received favourable reviews. Disney really started to find their rhythm again with Tangled, a movie that mixed their traditional musical style with modern computer animation. It was a critical and commercial success and set the stage perfectly for the company’s next musical. Frozen was an absolute sensation, taking standard fairytale tropes and modernising them for a new generation. It quickly became the highest grossing animated film of all time.
With non-musicals Wreck it Ralph and Big Hero 6 also being extremely well received, it’s starting to feel like the 90s all over again for Disney. Right now, the studio can seemingly do no wrong. People have already started referring to it as a new renaissance period.
Disney have two releases planned for next year. The first is Zootopia, a movie set in a world inhabited by walking and talking animals that coexist together. It’s scheduled for release in March. The studio’s next musical, Moana, will be released in November. It’s not a direct adaptation of any existing fairytale, as is typical for Disney musicals, but it will draw from Polynesian mythology. There are also sequels planned for Frozen and Wreck it Ralph. Overall, things are looking promising from Disney at the moment.
While Walt Disney Animation Studios have been enjoying a resurgence in the last five years, Pixar have been faltering. Throughout the 00s, it seemed that the studio was bulletproof. During that decade they released several inspired works such as The Incredibles, Finding Nemo, Wall-E and Up. It got to the point where their winning Best Animated Feature at the Academy Awards became a foregone conclusion. Any filmmaker would have been envious of the studio’s sterling reputation during this period.
Maybe it’s not entirely a coincidence that Pixar’s creativity seemed to take a hit at the same time that Walt Disney Animated Studios was blossoming. Cars 2 was an entirely unnecessary sequel to what was already the studio’s worst film. On the surface, it seemed to exist only to sell merchandise to young kids. Monsters University was also unnecessary. Pixar at least attempted to create a new world with Brave, but it felt very ordinary for a Pixar film. The ideas were all very done, and the characters weren’t particularly well realised.
But this summer Inside Out turned things around for Pixar. It was an original idea and one of their most ambitious high concepts yet. This is the Pixar that people want to see. Unfortunately, it’s unclear at this time whether this is the beginning of another strong run for the studio. The Good Dinosaur should have been released in 2014, but was pushed back due to production problems. There have been rewrites and casting changes. Issues of this kind often have an effect on the quality of the finished product.
Pixar are also planning more sequels: Finding Dory, Cars 3, Toy Story 4 and The Incredibles 2. Of these, I feel like The Incredibles sequel has the most potential. There’s a lot of stories you can tell with a superhero family; that premise is not tapped out yet. The others mostly feel like cash-grabs. Historically, the Toy Story sequels have always been good, but the third film in the franchise wrapped things up so perfectly that it feels like there’s nowhere to go now but down.
For a long time, I’ve very much seen DreamWorks as the other American animation studio. They consistently put out decent, child-friendly movies, but they never quite had the magic of Disney, or the creativity of Pixar. DreamWorks made a lot of extremely successful movies, but very few that really stuck with me.
The studio made their biggest mark early on with Shrek in 2001. This was a surprisingly smart film which drew heavily on deconstructing old fairytale tropes. Shrek 2, released in 2004, is still the studio’s most successful film. Unfortunately, the franchise grew dumber and lazier over time. Ultimately, DreamWorks has relied heavily on creating accessible titles and then milking every last drop out of them with numerous sequels. Madagascar, for example, was a mediocre movie that spawned two mostly mediocre sequels.
But they have had their share of recent critical successes too. While they haven’t cleaned up during award season, the Kung-Fu Panda movies have been better received critically. And the How to Train Your Dragon movies are genuinely great. Both franchises have a third instalment on the way: Kung-Fu Panda 3 is scheduled for release early next year, while How to Train Your Dragon 3 won’t be out until 2018. The How to Train Your Dragon series is a rare case where a structured trilogy seems to have been the plan almost since the start. As a result, it’s almost certain to become the best animated trilogy since the Toy Story films.
The studio has a brand new musical film called Trolls planned for November release next year, and more new titles scheduled for 2017. Where once the company took a backseat to the likes of Pixar, don’t be surprised to hear more people talking about DreamWorks in the future.
Studio Ghibli is a Japanese animation film studio, founded in 1985. The studio is responsible for several of the highest grossing animated films in Japan, and their films have achieved a cult following in the Western hemisphere also. Since its inception, the studio has been headed by directors Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, who have been responsible for some of the greatest animated works of the last three decades.
In terms of consistent quality, Studio Ghibli have maybe been more impressive even than Pixar. Of their 20 major animated releases, only one is ‘Certified Rotten’ on review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes, and some are still on 100%. The studio’s most famous film is Spirited Away. It won the Best Animated Feature award at the 2003, and remains the only foreign language film to achieve this award. The film is about a young girl thrust into a surreal fantasy world, and is in some ways reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland.
To give some impression of the studio’s range, their other famous works include the incredibly charming My Neighbour Totoro, and the harrowing Grave of the Fireflies, which tells the story of two young siblings trying to survive during the final months of World War 2.
Studio Ghibli has been vitally important in providing a non-Western perspective in popular animation. It has also been one of the last remaining champions of hand-drawn animation. So it is extremely unfortunate that following the recent retirement of Hayao Miyazaki, the future of the studio is unknown. They have no future films planned at present. Considering that some of their best work has come over the past couple of years in The Wind Rises and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, the studio will be sorely missed if they decide to stop making films.
Any concerns I have about the future of animated movies can be best summarised by Studio Ghibli’s current situation. It bothers me that animated cinema seems to be following in Hollywood’s footsteps with the current shift towards sequels. I’ve seen a number of great sequels for animated films, but there are definitely some unnecessary ones cropping up at the moment, and I’m worried that animated filmmakers might lose the incentive to come up with new ideas.
Also, while I have absolutely no issue with computer animation, I think it would be a shame to lose hand-drawn animation entirely. These days a smaller and smaller percentage of animated movies are using that style. While there is still a lot of untapped potential in computer animation, I currently tend to find computer animated films less visually striking and evocative than the better hand-drawn films.
The good news though, is that in the Western world there seems to be more competition than ever. More studios are throwing their hats in the ring, and it’s easier to gain access to animated films from other parts of the world. Even if the major American studios are becoming somewhat homogenised in their approach, we have other options these days. And you never know where the next great animated film is coming from.
Every genre is going to have plenty of bad mixed in with the good, but right now we have every reason to be optimistic about the future of animation.
Steve Hanley is an editor and co-founder of NovaCritic.com.