Who Is Winning the Animation War?

I just saw the trailer for Disney’s latest offering, Big Hero 6 and, apart from appearing to be an attempt to bank on the success of anime, I’m not impressed. It seems to me that in the transition to their “new direction”, Disney completely wiped away everything that was good about the old one. Each new CGI offering by Disney shows their decreasing ability to write human dialogue, intelligent humour or cast interesting voices (or at least ones that sound vaguely different to each other).Chances are Big Hero 6 is going to be one of those nice, forgettable films you forgot were made by Disney, or even existed (remember Meet the Robinsons or Chicken Little? I don’t blame you if you don’t).

Disney films have basically become a parody of themselves, where character “deaths” can no longer be taken seriously and the producers try to recover a sense of the lost drama by supplying twist endings, with varying levels of success (Wreck-It-Ralph had a very well set up and thoroughly surprising twist; take a wild guess at the one in Frozen, you’re probably correct).

But this decrease in quality doesn’t just apply to Disney, but to an overall lowering of standards in the three main animation studies: Disney, Pixar and Dreamworks. A whirlpool sucks down all boats.

Nevertheless, audiences still want to be entertained. From 2009 to now, Walt Disney Animation Studios have produced five films which grossed $2,637,435,445 worldwide. In the same time Pixar have also produced five films which grossed $3,636,909,865 worldwide. In the same time Dreamworks have produced TWELVE movies which have grossed $5,454,491,645 worldwide! Well, no contest in terms of efficiency.

However, I believe Dreamworks is the studio that is responsible for the drop in animation standards. Dreamworks was really responsible for introducing “modern” slang into animation scripts (which make them sound dated and yearning for love from a young audience), and of their last twelve movies five have been sequels. While all these movies were successful at the box office, the same can’t be said for critical acclaim. According to Metacritic the average rating of a recent Dreamworks movie is 62%, a very average score. Unfortunately, hastily-made movies rarely share the same category as well-made movies.

Pixar also caught the sequel bug, with three of their last five movies being sequels (well, two sequels and a prequel). While not completely copying the Dreamworks formula, Pixar’s standards have dropped, with Brave proving to be quite a mediocre tale that lacks Pixar’s lively style, and Cars 2 inviting audiences to leave their brains and funny bones at the door. That said, their average Metacritic rating is 75%, with Up and Toy Story 3 elevating their quite average counterparts.

Disney really seems to have taken the biggest fall of the three studios. Despite Frozen’s exceptional box office performance, it earned the least of the Big Three and has an average Metacritic rating of 73%, none of their last five movies proving exceptional.

In my opinion, only one of the three best animated movies in the last five years was made by one of the Big 3, and that is Pixar’s Up. The other two are Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox and Gore Verbinski’s Rango. While they didn’t have the runaway box office successes of formulaic Big 3 films, they made up for that in every other category. Rango is a superbly animated comedy-action-western-thriller the Coen Brothers would be proud of, featuring superb vocal turns from Johnny Depp, Bill Nighy et al; and apart from being a hilarious genre twister and perfecting the overused/abused conventions of the dream sequence and voice over, it is also a fascinating meditation on identity.

Fantastic Mr. Fox also deals with identity along with family bonds, survival and midlife crises, smothered in the finest of Wes Anderson’s witty humour and vibrant style. The gritty stop-motion animation is refreshingly different in an age of almost too-finely-tuned CGI animation, and various members of the Wes Anderson Troupe (Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, Willem Dafoe and Adrien Brody) and a perfectly cast George Clooney deliver hilariously deadpan performances.

What separates these two movies from the run of the mill Big 3 movies is that they are unconventional, unexpected and unpredictable. The studios need to realise that they don’t have to lower their standards if they wish to sell tickets. In fact, if they raise their standards a little, the audience will be pleasantly surprised. Need proof? INCEPTION. ‘Nuff said.

PS There is still hope for Pixar’s next film, Inside Out, in which it portrays a young girl’s emotions as fully fleshed out characters. And final word on Big Hero 6: If it does contain a twist, I believe the surprise can be found in the trailer (“Dead” brother + Masked Villain= …)

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