Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Not a Great Year for Animation

It stands to reason that after a particularly strong year for animated films, like 2010, you're going to have a weak one. However, 2011 has just been one disappointment after another so far. The films have all been doing well at the box office, with a couple of exceptions. We started off the year with the February release of "Gnomeo and Juliet," a very modestly budgeted first feature from a no-name studio. It cleared nearly $100 million in domestic receipts, despite mixed reviews. In March, "Rango," followed with $123 million, very good for a first feature by ILM, but not quite enough to cover its production budget. Fortunately, foreign numbers were about on par, more than enough to make up for the shortfall. In April, Blue Sky's "Rio" brought in $143 million, and if you count the partially animated "Hop," it was good for $108 million. Not great numbers in either case, but respectable.

There were only two pre-summer bombs. One was "Mars Needs Moms," the troubled mo-cap feature that only earned $21 million domestic with a reported budget of $150 million. The film's performance was bad enough that Disney parted ways with Robert Zemickis, quashing future projects in the pipeline, including a proposed "Yellow Submarine" movie. The other underperformer was "Hoodwinked Too! Hood vs. Evil," the sequel to the surprisingly well-received "Hoodwinked," that was good for $50 million back in 2005. The sequel brought in about a fifth as much in April, and there's been some ugly behind-the-scenes clashing between the production company and the distributors, the Weinstein Company. There are a few features that crash and burn every year, though, so a few flops were not unexpected.

But then we get into summer, where the more highly anticipated films started rolling out, and we started seeing some really worrying numbers. First, "Kung Fu Panda 2" landed in May, where it came in second to "The Hangover 2" in the first weekend, failed to match the opening numbers of the first "Kung Fu Panda," and only totaled $165 million domestic to the original's $215 million. What's mystifying is that there was hardly any discernible difference in the reviews or audience reaction to the two films. "Kung Fu Panda 2" was well-liked and had little competition for the youngest viewers during the early summer months. Also, the general trend for animated sequels is that the box office numbers tend to go up for at least one or two successive installments. Fortunately, "Panda 2" was a major blockbuster overseas, with nearly $500 million in foreign receipts, edging the worldwide total higher than that of the original, and putting it in fourth place for 2011 worldwide grosses so far.

In June, "Cars 2" was a different story. $191 million domestic can hardly be called a failure, especially as "Cars 2" remains the highest domestic grossing animated film of the year. However, compared to PIXAR's past box office successes, it's certainly a disappointment. "Cars 2" is the studio's first feature to fail to cross $200 million domestically since 1998's "A Bug's Life." Again, overseas numbers eased the pain, but not nearly to the extent that "Kung Fu Panda 2" enjoyed. In the worldwide numbers, "Cars 2" trails by well over $100 million. Another blow to Disney was the flop of "Winnie the Pooh," the traditionally animated feature that opened against the last "Harry Potter" movie in July, and was promptly flattened. Then "The Smurfs" opened a few weeks later, and flattened them again. So far "The Smurfs" has brought in $140 million to "Winnie the Pooh's" measly $26 million. Fortunately "Winnie" was a cheap feature and will likely recoup its budget, but this doesn't bode well for the future of traditional animation in the US.

"The Smurfs" was one of the surprise hits of the summer, and did particularly well overseas, about on par with "Cars 2." There was also the success of the 3D rerelease of "The Lion King" in September, which topped the box office two weeks in a row and was good for another $92 million. Otherwise, numbers have been down across the board, especially at the domestic box office. Only one animated film, "Cars 2," has cracked the top ten for the year. In 2010, there were five titles, which all broke $200 million domestically. But then again, 2010 was an unusually good year for animation, with the last "Toy Story" and "Shrek" movies, and strong originals like "Despicable Me," "Tangled," and "How to Train Your Dragon." Also, though the critics have generally been kind, the hard truth is that this year's films just haven't been as good. I liked "Kung Fu Panda 2" quite a bit, and "Cars 2" and "Rio" were passable, but only "Rango" was really anything special. The best reviewed animated film of the year was "Winnie the Pooh," but I admit that like so may others, I let it get lost in the summer scrum and haven't seen it yet.

We have a couple more 2011 animated films left to go. Box office analysts are currently fretting that "Puss in Boots" only took in an estimated $35 million over the weekend, in spite of good reviews. Dreamworks hasn't seen opening numbers that low in years, and my gut feeling is that it's probably a sign that people have had about enough of the "Shrek" franchise. Moving on, November brings "Happy Feet Two" and an Aardman original, "Arthur Christmas." I do not understand the "Happy Feet" love, but maybe they can make lightning strike twice. I'm afraid "Arthur" may be doomed by its Britishness and a bad ad campaign, but then you should never underestimate Christmas movies. In December, we'll see "The Adventures of Tintin," which is already being rolled out in Europe, and getting good notices so far. I don't think it'll do as well in the US, however, since "Tintin" isn't well known here, and the mo-cap animation is still awfully off-putting. Oh, and there's "Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chip Wrecked," and the less said about it, the better.

Finally in the independent and foreign realms, there's surprisingly little this year. Fernando Trueba and Javier Mariscal's "Chico and Rita" is getting an Oscar qualifying run, but Studio Ghibli's "Arrietty" has been pushed back to February, 2012. "From up on Poppy Hill," Ghibli's latest, has scarcely had any buzz at all. The new "Trigun" film was supposed to have a limited release in the US this year, but I haven't heard a word about it in ages, or anything else from Japan for that matter. France's "A Monster in Paris" hasn't been picked up for US distribution yet - maybe next year. Also MIA is "Tatsumi," a Singaporean film that got some attention when it played at Cannes.

But these things are cyclical. Next year we'll see originals from PIXAR, Dreamworks, Laika, Ghibli, Aardman, Sony, Illumination, Disney, and far fewer sequels (two next year, opposed to five this year). That's plenty to look forward to.

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