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Are Modern Animated Features Only Made For the Quick Buck?

Features
by Charles Kenny
May 29, 2013 8:15 PM
14 Comments
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Animated Features Smurfs Lorax

Simply put: are studios creating animated feature films with only an eye to short-term profits at the expense of long-term gains?

Consider Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. A bone fide smash hit when originally released and steadfastly popularity over the course of the 20th century.

In contrast, CGI features from today seem to made to follow a specific formula when it comes to their success, i.e. use a tried and trusted story formula, garner a massive box office take, whip up massive publicity for whichever celebrity gets to work in jeans, sell millions of DVDs (yes, people still buy them) and above all, flog tons of merchandise.

While animated features are a business, it's difficult to see films that follow such a formula through a cultural lens. What does, say, Wreck-It-Ralph contribute besides basic entertainment? Will we talk about it in ten years the same way we do about Who Framed Roger Rabbit now?

While Roger was entertaining in more ways than one, it at least used timeless characters. Wreck-It-Ralph on the other hand, cashes in on the current craze for all things 8-bit and video game-related; a fad to be sure and one that will look old pretty quick.

So with the likes of Pixar busy raiding their back catalogue and others content to push either sequel upon sequel on us or to create films designed to follow the protocol, where are the films that are genuinely unique in a cultural way and that (intentional or not) are likely to remain popular in the way Snow White has?


Charles Kenny writes prolifically on his own blog, The Animation Anomaly.


Features
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More: Pixar , Walt Disney Pictures

14 Comments

  • GW | June 5, 2013 12:46 AMReply

    Well, to be fair, it's not mainstream films that are the only ones to use formulas. There's all sorts of abstract animators who think that they can just do random things with squares, circles, and triangles in front of a black background and call it creative. And how many generic individual in the midst of unbeatable system/authority films have their been from independent animators? For the latter, it's a more cynical version of the same trope in many computer animated films where the oddball finds their place in society. There's shallow tropes in each area of animated filmmaking, the question being how prevalent they are.

    You may be answering some of your posts with other posts. If there's going to be a reduction in the number of computer animated blockbusters, wouldn't they be considered more valuable in the future? Personally, I don't think hold admiration of future generations as highly as some. After all, few people like day old pancakes but that doesn't stop people from making more pancakes. The original audience is in many cases the only set of people who have the cultural knowledge to properly appreciate the film.

    I don't think that anything from Illumination Entertainment will date all that well due to their boring stories and aesthetically pared down character designs, but we might remember some other films more fondly.

  • Floyd Bishop | May 31, 2013 12:38 PMReply

    The reason a lot of these films feel tacked on or forced is because they totally are, regardless of how good or bad the end product may be. At the end of "Monsters Inc", I don't think anyone was wondering what Mike & Sulley were like in college.

    CG treatments of older properties are an odd case, since for much of the audience, this new version is the first exposure to these characters and worlds, and becomes the original in their minds. There isn't really any way around this, as properties are lasting longer and longer and execs are looking for sure things more often. (spoiler alert: there is no such thing)

    You only get so many chances to make art before your time is up. I would much rather see artists and animators make something new than to rehash old ideas. A re-imagining is not quite as bad, as it is looking at the whole thing from a new perspective.

    As someone who worked on only the first film in a long (too long) line of sequels, I may be a bit biased.

  • Pierre Fontaine | May 30, 2013 1:29 PMReply

    You can't remove the fact that Snow White was a novelty when first released. Certainly there was a lot of animation being produced at the time but Snow White showcased something the general public had never seen before, displaying a level of skill and depth of story that made it an instant classic. Since Disney could only produce so many feature-length films in a given time, they were treated as special events. It also helped that from the 1950's through the 1970's, Disney had their own TV show to create advance buzz.

    Disney were smart too. Their subsequent films didn't ape the formula that made Snow White work. Because many of their more experimental films were not successes (though later considered classics), Disney revived the formula with films like Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty. However, their output during the 1940's, including some of the films from the 1950's, were highly original concepts executed brilliantly.

    There's the nostalgia factor to contend with also. Disney films were re-released every seven years in order that a new generation of children could enjoy them. These kids grew up and these films became revered as part of their childhood.

    Today, there are three or four major studios pumping out animation on a seasonal basis and that's a lot of content to sift through in order to rise to the top of the nostalgia mountain-top. Who knows, the best remembered animated film of the past seven years might be a film that left little impression for the adults who watched it. However, a film like "Epic" or "Despicable Me II" might be remembered with fondness by today's children who in twenty years will have children of their own.

  • Brad Constantine | May 30, 2013 12:34 PMReply

    I ask myself the same question every time a new animated feature comes out..."who is this made for?" Often when I see a Pixar film, I leave thinking "wow, they made that movie just for me!"...Other times I think, "wow, they made this movie just for my kids!"...then I see a film like
    "Triplets of Belleville" and I think, "wow, they made that movie just for Art!"...and my kids and I both enjoy it. Then I see they are making Peabody and Sherman and I think..."wow, they are making this for my DAD, and he probably won't see it"...then I think "what are they thinking?"

  • wever | May 30, 2013 10:15 AMReply

    Umm..... 8-bit style games are "current"? I'm sure Disney intended to hone in on the nostalgia with the 8-bit games featured in the film, which would indeed make the film "timeless" that Disney always tries to achieve.

    And yes, I believe people will talk about Wreck-It Ralph in the future but maybe not nearly as much as Roger Rabbit, because one pushed the art of animation further and changed the way people view animated movies, and one did not. Ralph may center around original characters but, just like Roger Rabbit, it had a slew of famous cameos! Ralph in my eyes was certainly not made only for profit, because the story was well-written and easy to follow, the animation and design was top quality, and the moral was different for Disney but was essential for kids to understand (how to be a better person with what you have).

  • wever | May 30, 2013 10:10 AMReply

    -sees title-

    .............. ......YES!!!

  • Nic Kramer | May 30, 2013 8:27 AMReply

    I also disagree about "Wreck-It Ralph" being part of a fad. Do you realize how big an art form video games is considered these days? Why else is there a great Smithonian Arts traveling exhibit dedicated to video games running right now?

    Besides, the film was in the back burner for at least 10-15 years.

  • Alex W | May 30, 2013 3:16 AMReply

    I thought Paranorman was a fantastic example of pushing modern storytelling through animation. It's themes are timeless, but the world and it's characters were probably the most unique since How To Train Your Dragon in 2010. Also, first mainstream animated feature to have a homosexual character? Pretty damn important.

  • Alex D. | May 30, 2013 1:03 AMReply

    I'm concerned with the increase number of animated films coming out. They're all starting to look the same or play out the same. We need a variety in terms of genres the film will carry, make more animated films for older audiences, or at the very least bring back 2D and make more stop motion films.

  • Mark | June 2, 2013 9:31 PM

    So it's not just me who thinks they're all starting to look the same, and act the same? I agree, a few 2D films wouldn't hurt to add variety to the mix. You'd think that animation as a medium was ready to go the way of live action and TV animation to some degree and split into genres.

  • rubi | May 29, 2013 10:12 PMReply

    Videogames aren't a fad; perhaps the current nostalgia wave is, but the games referenced in Wreck-It Ralph are classics important to that artform just as the classic characters in Roger Rabbit are important to the artform of animation, so the movie will still have appeal in the future. I didn't love the movie, but it did ask some interesting questions about free will that give it a bit of weight beyond pure entertainment value.

    Paranorman and Frankenweenie definitely have classic potential. If you want to limit this to CGI films, though (and I'm assuming we're talking non-Pixar ones, as I think we can agree that with the exception of the Cars movies and possibly their upcoming batch of sequels, they're pretty safe bets for future classicdom), the one that stands out as far and away the best and probably the most timeless is How to Train Your Dragon.

  • Rich T. | May 29, 2013 9:29 PMReply

    I think most of Pixar's output will age very well, and the recent Disney animated films will be appreciated more in retrospect (seriously!). One of the only other recent American animated films I think will hold up is How To Train Your Dragon, which created a unique and vivid world populated by believable characters and never broke the illusion with pop references. Rise of the Guardians was a decent fantasy. Horton Hears a Who was a solid Seuss adaptation with a lot of great sequences.

    I completely agree that, outside of Disney, Pixar, and the Dragon franchise, most other animated films these days seem geared only to make quick money in the first couple of weeks of release.

  • Steve Flack | May 29, 2013 8:51 PMReply

    You had me in agreement, until you praised Roger,s use of "timeless" and ripped Ralph's use of a "fad" (I love both films). One man's timeless is another man's fad.

  • Charles Kenny | May 30, 2013 7:07 AM

    Point gladly taken Steve,

    The characters in Ralph are not part of any fad, but the interest in them certainly is. Roger was a shot completely out of the blue whereas Ralph was almost certainly produced with the current wave of nostalgia (and its dollars) in mind.

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