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How and Why Animated Films Need to Avoid the Same Fate as Westerns

by Charles Kenny
August 21, 2013 8:14 PM
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That cat is out of the bag as far as the Los Angeles Times is concerned. Animated films are coming out thick, fast, and too close together for the market to bear. Box office grosses are down, and large studios like DreamWorks are starting to feel the pinch (although they claim that Turbo will be profitable in the end.)

The problem of course isn't so much that there are too many animated films, rather it's that there are simply too many of the same kind of animated films.

Pixar set the gold standard with kid-friendly films that had more than a wink and a nod to the adults in the audience. The world and his dog took notice, and started to crank out facsimiles en masse.

Unfortunately, the market can only ever support so many of the same kinds of films. If you want a cautionary tale, just look to the Western. Hollywood flamed out on them 40 years ago, and they've been a tough sell ever since.

Animated films face the same problem today. The concern is that animation continues to be treated like a genre (even though it isn't) and guilt by association could hinder adult-oriented animated films if the kid-friendly ones overstay their welcome.

So what kind of animated films should we be seeing if we are to avoid this fate?

High school comedies? Sure, why not. Action films? That ones easy, we just need to re-classify a few that are already out there from live-action to animation. Family dramas? Absolutely! The Incredibles could easily count if it had a few bad words in it, right? I mean c'mon, it already had the whole infidelity angle going for it.

The point is that animated films that adults will enjoy and animated films suitable for adults are not mutually exclusive. It's tough to get a kid to watch a courtroom drama because it's simply not interesting to them.

There's no reason why there isn't more diversity in animated films besides studio's reluctance to embrace them, and a mentality that the juvenile approach is the best way to attract the 18-34 demographic.

The only obstacle is grabbing the headlines away from what's out there today. News organisations cannot resist falling over themselves for the latest kid-friendly animated film but won't touch one for adults with a 10 foot pole. If we can get over that, maybe we can start to see greater variety in animated form at the cinema. 

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

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  • Alex Dudley | August 22, 2013 2:32 PMReply

    Considering how popular animated shows are that are geared towards the 18-24 crowd (that are also watched by kids) on telelvision. Hopefully someone will attempt to produce an animated feature targeted toward the same crowd for cinemas.
    Sure a lot of those shows are crude and get vulgar, but we need to start somwhere.
    However, the only way to greenlight a project like that, is that it'll have to be based on a TV show (like it was with The Simpsons or South Park), or someone in Hollywood with enough clout to see to it that an original animated adult film gets made.

  • M.R. Horhager | August 22, 2013 1:01 PMReply

    I think one of the main problems is that the few animated features targeting adults are too niche. There is a tendency with adult-oriented animation to cling to complex ideas and challenging subjects. I think there are several reasons for this: first, a need to disassociate from the mass of family-oriented feature films and second, to validate the work as important because of its mature, adult-focused subject matter. It's commonly understood that adult-oriented animated films aren't money-makers, but instead are labours of love that a filmmaker can sink his/ her teeth into. Don't get me wrong - I think films, like all art, should be challenging, but movies are big business. How many live-action films can you think of that truly challenge the audience? I believe that once we have an animated blockbuster geared at adults, the rest of the industry will quickly scramble to put out their own versions. And hopefully then, like now with the saturation of family-oriented animation, the influx of adult-oriented films would lead the studios to begin branching out into genres in order to differentiate themselves. If we think back, it was the break out success and mass appeal of the PIXAR films, along with the early DREAMWORKS ones, that had every other large studio scrambling to put out their own animated films and get a piece of the action.

  • Toonio | August 22, 2013 12:50 PMReply

    Of course animated films can reach outside the family-friendly niche (Heavy Metal anyone?).

    The problem are the swords of Damocles hanging above every major animation venture: Risk and Rate of Return. Which are to blame to every possible MBA school out there that promises to make anyone (emphasis on anyone) a business expert in one or two years (does this pattern sounds familiar to you?).

    Hopefully animated films will see a shift from the trivial and repetitive like the westerns had with Unforgiven. But it will be only the small studios the ones leading such revolution, *cough* Laika *cough*, while the big ones will reorganize ad nauseum and eventually will transform once and again in the endless business cycle of divestiture acquisitions hell till they resemble something close to nothing they ever were.

  • Gijs Grob | August 22, 2013 6:13 AMReply

    In the us the animated feature is unfortunately synonymous to family film. Its range possibilities are much better understood in Japan, and to a lesser extent, Europe. Thank God for independents like Don Herzfeldt or Nina Paley.

  • Gijs Grob | August 26, 2013 5:29 AM

    You're right! Let's not forget him!

  • Nic kramer | August 22, 2013 6:37 PM

    Don't forget Bill Plympton.

  • Teodor Ajduk | August 22, 2013 4:58 AMReply

    Eeasy-close CalArts.
    Westerns started to be bad when schooled directors began to make westerns.

  • John Paul Cassidy | September 5, 2013 12:32 AM


    You gotta' keep CalArts around for *something*. I mean, come on! Wouldn't it be cool if some animators made some R-rated horror-thriller or sex comedy in a CalArts animation style? Hey, if the French and Japanese can do that stuff, so can we. If we're gonna' keep up with them, let's get serious! ;)

  • Nic Kramer | August 22, 2013 10:15 AM

    Did John K. asked you to say that?

  • DarylT | August 22, 2013 3:03 AMReply

    Theres a very good reason why you dont see a animated features for adults.
    Why would you make it in animation when you can make it in live action for

  • Nic kramer | August 22, 2013 6:33 PM

    And I say closing CalArts is a dumb idea.

  • Teodor Ajduk | August 22, 2013 2:37 PM

    Sorry, I put a comment in the wrong place.

  • Teodor Ajduk | August 22, 2013 2:35 PM

    Easy to compare before and after era

  • Eli | August 22, 2013 3:41 AM

    ...Because animated films are an art form and can do a lot of things live action can't.

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