For the first time in almost two decades, Luxor Jr., the beloved hopping desk lamp that announces the beginning of a new Pixar adventure, will not see the light. This year the Emeryville-based studio will not delight their devoted audiences with a new, moneymaking feature film. Surely the outrageously successful team of animators will have great years to come with the recent announcements of sequels for "Cars" and "The Incredibles," as well as "Finding Dori," "The Good Dinosaur," and "Inside Out," all of which are already in the making. But this year, 2014, seems like an open field for everyone else to play without the menacing thought of a surely successful Pixar movie in the horizon, which are usually hard to beat both financially and critically.
Another promising omen for smaller or often-dismissed studios is the fact that Disney Animation itself only has one relevant offer this time around. The November release of "Big Hero 6" is the perfect opportunity for Mickey Mouse’s owners to bank on their Marvel investment. Still, it is almost impossible to think a flick about a group of quirky action characters could defeat or even fathom the thought of getting close to the mindboggling numbers, and the wave of awards, "Frozen" brought in.
With the two animation titans quietly on the sidelines for the most part, a dream-like scenario for other films to shine has been created. During the first half of the year several animated titles have hit theaters already all with varying degrees of success. Clearly the conditions are prime for some great and unique animated features to emerge. However, despite the many promising options, there will also be plenty of disappointments.
ALREADY GONE FOR BETTER OR WORSE
January witnessed the atrocious arrival of this generic Open Road Films production about a squirrel planning a heist to get nuts. Easily one of the worse reviewed films of the year so far, it is evident why an early release date was chosen. Even the fact that it was voiced by the likes of Liam Neeson, Will Arnett, Katherine Heigl and Brendan Fraser couldn’t rescue it from its simplistic premise. Sadly, the fact that it didn’t offer anything but cheap and formulaic laughs didn’t stop it from being a mild financial success. Beware, it has been granted a sequel out in 2016.
Now here is a showstopper that stacked up the cash and endless praise by building an incredible homage to pop culture. Warner Bros. Pictures hit an unprecedented milestone with this visually innovative and witty piece of animation, which took the beloved construction toys and infused them with an intelligent story. Following Emmet, an ordinary guy who wants to feel special, "The Lego Movie" takes advantage of its charming concept and the infinite amount of hilarious cameos possible. Almost universally acclaimed, boasting a flawless voice cast, and grossing over $400 million worldwide, directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller have scored the one animated film to beat this year. Deservingly so, a sequel will follow.
Based on the 1960’s animated characters, this DreamWorks film is one of those that produced a lukewarm reaction. Although didactic in the positive sense of the word, it is missing a certain spark to upgrade it into the realm of memorable filmmaking. Teaching kids about ancient civilizations while also trying to deliver on the emotional connection between parents and children is always commendable, but is it enough? Directed by Rob Minkoff ("The Lion King") this story about a smarty-pants dog and his adopted human son received a moderately positive response from audiences and critics. It is hard to know if it will stand the test of time.
Banking on the World Cup craze that has recently made Brazilian culture a commodity, this colorful sequel will perhaps go down as having one of the most convoluted storylines in recent memory. Endless amounts of characters and subplots get drown under the enchanting musical numbers, which become the film’s saving grace. Like its predecessor, this Amazon set animated feature has proven to be highly profitable at the box-office, but in terms of love from the press, this installment has not amused many. Starring Jesse Eisenberg and Anne Hathaway, the Blue Sky production has been plucked of the originality of its predecessor and flies clumsily between an environmentally friendly story and the typical find-yourself narrative.
These days if an idea sort of works then the creators will try to milk it until there is nothing left. This might not be exactly the case with DreamWorks big summer bet, a sequel to their fantastic 2010 film "How to Train Your Dragon." Nominated for two Academy Awards, including Best Animated Feature, the first chapter not only performed outstandingly moneywise, but was also adored by the vast majority of critics, who praised its poignant story and gorgeous imagery. It appears like this follow-up lives up to those standards. For the second part in what is to become a trilogy, Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, and Craig Ferguson are back in their roles. Five years after the ending of the first installment, the Viking heroes are now teenagers and still riding their ferocious creatures into the sunset. The third chapter will be released in 2016.
CHILDREN OF A LESSER DISNEY
Planes: Fire and Rescue
Why? That is the only question audiences should be asking the studio about the baffling decision to make a sequel to the mediocre spin-off. The answer? Well with a budget of a little over $50 million "Planes" managed to quadruple that number despite being panned by critics. Dane Cook returns to voice the protagonist, Dusty, and he will more than likely add another terrible title to his shaky filmography. It is important to point out this film was produced by Disney Toon Studios, which handles their direct-to-video releases and those theatrical ones for which they have lesser hopes: "Planes"
For some absurd reason the studio created a marketing campaign for this film comparable to that of an actually meaningful theatrical release. This was probably due to Tom Hiddleston’s involvement, but is that enough to warrant the fifth installment of this by-the-numbers franchise? Apparently they thought so. As a home-entertainment product this may suffice and keep schoolgirls captivated, but how many more sequels until its young audience gets bored or Thinker Bell becomes obsolete. You guessed it, this is also a Disney Toon Studios work, the place where good generic ideas go to die and resurrect as bargain products. However, as bizarre as it might seem, some critics actually enjoyed it and were fairly positive towards it. Could this be because their expectations of a non-theatrical film are lower? We probably should be worried that such support might encourage the studio to open the next chapter in every multiplex that allows children in - all of them.
THE REST OF THE MAINSTREAM
The Book of Life
This is the one mainstream release that could end up being a pleasant
surprise. Produced by monster-enthusiast Guillermo del Toro and directed
animator Jorge R. Gutierrez, the film centers on a romance bathed in
Mexican mysticism and strikingly beautiful design. The world is inspired
by the Mexican
Day of the Death celebration and will hopefully depict the peculiar
holiday with much needed authenticity. Based on Del Toro’s track record,
hopes for this one is not unrealistic. And judging from the luscious
trailer this visual feast should certainly be an edgy and innovative
work. Among the
talent involved are Diego Luna, Channing Tatum, Zoe Saldana, and Christina Applegate.
The Penguins of Madagascar
After three feature films and a several TV series, the black & white
clumsy and flightless birds from the “Madagascar” franchise return with
full-length adventure for the big screen. This spinoff follows
Skipper, Kowalski, Rico and Private as they work with the North Wind, a
special animal task
force, to prevent a villain from taking over the world – the usual.
From the financial standpoint this is an easy paycheck for DreamWorks. A
new iteration of the already beloved characters results in secure ticket sales and
lots of plush toys flying off the shelves. DreamWorks already released
its strong card
this year (“How to Train Your Dragon 2”), this is really just o pay
Aliens and 3D animation have not been very good friends in past attempts made to unite them. "Mars Needs Mom" (2011), "Escape from Planet Earth" (2013), and even the moderately engaging "Monsters vs. Aliens" (2009) have proven this is a hard concept to nail. Regardless of this doomed landscape, DreamWorks had slated "Home" for a November release. The film has been pushed back to March 2015 and replaced by the aforementioned "Penguins," but we decided to included it since it was scheduled for this year until recently and there is enough information out there already. In the film, purple, tiny, outer-space creatures named Boov have come to Earth to make it their humble abode and relocate humans. Nothing extraordinarily original about the idea or the character design, but what could elevate this film to re-watchable terrain is the all-star cast. Throw in Jim Parsons acid wit, Steve Martin’s classic humor, and some pop divas like Rihanna and Jennifer Lopez, and you have yourself something that will bring people to the theaters. Whether is bad or out of this world great, that’s an entirely different subject.
IS SMALLER BETTER?
Stubbornly reluctant to let the story of The Wizard of Oz behind, the film industry keeps on developing projects based upon it. Last year it was Disney’s live action/CG extravaganza "Oz The Great and Powerful," this year, as if needed, a 3D-animated version by Summertime Entertainment revisits the tale once again. This derivative adventure follows Dorothy after the end of the well-known source tale. For starters the animation looks rather flat and lacks the texture and depth that more experienced studios can deliver. This leaves it relying solely on the power of the screenplay, which, as expected, doesn’t seem to offer much. Extremely efficient sorcery will be required to lure the public into watching it. Their safest bet is to hope for positive reviews and breaking even on their investment.
A famously cherished character across the Atlantic, it is possible Postman Pat will not connect with American audiences or generate the same love the British have for him. Not because he is not a great guy, but because the movie in his honor seems completely incoherent. Based upon the stop-motion animation series that ran on the BBC from the early 1980’s, this reinvention discards the beauty of the medium that made the character iconic and turns it into a bland computerized puppet. As if this wasn’t enough, the guys at DreamWorks Classics came to the conclusion that including a singing contest (on the vein of Britain’s Got Talent), robots, and warfare machinery would be amazing components to include. Really? Some things are better left untouched; you guys could have called Aardman Animations. They would’ve gotten it right.
Craft and boundary-pushing creativity have collided gracefully in Laika's past two projects ("Coraline," "ParaNorman") both of which have garnered Oscar nominations and been fairly well-received by audiences. Fearless towards the excruciating labor that stop-motion requires, the Oregon-based production company not only excels in the artistry displayed on screen, but also in making stories with a specific tone and unique voice. Ghostly adventures whose physicality and attention to detail raises the bar far above their competitors. Their latest enterprise is a mesmerizing period piece that deals with a young boy and his goofy-looking, box-inhabiting, monstrous friends. Undoubtedly there is no one out there making films like this, the team at Laika knows how to match their darkly comedic worlds with a technique that still has something to offer in the tiresome age of 3D animation. Judging by the trailers and behind the scenes videos, "The Boxtrolls" will complete a near-perfect inaugural trifecta of sophisticated animated gems.
SOME ARTFUL DARK HORSES
Allowing us to take a breather from the homogenous shapes of the virtually-rendered reigning style of animation, Irish filmmaker Tomm Moore returns with his second feature. In 2009 he delighted critics and fans alike with the miraculously flawless "The Secret of Kells." The gorgeous hand-drawn characters and exquisite backgrounds depict a sort of magic rarely seen in toon flicks these days. His follow-up, "Song of the Sea" aims to bring similarly beautiful images to the screen. GKIDS, who also distributed Moore’s first picture, has the North American rights for the film and plans to release it later this year. If this new Celtic beauty is any close to "Kells," we are all in for a wonderful treat.
As terrible as Miyazaki’s retirement is for the world of animation, there is still hope in the other Ghibli master Isao Takahata. Returning with his first film in over a decade, it appears that the ingenious artist that brought us "Grave of the Fireflies," is back in full form. Poetic and drawn with an entrancing fluidity, this new fantasy is almost certain to be named a masterpiece. Unsurprisingly, GKIDS strikes again and will release the film in the Fall with high hopes for award season. Disney banished the hopes of "The Wind Rises" walking away a winner, but next time around the battle might be less set in ice.
Other Global Options
There is also a number of other more obscure foreign animated films that look incredibly compelling but which might not reach American shores anytime soon. Among them are Aunt Hilda (France), The 7th Dwarf (Germany), Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart (France), Little from the Fish Shop (Check Republic), El Americano: The Movie (Mexico).
ALL THEIR EGGS IN ONE BASKET
Tonally, “Big Hero 6” feels closer to “Wreck-it Ralph” than the princess
tale of “Frozen,” which is trying to marry the success of Marvel’s
films with Walt Disney Pictures’ family-friendly magic. The field is
bit crowded with new installments of live action franchises like Captain
Spider-Man, and X-Men, released earlier this year. Yet, in all
honesty it is hard to think a film like this will be a failure. It has a
following from the comic book world, and it is the fall's biggest
animation release. That’s enough to lure in millions of people into
Opening November 7th, the story revolves around a group of young crime-fighters and their adorable robot as they fight evil in a fictional
futuristic city inspired by both San Francisco and Tokyo. Let’s hope it is edgier than it sounds on paper.
DIGITALLY ANIMATED DOLLAR SIGNS
When it comes to a loyal fan-base Disney will always outweigh the competition, this evidently translates into great business. Surely “ Big Hero 6” will be a profitable venture for the studio. How big will it be depends on how willing audiences are to see an animated superhero story in a year with comic book films galore. As of now “The Lego Movie” has conquered and prevailed with astonishing numbers domestically and abroad (over $467 million worldwide). Its closer rival is the musical sequel “Rio 2” (over $352 million worldwide), and then the striking “How To Train Your Dragon 2” (over $292 million worldwide), which has just recently opened and could climb higher up the ladder. In any case the possibilities are bright enough for all to share the wealth. They must enjoy it while it lasts because in 2015 Pixar’s voracious brand will put out not one, but a couple of new moneymaking offers.
GOLDEN STATUES PROSPECTS
Here is where Pixar’s absence will be most appreciated. The 3D animation giant has won more Oscars for Best Animated Feature than anyone else. In many occasions they were the only real choice, others - like with “Brave” - it appeared as if they were just winning by default despite the existence of more innovative and daring competitors. Their last offer “Monsters University,” a prequel, failed to garner much love during awards season. This time around they are not even part of the festivities at all. Assuming that the Academy often recognizes the combination of craft and storytelling, then the ideal nominees would be as follows come January
1. The Boxtrolls
2. Song of the Sea
3. The Tale of Princess Kaguya
4. The Book of Life
5. How to Train Your Dragon 2
Of course one of these could easily be replaced by “Big Hero 6” or “The Lego Movie,” but then again, it is only July and this is just educated speculation. The former of these two is a Disney film, and we all know what that means. Without Pixar’s magic to do the heavy lifting, all of the studio’s efforts will go to pushing their new Marvel-inspired crowd-pleaser. As for WB’s massive witty hit, it has a great chance of sneaking if it manages to connect with voters despite its remix culture undertones. Having said this, I think it is time for GKIDS or Laika to come out on top and defy the absurd notion that homogenous 3D fare is the only viable technique in the 21st century.