It's looked for a while now to be a fairly grim year for animation, but things took an uptick this past weekend with "Rango' -- a gorgeous, offbeat, surprisingly adult western which, while not a home-run, has more than enough to recommend it. Unfortunately, things look to have peaked from here on out: next up is the pedestrian-looking "Rio," and the rest of the year brings a series of sequels from the big dogs of the animation world, Pixar and DreamWorks.
The studios used the release of "Rango" to launch trailers for their wares for the rest of the year, and the results are... somewhat mixed. First up, and likely to be the biggest grosser, is Pixar's "Cars 2." As the sequel to easily Pixar's least beloved film, greenlit principally because of the mammoth merchandising revenue that resulted from the first film (a jaw-dropping $8 billion to date), we've been very wary of this one for a while, and so far, the trailers, which have revealed a globe-trotting spy caper vibe for the sequel, haven't really won us round.
While this may be Pixar's answer to the handful of critics who claim that their recent fare has been aimed more at adults than at kids (to which we can only reply: 1) Did they see "Rango?" and 2) Have you ever watched "Up" with an actual child? Because they eat it up), it's disappointing to see them heading down this way. We have enough faith in the studio, and their awareness of the criticisms of the first film, to not write this off entirely (and we'd be lying if the idea of Michael Caine as British spy Finn McMissile doesn't give us a bit of a kick), but the chances of this matching the disappointing original, let alone surpassing it, seem slim at this point.
Unfortunately, the two new trailers that debuted yesterday -- a domestic clip (via Bleeding Cool) that focuses on the stars of the original, Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) and Mater (Larry The Cable Guy), and a longer UK trailer (via Empire) that shifts the sell to the espionage and action -- haven't exactly changed our minds. For all the flaws of the original, and there were plenty, there was a genuine sense of Americana to it that at least felt personal to the film's director John Lasseter, but it's been replaced here by what looks to be a noisy, garish action movie, full of lowbrow toilet gags, that pushes the near-insufferable Mater to the foreground.
Far more promising is "Kung Fu Panda: The Kaboom Of Doom." The 2008 original, while dependent on your tolerance for Jack Black, seemed to mark the start of a creative resurgence for DreamWorks -- the film's top-class animation, clear love for the kung-fu flick and giant heart glossed over any flaws from the Kevin James-style fatty-fall-over humor. The latter seems to be in evidence for the follow-up as well, unfortunately, but the trailer (via Apple) is pretty decent -- even the toilet humor is more ingenious and better-executed than in the "Cars 2" clip, there's a few other good jokes, and the action sequences look pretty spectacular.
The plot sees Black's corpulent bear again teaming with his martial arts colleagues (Angelina Jolie, Jackie Chan, Seth Rogen, David Cross and Lucy Liu, all returning from the original), to battle villainous peacock Lord Shen (Gary Oldman), who has discovered a weapon that threatens to put an end to kung-fu for good. Professed fan of the original Charlie Kaufman did a script polish, so between that and the trailer, this is definitely looking like one of the better animated prospects of the year.
The less said about its stablemate, "Puss In Boots," however, the better. The fifth film in the "Shrek" universe, although the first without the title character, the picture focuses on the early days of Antonio Banderas' Zorro-esque kitty. It's only a teaser clip (again, from Apple) but it displays all the characteristics that made us hate DreamWorks' animated fare in the first place -- the hip-hop backing, the plethora of catchphrases, the creepy, interchangable human extras. The plot sees Puss team with a love interest (Salma Hayek) and Humpty Dumpty (Zack Galifianakis) to steal the Goose that lays the Golden Eggs. Apple's trailer page also reveals that Billy Bob Thornton's in the cast, presumably as a villain of some kind.
"Kung Fu Panda: The Kaboom Of Doom" is first up, landing on May 27th, with "Cars 2" following on June 24th, and "Puss In Boots" bringing up the rear on November 4th. In such a fallow year, it's entirely possible that two of the three could well sneak in for the Best Animated Feature Oscar category, which is faintly depressing. Where's Sylvain Chomet when you need him, eh? Watch the trailers below.