After the triumphant 2010, was 2011 the hangover for animation?
It certainly seems that way, since all I kept hearing over the holidays was disappointment: Carping about "Cars 2" and sneering about "Happy Feet Two" (which arguably offered no compelling reason to return to the dancing penguins of the Antarctic). At least you could say that "Puss in Boots" exceeded expectations and "Rio" transported us to a Brazilian paradise.
And all that complaining about too many sequels and a lack of originality didn't inoculate Steven Spielberg's "The Adventures of Tintin" from criticism. While some were pleasantly surprised by his liberating adventure in virtual production, others questioned the wisdom of the performance capture and the whiz-bang pacing. On the bright side, "Arthur Christmas" was welcomed as a nice comeback for Aardman. No wonder the off-beat "Rango" stepped in early on to fill the creative void and has been the Oscar front runner ever since.
Best use of performance capture was "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," perhaps the animated triumph of the year for its astounding CG Caesar. Thanks to Weta Digital and Andy Serkis, we got both technical virtuosity and emotional catharsis. And it's that emotional component that truly separated the animated films of 2010 from 2011. There was no "Toy Story 3" or "How to Train Your Dragon" or "Despicable Me" last year. Period.
And, according to Box Office Mojo, it was reflected at the box office. Whereas 2010 was led by the record-breaking "Toy Story 3" ($415 million), "Despicable Me" ($251.5 million), "Shrek Forever After ($238.7 million), "How to Train Your Dragon" ($217.5 million), and "Tangled" ($200.8 million), all in the top 10, 2011 saw a huge drop-off in grosses for animated features.
Still, "Cars 2" led the way on the strength of the Pixar brand and boys' love of cars ($191.4 million), followed by "Kung Fu Panda 2" ($165.2 million), "Puss in Boots" ($145.5 million), "Rio" ($143.6 million), "The Smurfs" ($142.6 million), "Rango" ($123.2 million), "Gnomeo & Juliet" ($99.9 million), "Happy Feet Two" ($60.9 million), "The Adventures of Tintin" ($50.8 million since its Christmas debut), "Arthur Christmas" ($46.1 million), and "Winnie the Pooh" ($26.6 million).
But the biggest animation box office story of 2011 was "The Lion King" 3-D theatrical release, which brought home a staggering $94.2 million for Disney. With 3-D on the wane, but more Disney and Pixar evergreens slated for 3-D release this year, time will tell if this is more than just a one-off. In any event, the added revenue propelled "The Lion King" to second place on the all-time list of animated features, with $422.7 million (less than $19 million shy of "Shrek 2"). Talk about mixed messages: After the lackluster showing of "Winnie the Pooh," the future of Disney's hand-drawn legacy looks bleaker than ever.
Then again, it was more about technology than storytelling in 2011: "Cars 2" offered noteworthy tweaks from Pixar in lighting, painting, and driving performance befitting Formula 1 racing, gadget-driven action and virtual world building; "Kung Fu Panda 2" had its own lighting and rendering advancements from DreamWorks for virtual world building as well as new feathers, cloth, and rigging for the elegant baddie, Lord Shen; "Happy Feet Two" started from scratch with a new studio (Dr. D) and benefitted from a project-driven pipeline that improved animated performance and environmental richness; "Rio" saw Blue Sky create a whole new animated world for its birds of paradise and Carnival festivities; "Arthur Christmas" brought out the best in Aardman and Sony for designing and rendering marvelous misfits caught in a winter wonderland of yuletide dreams; and Weta finally proved with "Tintin" that performance capture has a rightful place in animation for hitting that sweet spot between photorealism and caricature. Indeed, Weta continues to stand at the forefront of the virtual production revolution with its breakthroughs.
However, Industrial Light & Magic made the biggest technical leap of the year with "Rango," its first animated feature (how ironic given that Pixar had its origins as ILM's computer graphics division). Leveraging its unrivaled VFX legacy for photorealism, ILM went outside the box for a down and dirty animated look that was more photosurreal. Now the studio is chomping at the bit to work on another animated feature. So, with Paramount in need of a new animation provider for its fledgling division, perhaps ILM will get the chance to evolve as new player. Let's hope so.
Meanwhile, the prospects for 2012 look much brighter: Illumination ("Despicable Me") is back with "Dr. Seuss' The Lorax" (March 2); Pixar has its first fairy tale and female lead in the Scottish actioner, "Brave" (June 22); Sony has the intriguing monster mash-up, "Hotel Transylvania" (Sept. 21), directed by Genndy Tartakovsky ("Samurai Jack"); Disney has "Wreck-It-Ralph" (Nov. 2) about an arcade game baddie-turned hero, helmed by former" Simpson's" animation director Rich Moore; and DreamWorks has the imaginative "Rise of the Guardians" fairy tale/superhero mash-up (Paramount, Nov. 21).
Plus, three stop-motion features are slated for release in 2012: Aardman's "The Pirates! Band of Misfits" (Sony, March 30); Laika's "Coraline" follow-up, "ParaNorman" (Focus Features, Aug. 17); and Tim Burton's "Frankenweenie" (Disney, Oct. 5). The really good news is that there are only two high-profile sequels this year: DreamWorks' "Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted" (Paramount, June 8) and Blue Sky's "Ice Age: Continental Drift" (Fox, July 13).
If anything, it makes handicapping the next Oscar race all the more fun.