If you’ve read any of my articles at the Red Shirt Crew, you probably already know that I can be quite cynical when it comes to the future of modern media. The video game industry seems poised for a crash, directors like Michael Bay keep getting handed other favourite childhood series to destroy, and turning on any news channel makes me cringe. The one shining beacon seems to be the Golden Age of Animation ushered in by Pixar’s dominance in the late 1990’s and all throughout the 2000’s. Between them, Dreamworks, Disney, and at least one surprise each year, you could always count on consistent, high quality animated movies.
Is the best behind us or yet to come?
Then, last year happened. Don’t get me wrong, last year wasn’t a bad year for animated movies; it was, in my opinion, the BEST year we’ve had for animated movies in the last decade (2010 is the only year that comes close). There were five great animated movies released last year: two by the big three, one by a famous director who’d earned the right to improve upon his previous works, one by an up and coming studio with great potential, and one by a studio that had only one previous endeavour. It was beautiful to see four great animated movies nominated.
No, I didn’t count incorrectly. Only four of the best five animated movies last year got nominated. In fact, none of them one. Instead, the award was given to the company that deserved it the least. Pixar won the “Best Animated Feature” once again with their movie Brave, proving the Academy was anything but.
Those other movies, in cast you’re wondering, were Wreck-It Ralph, Rise of the Guardians, Frankenweenie, The Pirates: Band of Misfits!, and ParaNorman, the latter of which being my personal choice for second best animated movie of the century, trailing only the perfection that was Toy Story 3. Creative premises with weird casts of characters that went in new and bold directions were thrown to the side for a movie that feels as rushed as the behind the scenes looks have revealed it was. It was by the numbers and safe, and it wasn’t as pretty or interesting to look at as any of the other movies listed in this paragraph. In fact, it has the lowest Rotten Tomatoes score of any movie on this list, so the critics seem to agree with me.
Yet it won all the same. Because it’s Pixar, and that’s what Pixar does.
Pixar always wins
The whole thing has made me look upon the upcoming news with a new level of cynicism. After all, if Pixar doesn’t have to work as hard, why would they? For the love of making a great film? One would hope, but the projects about which they were passionate seem to have dried up in the last couple of years. Their 2011 outing, after all, was Cars 2, a mediocre sequel to their most mediocre movie that seemed to only exist because man that made a lot of money in toy revenue, didn’t it? What’s next? An unnecessary prequel to a great movie that also happened to bring in a lot of toy revenue?
…Oh. Well that’s awkward.
Between the entirely unnecessary Monsters University and the I-can’t-believe-they’re-actually-doing-this Finding Dory (yes, that’s actually a thing; no, I don’t want to believe it either), Pixar appears by all accounts to be stuck in a rut. And now that they’ve proven their original films can be average at best and still win awards, I can’t even bring myself to hold out hope that a movie called The Good Dinosaur will somehow not be incredibly stupid. Though I do appreciate the implication that most dinosaurs were evil and therefore we shouldn’t have to feel bad about the whole “meteor-making-them-extinct” thing.
Since all of this is speculation, I’m sure that there will be people in the comments who will say that I’m jumping the gun here, and that things are not nearly as bad as I think they are. I truly hope I’m wrong. But from where I’m standing, there are three key lessons that have been taught over the past few years that I don’t think can just be ignored. And each of these things has a direct negative impact on the quality of future animated movies.
1: 2D animation doesn’t sell like 3D animation – Hand drawn animation is hard. It’s costly, and not necessarily time effective. I get it. But man, nothing made me sadder in the last month than hearing Disney was done making 2D animation. I get that part of that is the technology of the times, but hand drawn animation has a style and character that 3D animation just doesn’t have. I still break out my Disney movies like Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast on a regular basis because they tell great stories with great, striking art that you can tell had so much effort into it. Someone drew that. That’s incredible to me. And now that Disney’s stopped doing it, who knows when we’ll see it again. I admit, this has less to do with bad signals and more to do with an ever evolving animation landscape, but it’s still makes me sad to see it go.
2: Go ahead and make sequels like there’s no tomorrow – Pixar was one of the few companies that said “To hell with sequels” and kept making new IPs with amazing quality and heart. This put them lightyears ahead of DreamWorks, which recycled franchises like Shrek until there weren’t remains of quality left to be buried. Now, Pixar’s doing the sequel thing just like everyone else. Heck, there are even rumoured sequels to The Incredibles, and, most sacrilegiously, a fourth Toy Story movie. If Pixar, who is at the moment the center of the animation world, can get away with sequels instead of using original ideas, than other established companies will follow suit. Why work harder than you have to? Hash out the same characters again for guaranteed income. Sounds brilliant to me from a purely financial perspective, and I’m sure any head executive would say the same. Remember, this is a business; if sequels sell better than new IPs, we’re going to get more sequels, not new IPs. This is why How to Train Your Dragon 2 is happening.
3: If you’re not Pixar, don’t bother making Oscar worthy movies – Here’s the stat of the decade: since 2003, Pixar has not lost an Academy Award for best animated picture unless it was a Cars movie. I used to think that the Oscars were genuinely rewarding the best movie available, but now that they gave the award to Brave, I’m starting to think Cars is simply where they drew the line. Talking cars are not winning Oscars, they said to Pixar, but anything else, and the award is yours. It’d be one thing if this was a debatable pick, but as far as I can tell, the sixth best animated movie of a year should not be winning the Best Animated Feature award. It’s inexcusable. As long as this old guard of Oscar voters is in charge, no one else will stand a chance. So if you’re not going to win anyway, why try? Just make something pretty that can sell a lot of toys and have guaranteed returns at the box office. That’s the formula that’s working right now, so why bother doing anything else? Companies may not have hit that point yet, but if Pixar wins with another mediocre film in the near future, they will start. And that will, in my humble opinion, be the end of the animation golden age.
Like I said before, all of this is speculation. I hope I’m wrong. But as more sequels get announced and deserving movies keep getting passed over at both the box office and the award ceremonies, my cynicism just keeps growing. Animation has thrived in the past ten years by following Pixar’s example. I just don’t think that will end well anymore.