Friday, June 30, 2017

The Disappointing State of Hollywood Animation

As we get yet another unnecessary “Cars” sequel, as Illumination fires up the Minion merchandise machine again with “Despicable Me 3,” and as Sony shamelessly advertises “The Emoji Movie" with literal shit jokes, I can’t help but feel disappointed at the dismal state of the U.S. animation industry right now.

These may be different films from different studios, but ultimately in the end they’re all pandering to the same family audience. Every wide release animated film in North America is a computer animated, family-friendly, fantasy-comedy film. There is little diversity, and with the mixed reviews coming in so far for these tentpole blockbusters, there’s apparently little artistic merit as well.

Mainstream Hollywood fare is not all inherently bad, of course. Two summers ago, I tremendously enjoyed Pixar’s “Inside Out.” The problem, however, is that the industry is in a rut. Apparently, because family-friendly computer animation sells, the industry sees no need to do anything else, and insists on working exclusively within this pitifully narrowminded box.

The problem with this is that it reinforces the incorrect stereotype that animation is merely a genre, or that it’s exclusively to be used for children’s entertainment. It also muzzles artists and erases artistic diversity. Animation studios, once producers of fine art, instead become factories of manufactured corporate product (and in fact, when it comes to the multi-billion dollar merchandising empires of franchises like “Cars,” the “manufactured corporate product” manifests quite literally).

Pixar may have upended the industry back in 1995 with the groundbreaking “Toy Story” — which quickly killed the Disney musical formula and led to the diversification of the market by encouraging new entrants like DreamWorks and Blue Sky to jump in — but today things are virtually just as stagnant again, as movie theaters entertain revolving door rotations of one family-oriented CGI blockbuster after another.

To be fair, more diverse options exist for those who know where to look — Aardman, Laika, and GKIDS all put out world-class, hand-crafted films every once in a while. It is films like "Song of the Sea" and "The Boy and the World" that restore my faith in animation, especially at a time when Pixar thinks "Toy Story 4" is a good idea and DreamWorks is being collared on a tight leash. However, GKIDS and the other independents lack the marketing and merchandising powers of the big studios, which are, unfortunately, currently trying to neuter GKIDS by changing the Oscar nomination rules, since apparently it's easier to shut down the competition rather than competing fairly.

This is not, however, merely a question of studio blockbusters versus foreign and independent films. The issue is that the studios are limiting themselves, and even though the occasional "Inside Out" or "How to Train Your Dragon" delivers great films, the studios are still missing out on the incredible potential that animation has. Although they needn't necessarily all take the Laika or GKIDS approach, we can already see the results of more mature and diversified animation today, in Japan and on television.

In Japan, films like “Princess Mononoke,” “The Wind Rises,” and “Your Name” all topped the box office in their respective years of release. Crucially, however, they’re all very different films too, whether it be a historical fantasy epic, a biographical period drama, or a sci-fi romcom thriller — which stands in stark contrast to the ubiquitous family-friendly, comedy-fantasy, computer animation ghetto that characterizes Hollywood.

Even on television in North America, there’s mature fare like “South Park” or “Rick and Morty” in addition to kid-oriented content like “Arthur” or “Adventure Time.” I’m also fully certain that “South Park” and “Rick and Morty” are performing well financially too, because otherwise they wouldn’t keep getting renewed for more seasons. Therefore there’s absolutely no sound reason for feature film studios to avoid doing the same when it comes to movies.

In the past decade, I would say the closest mainstream Hollywood has ever gotten to diversifying their feature animation was 2007’s PG-13 rated “The Simpsons Movie” and 2016’s R-rated “Sausage Party.” Although these two were a far cry from the sophistication of Oscar-nominated features such as “Persepolis” or “My Life as a Zucchini,” at least they were well-reviewed and financially profitable. It’s a shame that, despite the success of those two films, Hollywood still can’t recognize the enormous potential there is for animation (and even when the Oscars do, the studios try to shut it down).

Ideally, I would love to see the big studios realize that there's so much more to animation than just endless kid flicks and merchandise farms. Animation has incredible potential to do all sorts of different things, as we've seen in Japan, on television, and with the occasional "Simpsons Movie" or "Sausage Party." The last time the industry was in a rut and was subsequently transformed, it was back in the 90's when everybody except Pixar was too busy milking the Disney musical formula to realize the potential of computer animation.

Today, the once-revolutionary computer animation finds itself in a similar rut — and similarly, this makes conditions perfect for someone to shake up the market and revolutionize the way we do animation.

Images (L-R) courtesy of: Disney, Illumination, Sony.

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