Following the release and success of Zootropolis, James Moore looks at the state of the animated genre.

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2015 was a strange year for animated feature films. Inside Out came along with typical Pixar polish and charm; while it was rewarded with an Oscar, the tale of emotions inside a child’s mind was widely regarded as worthy of inclusion in the Best Picture category. Inside Out was a brave new concept in narrative for children’s story telling, and could be seen as a return to form for the studio.

But Pixar also gave us The Good Dinosaur in 2015, to much less acclaim than its mature sibling. The studio has been struggling of late to match the record of quality it established from its outset, with sequels and uninspired ideas hurting critical reception. The Good Dinosaur has the third worst average score from critics of any Pixar film, only bested by the Cars movies. Before that, Brave and Monsters University met mixed reviews, falling well below the high bar of above 90% on Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes that most of the studio’s films cherish. It seems that Inside Out was a fortunate blip in the decline of the studio, rather than a true return to form.

Only 3 animated films have ever had the honour of a best picture Oscar nomination, all Disney produced.

Pixar also has to compete against Disney, now producing their own all CG films, with the massively expensive Tangled (at $260 million, the most expensive animated film of all time) and global megastar Frozen (highest grossing animated film of all time) encroaching on the studio’s space.

Only 3 animated films have ever had the honour of a best picture Oscar nomination, all Disney produced. The marvel of song, story and animation Beauty and the Beast in 1991, which lost to The Silence of the Lambs; Pixar’s heartwrenching Up in 2009, beaten by The Hurt Locker, and the less deserving Toy Story 3, which lost to the controversial The King’s Speech in 2010.

Disney and Pixar are not the only producers of animated films, even if their record of Oscar wins might suggest otherwise. Other children’s films tend to flounder against the Disney/Pixar pact. The Peanuts Movie, despite charming visuals and its staying true to its source material’s style, failed to bring in crowds and left critics divided. Peanuts the franchise, since its comic ended around 2000, has largely been forgotten by today’s generation. For my part, Peanuts was better than Blue Sky Studio’s previous showings; the Ice Age franchise, which might be the most beaten dead horse in animation. (Why are you making a fifth one? Please make John Leguizamo’s voice stop.)

2015 was not just about children’s animated films. It gave us Oscar nominee Anomalisa from Charlie Kaufman, notable for his work on Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

2015 was not just about children’s animated films. It gave us Oscar nominee Anomalisa from Charlie Kaufman, notable for his work on Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind with Jim Carrey, and Being John Malkovich.  Personally I’ve always found Kaufman’s writing to be on the side of pretentious, rather than legitimately interesting, but Anomalisa goes some way to proving to the world that animation is capable of more complex stories.

Recently from Japan three animated films stood out, Mamoru Hosoda’s Bakemono no Ko (バケモノの子 The Boy and the Beast), Studio Ghibli’s Omoide no Marnie (思い出のマーニー When Marnie was There) and unusually Love Live! (ラブライブ!) The School Idol Movie, which all could not be more different. There were others of note, but even though it had some great voice performances, character design, and the odd inspired moments, Rakuen Tsuihou (楽園追放 Expelled from Paradise) didn’t cut it as a complete package, and the Kyokai no Kanata movie (劇場版 境界の彼方 I’LL BE HERE 過去篇 Beyond the Boundary – I’ll be here) cannot stand alone as a film without its tv series prequel.

Hosoda has been hailed as the next Miyazaki, and The Boy and the Beast continues his form of producing quality animated feature films, after his previous works The Girl Who Leapt through Time and Wolf Children. This is yet another hit from an upcoming director working with one of the best studios in the business, Madhouse.

Now on hiatus, Studio Ghibli’s latest film charmed audiences with its tight nit mysterious tale. Marnie is far more grounded than Miyazaki’s fantasy adventures, but the film stands on its own. It almost seemed like a reaction to the success of Hosoda and Makoto Shinkai. When Marnie was There brought relatable likeable characters into a gorgeous setting and story, and was a fine farewell for now for the studio.

When Marnie was There brought relatable likeable characters into a gorgeous setting and story, and was a fine farewell for now for Studio Ghibli.

Love Live! is unbelievably successful in Japan, besting Mad Max’s opening week box office with its 2nd week sales. The success of Love Live! is down to its mixing of colourful characters with high school drama and catchy songs and dances, which handily make great merchandise.

2015 was a mixed year and it seems like 2016 will be too, as Zootropolis‘ success attests. But films like Angry Birds and Kung Fu Panda 3 test the longevity of franchises and Pixar’s next film, Finding Dory, has a lot to live up to. Finding Nemo is one of their near perfect films, and they have yet to show an ability to make sequels outside of Toy Story 2, but even that divided critics. Right at the bottom, Norm of the North is straight out of the wrong side of 15 years ago and ripe for a night in, laughing at bad films. But it’s not all doom and gloom on the upcoming animated films, as Makoto Shinkai’s next film, Kimi no Na wa (君の名は  Your Name) is due out in the summer, which will also see The Secret Life of Pets and Kubo. There’s a lot to look forward to in the world of animated features, even if we’ve been disappointed before.

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