These days, the art of producing animated features in Hollywood feels like a hit-or-miss game. Some films succeed spectacularly–and deservedly–due to stunning visuals, intriguing story lines, and spot-on vocal performances (a majority of the Pixar oeuvre prior to 2011; many of DreamWorks’ recent productions, most notably 2010’s How to Train Your Dragon; Nickelodeon’s endlessly inventive, Oscar-winning Rango from 2011). Yet for every smash hit, there are at least two cartoonish cinematic missteps that ultimately languish due to sub-par animation, static plots, uninteresting characters … and, most egregiously, studios’ seemingly inescapable urge to rake in as much money as possible from burgeoning franchises. It’s enough to make one wonder if quality animation could soon become the exception, rather than the rule.
If the theatrical releases from the first half of 2013 are any indication, this year’s American animation offerings will fall largely into the “miss” category. From the less-than-enthused critical reaction to sequels such as Pixar’s Monsters University and Illumination’s Despicable Me 2, to such outright misfires as Escape from Planet Earth (Rainmaker/Weinstein) and Epic (20th Century Fox), one couldn’t be blamed for thinking that this is not likely to be a stellar year for animated film–at least, from an artistic point of view. (I say this as someone who thoroughly enjoyed Monsters U, while also recognizing that it lacks a great deal of the heart and finesse that made the first film such a treasure.) Still, critical perception often matters little in the face of the mighty studio marketing machines that drive families to the theater in droves to see many of these films.
The biggest surprise of the year may be the success of DreamWorks’ The Croods, which despite a sometimes negative critical reception nonetheless managed to find an audience and cash in at the box office. The flip side to that, of course, is the studio’s near-immediate launching of a franchise associated with the film, one that will produce a television series and any number of feature-length sequels, because as we all know, standalone films simply do not maximize the earning potential of a given property anymore (Hollywood 101).
Yet aside from the phenomenal success of the three Toy Story films–each of which easily stands as its own unique, well-crafted movie–sequels have proven to be almost invariably incapable of recapturing the essence of their predecessors. The Shrek magic petered out after the first two films, leaving its third and fourth installments feeling completely unnecessary. The Ice Age films continue to be churned out, as does the Madagascar series, and as the first films in those respective series were weak to begin with, the sequels have little room to improve upon tired concepts. Cars 2 (2011) was little more than a cash grab, an (ultimately successful) attempt to merchandise the hell out of an already-thin conceit … a business model that is echoed in the current over-saturation of Despicable Me’s bright yellow minions in everything from car insurance commercials to Happy Meals.
The offerings in the queue for the remainder of 2013 include more inescapable sequels and retreads, but sprinkled among the potential disappointments, an intriguing handful of the films set for release in the next few months may yet provide a bit of the animated joy we have arguably been denied thus far this year. Here’s a look at several features set to premiere in theaters this fall/winter.
Release Date: July 17, 2013
Snails and race cars. Not exactly the first pairing that would come to most folks’ minds, but animator David Soren, who crafted the story behind Turbo, is not most people. Having worked on many beloved animated films over the past decade or so, including Chicken Run (2000) and Shrek (2001), Soren steps into directing his first full-length feature here. The trailer is charming, and the film will certainly appeal to children who enjoy the Cars franchise. This one has the potential to be a hit, not only on the big screen, but on Netflix, where a spin-off cartoon series will be launched later this year.
The Smurfs 2 (Sony Pictures Animation)
Release Date: July 31, 2013
No. Just … no.
Based on Peyo’s perennially popular blue characters, the first computer-animated Smurfs film somehow managed to bring in half a billion dollars in 2011, which is why we are now being subjected to treated with a sequel. This film will have the dubious distinction of being Jonathan Winters’ final film–shades of Orson Welles and The Transformers: The Movie, anyone?–as he again voices Papa Smurf. And yes, a third film is already planned for release in 2015.
Release Date: August 9, 2013
Dane Cook provides the voice of the main character. No good can come of this.
As a spin-off of the Cars franchise, Planes has a built-in audience of kids who will be clamoring for the tie-in merchandise. Disney was confident enough in the film to change it from a direct-to-DVD release to a theatrical one, but the trailer is wholly unremarkable, which does not exactly bode well for the movie as a whole.
(Incidentally, Planes was produced by DisneyToon Studios, the purveyor of endlessly unnecessary sequels to films like Aladdin, Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Lady and the Tramp, Cinderella … hell, practically the entire Disney filmography. Personally, I remain shocked that they haven’t yet released such sure-to-be classics as Dumbo II: Dumbo Harder or Bambi 3: Venison is What’s for Dinner.)
Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 (Sony Pictures Animation)
Release Date: September 27, 2013
The first Meatballs film in 2009 was entertaining, if thin, with a fantastic cast headed by the always-delightful Bill Hader. Even with most of those talented voice actors returning, and even with the promise of some cheeky and seriously pun-heavy humor courtesy of the trailer (“Taco-dile … SUPREME.”), one has to ask: is a sequel to this concept even necessary?
Free Birds (Reel FX/Relativity)
Release Date: November 1, 2013
Two turkeys, voiced by Owen Wilson and Woody Harrelson, travel back in time to the first Thanksgiving to try to stop turkey from becoming the traditional holiday meal.
That’s a sentence I never imagined I would type.
Regardless, the trailer has a couple of moments of hilarity, and it’s an interesting concept. It may yet find an audience, at least in the few weeks leading up to Thanksgiving. Speaking of the film’s oh-so-perfect timing: the original plan was for Free Birds to be released in November 2014, but when DreamWorks announced in February that its upcoming Mr. Peabody and Sherman feature would be delayed until next spring, Birds’ release date was moved up. (The rescheduling of Mr. Peabody, in turn, pushed back the release of DreamWorks’ Me and My Shadow. No news on when that film will be scheduled for release, as it’s reportedly been sent back to development.)
Release Date: November 27, 2013
Disney dips into the fairy tale/princess well once more. After the massive success of 2010’s Tangled, this (sure to be loose) adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen will likely draw crowds … especially once we can see more of what this closely-guarded film has to offer. The teaser trailer is almost teeth-searingly adorable and funny, but it would be nice to catch an animated glimpse of the central characters (voiced by Kristen Bell, Jonathan Groff, and Idina Menzel), as the artwork that has been released so far is absolutely gorgeous.
Walking with Dinosaurs: The 3D Movie (BBC Earth/20th Century Fox)
Release Date: December 20, 2013
A computer-generated update of the 1999 BBC series Walking with Dinosaurs, this unusual project will place ancient animated creatures in real-life settings. The original documentary style will be altered somewhat by the addition of a narrative story line. I can’t say that the trailer for this one jumped out and grabbed me, but in light of yet another delay in the release of Jurassic Park 4, it may whet the appetite of dino enthusiasts.
Now that you’ve seen what the studios have to offer over the next few months, tell us: what are you looking forward to seeing?