LOS ANGELES — At this point, it’s more notable when a new animated movie doesn’t win the box office than when it does. The latter has been happening a lot lately. In a winter-spring period when few movies have mobilized us to the theater, animated movies have been the exception.
No film demonstrated that better than “Rio,” Carlos Saldanha’s fish-out-of-water story (with a bird), which just took in $40 million on its U.S. opening weekend, the first time in 2011 any picture has done that. (It’s already piled on $168 million overseas.) And the movie’s U.S. run appears to be just getting going. North American filmgoers gave the Brazil-set, Jesse Eisenberg-voiced picture an “A” on CinemaScore, suggesting that many more of us will continue to come out in the weeks that follow.
The movie’s success is hardly unique among the computer-imaged animal set. Before “Rio,” the opening-weekend figure to beat this year, according to Box Office Mojo, belonged to “Rango,” the Johnny Depp-voiced western about an outcast chameleon. Not far behind that was “Hop,” the hybrid Easter comedy that demonstrated the power of animation: The movie got people into theaters despite the presence of Russell Brand.
Animation has been increasing as a part of our moviegoing diet for a while now. In 2010, animated movies made up fully half of the box-office top 10, the first time that’s ever happened. So far this year, the above trio of animated releases opened stronger than movies featuring Justin Bieber, Adam Sandler and a superhero. Tweens, comedy lovers and fanboys may be considered the most prized constituencies in moviedom, but none of them turn out like an animated film’s core audience.
Why has the category become so dominant? For one, supporters point out, filmmaking talent has migrated there. There are a lot more animated movies than ever, and they are, on the whole, better than ever. Once a monolithic niche, animation now boasts not only Pixar at the top of its game but a Fox division firing on all cylinders (“Rio”), a DreamWorks Animation finding its stride post-“Shrek” and even live-action filmmakers, such as Gore Verbinski, the “Pirates of the Caribbean” director who helmed “Rango” with the producing help of Graham King, a key force behind “The Departed.”
Animation also has an audience advantage that no other movie category can claim. Most live-action films need to choose between adults and kids. But come up with an animated movie with, say, some exotic beauty and clever wordplay — as many reviewers, including The Times’ Betsy Sharkey, believed “Rio” did — and you instantly double your demographic.
Yet more interesting than why animation has succeeded is how Hollywood responds to that success. On the face of it, the major movie studios should be ramping up animation development and curtailing nearly everything else. Even the superhero movie, thought to be an all-audience genre, has lately been showing itself as anything but (witness the comparatively low numbers for “The Green Hornet” and puzzlement thus far by non-fanboys concerning “Green Lantern”). Animation also readily lends itself to 3-D, giving it an added ticket-price boost.
So how much will Hollywood up its animation efforts? The reason studios have historically held back is because it can take a lot longer to mount an animated production than it does a feature — as much as three or four years versus one or two for a live-action film.
That, however, is starting to change. Illumination Entertainment, the company behind “Hop,” has a penchant for working quicker than some of the others; not even a year had gone by from the time Illumination decide to make its bunny movie to the time we saw it in theaters. It worked out, though not without some stress and, to the director’s eye, elements on the screen that were less than perfect.
No doubt the success of all these animated films will push studios to go harder and faster. Given the way we’ve snapped up the latest batch of films, it’s a smart move. Still, there’s an argument for going slowly. After all, what makes animated movies desirable is precisely that we aren’t bombarded with a new one every week, while those that we do get come out fully cooked. Pixar has earned its stellar reputation by taking a long time to develop and perfect its offerings. It would be a shame, now that animated movies have become more profitable by becoming so good, if they start to be churned out so quickly to become more profitable.