Why ‘Tangled,’ ‘Megamind’ and more animate the box office

[10 December 2010]

By Robert W. Butler

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

A family friend who works in Hollywood reports that today it’s virtually impossible to get a major studio to back a film that isn’t already pre-sold.

For the big boys to take a chance on a project, it must be a sequel, a comic book spin-off or an adaptation of an old TV show. It has to be in a popular genre — like science fiction or raunchy comedy — or it has to have one of a handful of stars guaranteed (well, more or less guaranteed) to put fannies in the seats.

Or it has to be animation.

Especially animation.

It’s hard to believe that little over 20 years ago the movie industry was writing off feature animation as an economic and cultural dead end with no future. Now it’s an unstoppable juggernaut.

The current box office champ is “Tangled,” Disney’s hip interpretation of the Rapunzel fairy tale, which has earned $100 million in two weeks.

But even a cursory look at each week’s box office champs over the last year shows that animation rules.

“Toy Story 3.” “Shrek Forever After.” “How to Train Your Dragon.” “Despicable Me.” “Megamind.” Not to mention the all-time box office champ, “Avatar,” which was, for all intents and purposes, an animated movie.

These titles almost always debut at No. 1 and often cling to that slot for two or three weeks before settling comfortably into the Top 10 for the long haul. Their box office reigns usually end only with the DVD release 90 days or so down the line.

The reasons for animation’s supremacy are obvious. Animated films are usually aimed at the whole family, which means that for every kid who needs a ticket you get at least one full-price adult admission. And animated films get repeat business.

Animated films are popular because they’re fun. A successful animated movie mixes humor (and as the “Shrek” series has shown, the laughs can get cerebral) with effective storytelling and just enough heart.

Of course, not every animated movie is a runaway success, as was proven by underperforming titles like “Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole,” “Alpha & Omega,” “Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore” and “Delgo.”

The failure of these efforts may have something to do with the audience’s lack of familiarity with the material (in other words, they weren’t pre-sold). More important, I think, is that they just weren’t entertaining movies, something viewers picked up just from watching the trailers.

I’m particularly heartened by the audience’s acceptance of animated films that introduce serious content into the usual mix of adventure, fun and games.“Up” dabbled in death and aging. “Toy Story 3” was practically an existential manifesto (do toys cease to exist when they’re no longer loved by a child?).

But most successful animated features, despite the variety of their stories and characters, remain variations on a carefully circumscribed theme. They tend to radiate an all’s-well-in-the-end optimism. In other words, a happy ending.

That comforting sameness is one reason that animated films are so popular, and why at some point, I fear, the movie-going public could grow disenchanted with them. Too much of a good thing.

I’m left wondering when I’ll see an animated movie that will genuinely rock my world, that will point the genre in an entirely new direction. Hollywood certainly seems reluctant to go there.

Oh, there have been stabs.

Features like “Coraline,” “9” and “The Secret of Kells” take a quirky high-art approach to animation. But they had narrative problems and an unfulfilling emotional aridness.

One of the best animated features of recent years was the Israeli “Waltz With Bashir,” one man’s surreal trip into his past as a soldier in the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. It was a great movie about youth, war, guilt and memory — and American audiences were resolutely uninterested. Their loss.

Nonetheless, animation may be our most promising cinematic form — both artistically and financially. My advice to young filmmakers: Forget about working with an expensive actor.

Tell your story through animation. That’s the future.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/article/134707-why-tangled-megamind-and-more-animate-the-box-office/