2014 in animation

Frozen2013 was a great year for animation from a financial point of view, with a number of animated releases that brought in huge amounts of money for their respective studios: Despicable Me 2 (Illumination) was ranked third for box office earnings in the US and first in the UK, while Frozen (Disney), Monsters University (Pixar) and The Croods (Dreamworks) were also very successfu all around the world. It was not, however, a great year for animation from a quality point of view: once again, we were given sequels and formulaic CGI adventures, very little innovation happened, whether in storytelling or visuals, and big American studios went for the safe, while independent animation did not produce a stand-out film (except for Ernest and Celestine, which was, in fact, a 2012 release in its home country).

What can we expect, then, from 2014 in animation? I, for one, expect to get an answer to at least some of the following questions:
What will happen to Pixar? While Pixar has had years without a release before, the recent closing of their Canada studio and layoffs at the main hub related to their troubled Good Dinosaur production are worrying. (www.awn.com/news/pixar-undergoes-layoffs-following-good-dinosaur-delay) I can’t be the only person thinking that maybe Disney is considering phasing out the Pixar brand, now that they have John Lasseter and a few recent successes of their own under their belt, which have been hailed as a new renaissance of the Mouse House (let’s remember that when Disney first bought Pixar, the latter was by far the more successful). Does Disney still need Pixar? Aren’t two animation studios that produce, essentially, the same product for the same market (CGI family movies) cannibalizing each other? Pixar won’t have a film in 2014, but I have a feeling we will get a better picture on where they’re standing this year regardless.

Will Disney finally win boys on its side? The only way to find a young male willing to watch „Frozen” with me was to literally pay him. That is, in a nutshell, everything you need to know about the reputation of Disney animation (girly princess movies with girly songs that boys are embarrassed to even mention). And yet, Disney has been trying for a long time to win this very audience that despises them- young males, sometimes by tailoring their marketing to them (see: the re-titling and re-packaging of old-fashioned princess musicals Tangled, originally Rapunzel, and Frozen, originally The Snow Queen, as adventure movies in trailers) or by making films for them all the way (see, or, better still, don’t see: the terrible flops Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Treasure Island). Why is Disney so unhappy with its (fairly large) audience of young kids and girls? Why do they see boys as a higher bar to clear? Why aren’t they putting more effort into providing fresh and less retrograde stories to their already established female audience, instead of sticking with sparkly princess stuff? In any case, this year, they are aiming for the much-desired teen male audience again with Big Hero 6, an adaptation of a manga-inspired Marvel property. Just what we were missing: another superhero movie.


big hero 6 concept art

Will Laika finally live up to its promise? The only US-made animated feature of 2014 that sounds interesting is coming from stop-motion studio Laika, which previously produced Coraline and Paranorman. Laika films are bound to look amazing (a fact they are not shy to emphasize in their promotional teasers), but story-wise, they always fell a bit short: both Coraline and Paranorman chose exciting, dark stories, but the studio seemed to be afraid to take them all the way and decided instead to cram „family-friendly” jokes in them (which were not particularly funny). Their new production, Boxtrolls, looks more like a family comedy from the beginning, but the question is: will Laika finally match their technical artistry with similarly exquisite storytelling, or will Boxtrolls be another not-quite-there film?

When will the sassy talking animals in CGI trend die out? Perhaps I’m asking for too much,though, considering that before that we had a sassy talking animals in 2D trend. Still, one can always hope that Hollywood animation will eventually develop a trend that does not include sassy talking animals. And judging by the success of Disney’s short „Paperman”, we can hope for some variation in visuals even for CGI in the near future. There are still no „grown-up” animated projects on the Hollywood horizon, though.

Will Studio Ghibli find a way to continue the magic or will they become an anime studio like any other? Disney has chosen to market Hayao Miyazaki’s „The Wind Rises” in 2014 through their Touchstone label instead of Disney Animation, an acknowledgement that they are dealing with a more grown-up and artistically accomplished film than the average animated feature. This is, however, Miyazaki’s last film, and the other prominent Studio Ghibli director, Isao Takahata, is pushing 80. While Miyazaki has announced his retirement on previous occasions, only to come back again (Howl’s Moving Castle and Ponyo were also supposed to be „his last film”), there’s no denying that Studio Ghibli desperately needs new blood. Hayao’s son Goro („Tales from Earthsea”, „From up on Poppy Hill”) did not prove himself to be quite up to the task. In 2014, Ghibli will release „When Marnie Was There”, an adaptation of a British children’s book directed by Yonebashi Hiromasa, who previously made „The Secret World of Arriety”.

when marnie was there

Arriety was not a bad film by any means, but it was not magical and awesome in the way Studio Ghibli’s best films are, either. So perhaps 2014’s „Marnie” will provide some clues on whether Ghibli will find a way to keep the magic alive (it’s unlikely it will reach us this year, but the Internet and festivals buzz will let us know in advance). And, by the way: will we get a Western release for Isao Takahata’s The Tale of Princess Kaguya (an adaptation of a Japanese myth with a completely different visual style than any anime I’ve seen), or will it be deemed „too Japanese”?

Will crowdfunding produce a project that manages to rival traditional funding? By now it has become clear that the filmmakers who come on top on crowdfunding platforms such as Kickstarter are usually established names betting on their previous popularity, so I’m not saving much hope for a totally new animator having a significant breakthrough with the aid of such methods. Even so, it would still be interesting for a crowdfunded animated project to gain as much attention as one funded by a major studio or TV network. It could be the start of a new paradigm in production. The most likely candidate seems to be „Bee and Puppycat” by Adventure Time artist Natasha Allegri, which has gathered around 800 000 $ for 9 episodes through Kickstarter.

As a final note, let us mention that Donald Duck, one of world’s most famous cartoon characters (and which I always preferred to Mickey Mouse) is due to turn 80 in 2014, a year in which comics publisher Fantagraphics is due to release two deluxe-edition volumes of Donald Duck stories, one by Carl Barks and one by Don Rosa.

boxtrolls poster

Animated films I’m looking forward to in 2014: Boxtrolls (Laika, US; release date: UK- 12 Sept, USA- 26 Sept, Romania- 31 Oct), The Wind Rises (Studio Ghibli, Japan; release date: 21 Feb-US, to be announced-Europe), Song of The Sea (Ireland, from „Secret of Kells” director Tomm Moore; release date: late 2014). Also worth a watch: Tante Hilda (France, release date: 21 Feb), Little from the Fish Shop (Czech Republic, directed by Jan Balej, whose „One Night in One City” won Best Feature at Anim’Est in 2007).