I’ve had a pretty anachronistic relationship with most of this year’s animated films. I’m understandably pretty despondent about the shift to ever less dangerous forms of storytelling within the medium, which seems to be congruous with the shift solely to computer-generated animated features from studios. Disney’s hand-drawn animation division is all but shut down, which is a sad statement for the company that previously pioneered the medium. It may not be such a bitter pill to swallow if the relative ease-of-access inherent in CG films didn’t result in less exciting or interesting films. Brave and Wreck-It Ralph were the sole CG representatives in last year’s Oscar batch, and most of the buzz leading up the awards circled the stop-motion nominees.
The year prior had A Cat in Paris and Chico and Rita vouching for a 2D resurgence which hasn’t yet stuck in the American industry. With the rest of the summer amounting to franchise efforts like Planes, Despicable Me 2, and the favorably, but not ecstatically, received Monsters University, originality is also a severe issue. Many site Pixar’s recent flux of sequels, which is crippling for a studio that’s prided quality over quantity in the past and thus only puts out one film a year. Their next two films are original efforts, the self-explanatory titled The Good Dinosaur and Up director Pete Doctor’s The Inside Out, which reads on paper as Inception for kids.
Of course therein lie probably the most essential problem, being that studios nowadays are making animated films almost solely with kids in mind. It’s what determines the success or failure of a marketing campaign, with most trailers for animated features looking dreadfully obnoxious without revealing the heart behind the films. It’s a tactic that’s worked for films like Kung Fu Panda and How to Train Your Dragon, because kids are raked in by the silly humor and adults follow to find something wholesome and honestly entertaining.
This year has been all too shy with its punches, rarely going the more subversive, potentially richer, route, but often still marginally surprising on its own standards. Take for example Epic, the latest from Blue Sky Studios who have lagged behind both Pixar and Dreamworks in divisions of quality and quantity, respectively. They’ve been riding their Ice Age franchise as mercilessly as Dreamworks has their Shrek films, so any original effort from them ought to be welcome. However while Rio was met with an unusual degree of positivity, Epic was received mildly by both the public and critics. While it’s a much better movie than it could have been, mostly riding on a witty father-daughter relationship that brings at least an iota of heart into play, it’s still not all that innovative in its storytelling. Still, light entertainment and occasional beauty are their own rewards.
The Croods has generally been met in much the same way, though audiences have taken to it far more than critics have. I was rather taken with it back in March and remain delightfully surprised by the thoughtfulness and texture on display in Dreamworks’ entertaining family film. That said, it does play off of a relatively predictable template, where characters essentially go from point-A to point-B. It does turn out to be more about the emotional and philosophical journeys the characters sweetly undergo throughout the film, but you can’t fault critics for taking the film at face-value. Dreamworks admittedly hasn’t done much lately to earn understanding from skeptical viewers, but their wavering standards does up the pleasure for when they do surprise. Many are pegging Turbo for an Animated Feature Oscar nod, but I wouldn’t be surprised if more favor is thrown behind this candidate.
That ultimately leads to Monsters University, which doesn’t have nearly the same high stakes as prior Pixar films, but it’s a prequel, so how can it? Many have called it out for mimicking the plot of Revenge of the Nerds, and that is the biggest thorn in the film’s side. For the first two acts they’re playing pretty strictly to formula, and as such many of the relationships are undercooked. Randall’s reappearance here is a particularly wasted opportunity, present more as an Easter egg for Monsters, Inc. fans than as a full-fledged character arc.
There’s a lot of that going around in Monsters University, with even Sulley being dealt with on a two-dimensional character basis. We get hints about his family life, but we never really see them. I don’t think anybody in college sees their parents less than Sulley and Mike, and I even came to wonder if Mike was an orphan. We used to rely on Pixar to fill in those gaps that other animated films would leave hollow, but here we only get hints. The greatest wealth of a prequel is in deeply fleshing out these characters, and it is interesting to see deeper shades to Mike’s character and what drives him. It gives a backbone to some of his actions in Monsters, Inc.
The film’s third act does go some distance to addressing the problems it started out with, and I may even go so far as saying it’s the only Pixar film whose climax actually serves as an effective character note. The main thing I was left wondering at the end, though, was why the film wasn’t as interesting throughout if they clearly had what it takes to make us emotionally invested. They withhold their strongest punch till the end, which is fine, but it makes everything else look lazy by comparison. Mind you, I still enjoyed much of it, but it adds up to the same sum as most other animated offerings this year. It’s okay, but how much more would it have demanded from them to make it great?
CG-animated films take usually three to four years to make, which could mean that they have the time to make proper story corrections if they need to, but also means it’s harder to once things are set in stone to a degree. Pixar has had difficulties in the past with this, often having made directorial switch-ups because their films weren’t advanced to the point they needed to be in production. It’s a reminder of the practical business aspects of it that may result in products that aren’t as fulfilling as they could have been. I’m not sure what can be done to change this, or if the change has already begun and we just won’t see the positive effects for another two years. Until then, we can at least get some slight mileage from amusing, but not thoroughly engaging, animated kiddie flicks, not to mention Studio Ghibli’s The Wind Rises and French animation Ernest & Celestine. We’ll know things are truly bad when a studio puts out another Rise of the Guardians rank lemon.
Side Note: The Blue Umbrella, Pixar’s customary short film companion to Monsters University, is absolutely gorgeous and sweetly romantic. Somebody at Pixar has seen Claire Denis’ Vendredi Soir (Friday Night), which gives me so much hope!