Let's Fix the Animation Scene Part 1: Theatrical Films

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A common complaint I hear every year when any award show for films pops up is that no matter who is nominated, the combination of Disney/Pixar is always going to win. While I definitely shrug my shoulders, and sort of agree with the masses who are tired of seeing Pixar or Disney win, there is a reason why they are consistent winners every year. Yes, there are a few years where I thought there were better films, but for the most part, Disney as a whole constantly earns and deserves the massive praise and success. It has led to me wanting to talk about this situation, but it’s a gigantic task at hand. What can I talk about? Is it right to give Disney and Pixar so much flack? Is it really their fault for no one else being able to compete?

I mean, I don’t normally like commenting on topics with hot takes, because hot takes are a terrible way to form an argument, because it shows you put an unintelligible effort into your comment. Instead, I’m going to do a cool take, which is more thought-out, and worth talking about. So, for this situation, this is my cool take, it’s not Disney/Pixar’s fault for having way more success than everyone else! Listen, they don’t always earn it. I think the Oscars from the years 2012 to 2014 should have gone to different Best Animated Feature films, but instead of blaming Disney for other studios not being able to compete, maybe it’s not all Disney’s fault? To me, Disney and Pixar are being smart with their films, and are constantly making films that people keep coming back to. Maybe the industry needs to start stepping up to the plate. For this editorial, I’m going to talk about how certain parts of the film industry can be improved with “optimistic solutions” as to how they can compete with Disney and Pixar. The first part will be about the industry, and how the other big studios can take some steps into getting on the level of Disney and Pixar’s success. The second part will be tackling the indie/foreign scene, and the final part will be tackling the Oscars. Let’s get started!

Don’t Chase Trends/Find Your Own Identity!

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Let’s cut to the chase. As much as other studios want to be the next big Pixar and or Disney animation studio, there is only one Pixar and one Disney. This happens a lot when you see other studios lock their eyes on a film or franchise that becomes a massive hit, and they want to follow that success with their own take. We saw this with Warner Bros and Don Bluth in the 90s trying to follow Disney’s massive money train. DreamWorks consistently took cynical jabs at Disney, and tried to follow up a Disney or Pixar film with their own take on the basic set-up. Heck, DreamWorks tried to copy Illumination Entertainment’s success with Home. In the end, when you try to chase a trend, and it’s not executed well, people are going to catch on quickly. What studios need to do is to find their own identity. Disney and Pixar have their identities with interesting takes on fairy tales and family films with timeless topics, writing, and characters. DreamWorks has suffered with an identity for years, but always has a consistent identity when they make good character-driven films. Studio Ghibli flips anime onto its head by being so anti-anime with more western ideals and less focus on what makes anime in Japan popular. Science Saru has their own simple, yet stretchy visuals that would rather the movements look good and fluid, rather than how much detail they can put into each character. Laika makes mature family films using stop-motion. Aardman makes charming and well-written animated features. Warner Bros. Animation Group has made consistently entertaining and very funny comedies with heart. Heck, the identities you can give to Blue Sky and Illumination Entertainment as their claim to fame is that they don’t really have one. That is its own problem, but still. When I watch a film by a certain studio, I want to be able to point out that this film is from that studio. Variety is the spice of life, and competition is good. Be your own creative filmmakers. I know having your own identity can come from many elements, like having certain writers and directors at your beck and call, but I still stand that you should make sure you stick out. The worst thing you can do is be a forgettable studio.

Don’t Half-bake Your Overall Plots

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So, most of the time, the big budget animated films are comedies with some story attached to them. Okay, that’s fine. There is nothing wrong with being more about the jokes than the story. However, what seems to happen to many films is that they know and have seen Disney and Pixar films, but only follow the base steps of their plots to put into their own plots. For example, last year, there were probably more films made that had no real idea how to make their stories emotionally connect with the audience. Despicable Me 3 has a slew of potential story arcs for their characters, but either don’t do anything with them, or do only the bare minimum in execution. Ferdinand has some of the more emotionally gripping and interesting story and character moments out of Blue Sky’s films, but they still threw in so much of their bad family film pandering elements, that makes it frustrating to watch. The Emoji Movie doesn’t even bother to try anything to be more complex, have some kind of clever commentary about social media or the young generation who do act like they are glued to their phones. Cars 3, a film from Pixar themselves comes so close to making it one of their best films, but fumbles when having the villains have more to them than their simple traits. The Boss Baby might be heavy on the creative visuals and a lot of fun humor, but it lacks emotional stakes, because I do not care about the characters, and they try so hard to force the family bond on the two leads. Lego Ninjago and My Little Pony dump out what made their respective properties fun and entertaining, and their films are fun, but they lack substance. It’s fine if you want to be more about story, be more about the comedy, or be a mixture of both. Just put in the mental power that you would if you were working on a film you cared about. Don’t treat it like a paycheck film.

Find your own designs/animation style!

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While this could go into the identity part of the list, I feel like this was worthy of its own entry on the editorial. A problem that I see studios have is that their films are all visually similar, and fail to show off the distinct style that only that studio has. You can tell when you are seeing an Aardman film. You can tell when you are seeing a Disney film. You can tell when you are seeing a Laika film. You can tell when you are seeing a Ghibli film. Heck, even Illumination had learned from this, and you can tell by their designs when you are watching their films. DreamWorks and Blue Sky are constantly changing their styles for better or for worse, and they don’t make me think “oh man! This is a film by those guys!” You don’t even need to spend massive amounts of money. In terms of animation budgets, if you can’t get as much as other studios, get creative. That’s why people were so impressed with Captain Underpants. It looked impressive for a film that had a budget of $30 million. Even other studios overseas are finding ways to get creative with their small budgets. Sure, some will still look awful, but the ones that stick out, found a way to make their films work with creative visuals and smart writing. You would be amazed at how many foreign animated films trade big budgets for creative visuals, and focus more on writing. Just be careful about what textures you use as well. If you are going use more realistic textures and designs, then don’t do cartoony movements and reactions. Leap! is a good example of this, because it had pretty decent CGI animation, but due to the odd choice to have realistic textures and somewhat more realistic designs, any time a cartoony reaction happened, it looked creepy. Make sure you have got a visual style you can call your own.

Not Everything Needs To Be a Comedy!

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Listen, I get why most animated films are comedies. I know that’s a very popular genre of film that can easily be taken advantage of with animation, due to its limitless potential. However, not everything needs to be a comedy. The worst part about this is if you are a comedy, and you don’t measure up to the other animated comedies of that year, I’m going to forget about you. It’s like how the game industry is trying to make “live services” a thing. When a better “live service” comes around, I’m going to go to that one instead. Same goes for animation. Once a better comedy comes around, I’m going to watch that comedy more than yours. I have done that plenty of times with the films from 2017. Spice things up a bit and try out different genres. Why do you think people still love talking about Kubo and the Two Strings, UP, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Isle of Dogs, Inside Out, Kung Fu Panda 1-3, The LEGO Movie, How to Train your Dragon, or Wolf Children? While they have their own comedic elements that work out for them, they still fall back heavily on writing, characters, action, and story. Just because it’s an animated feature, doesn’t mean that you can’t be an action film, a thriller, a horror film, a rom-com, or whatever. Don’t box yourselves into one genre. Don’t make a comedy for the sake of making one.  

Thanks for reading part 1! Next time, we will talk about the foreign/indie side of animation!