Animated Discussions
by Rudy Panucci and Melanie Larch

Earlier this year, we wrote about the glut of animated features stampeding into theatres and at the moment, we’re in the thick of that stampede. It’s been quite a mixed bag–the ultra low budget “Hoodwinked” exceeded box office expectations in January; Disney’s “The Wild” came and went with its only achievement being the footnote that, adjusted for inflation, it’s the worst-performing Disney animated feature of all time; “Ice Age 2” is considered a minor disappointment, but still topped the $150 million mark. Disney/Pixar’s “Cars” is humming along nicely and has already passed the $220 million mark in box office earnings. Most other animated films released this year sank like a stone, making barely a ripple at the boxoffice.

Which brings us to this week’s entry, “Monster House“, which brought in $23 million, good enough for second place at the box office this weekend. This haunted house story employs the same motion capture technology (and producers) used on “The Polar Express”, but instead of going for creepy photo realistic character designs, a more cartoony approach was used. By all accounts, the film is much more entertaining than its plodding, padded, Christmas-time predecessor. One other element that possibly contributes to the success of this movie is that the characters are human. It seems like half the computer animated features that have come out this year starred talking animals who all seem to share the same bland sense of design.

Next week, the competition for the family audience heats up further with the release of Warner Brothers “The Ant Bully“, produced by Tom Hanks and featuring character designs that look remarkably similar to Dreamworks 1998 cartoon “Antz.” This movie tells the story of a sadistic young bully who burns ants with a magnifying glass, then finds himself shrunk down to their size. This film comes out of the studio that gave us “Jimmy Neutron Boy Genius.” We don’t know how well this one will fare, with “Monster House” going strong and “Cars” still in the top ten.

The first week of August, things get ridiculous. Nickelodeon Films releases “Barnyard“, featuring even more talking animals, this time brought to life by some different members of the crew that did “Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius”. We can’t imagine what these studios were thinking, releasing three computer animated family films on three consecutive weeks. It will be a real test of the family film market as the studios scramble to get their kid flicks in theatres before school starts. It’ll be a shock if “The Barnyard” manages to draw more than $20 million total at the box office.

One other problem with the glut of animated feature films coming out this year is that so many of them look alike. Computer animation is no longer cutting edge. It’s become a cliche’. That’s why Disney/Pixar’s John Lasseter has very quietly re-started Disney’s traditional animation unit. Apparently, going back to old style animation is going to be the only way to get noticed in the future.