Although he wrote them in 1859, Charles Dickens might have been thinking of animation in 2016 when he penned the celebrated lines, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us…”
Once again, animated films accounted for a disporportionate share of the domestic box office. And once again, animated films failed to get the respect they deserve from the greater film community–although more and more studios seem eager to cash in on its popularity. Disney dominated the box office, with Zootopia, Finding Dory and Moana; The Jungle Book suggests that boundary between animation and live action has become increasingly hard to define.
The emphasis on trite-and-true storylines and formula — 11 talking animal films and two juke box musicals – made the original films look even better. Many of the latter provided welcome reminders of how protean a medium animation is: Kubo and the Two Strings, Miss Hokusai, Ma Vie de Courgette, Your Name., Phantom Boy and The Red Turtle.
Looking over a year that see-sawed between Light and Darkness, I’m once again presenting awards for the best and worst of 2016, named for the ultimate animation APM, Mikiko “Kuromi” Oguro.
AGE OF WISDOM DEPARTMENT
Wabbit season! /Duck season! /Awards season!
• In January, BAFTA nominated Inside Out, Minions and Shaun the Sheep the Movie for their feature animation award. Inside Out won.
• Inside Out deservedly won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature, but why wasn’t it nominated for Best Picture and Pete Docter for Best Director?
• Michael Dudok de Wit’s The Red Turtle won the special jury prize at Cannes, beating 17 live action films.
• A record-breaking 27 features were submitted for the Oscar for Animated Feature.
• As of this writing, Kubo and the Two Strings is leading Zootopia for the most awards from critics’ groups, while Zootopia scored 11 Annie nominations to Kubo’s 10.
• Kubo made the short list of films under consideration for the VFX Oscar, and Ma Vie de Courgette made the final nine for Foreign Language Film. Both Academy branches have a history of ignoring animation.
Laughing All the Way to the Bank
• DreamWorks’ Kung Fu Panda 3 took its opening weekend with $41 million and set a record in China with $58.3 million.
• Disney’s Zootopia opened to rave reviews and $75 million at the box office—a record for a Disney animated feature. In June, the film crossed the $1 billion mark worldwide. The Studio’s Moana opened over the Thanksgiving holiday to $81 million.
• In June, Pixar’s Finding Dory set a new record for the opening of an animated feature at $135 million. It stayed number one for three weekends in a row and broke the box office record for an animated film.
• April 28, ComCast announced plans to purchase DreamWorks Animation for $3.8 billion.
• Makoto Shinkai’s gender-bending feature Your Name earned over ¥20.8 billion (about US $178 million) at the box office in Japan. It was the first animated film to gross more than ¥10 Billion (~$96 Million USD) at the Japanese box office that wasn’t directed by Hayao Miyazaki.
More than cartoons
• In February, the Fukushima prefectural government released a series of animated documentaries depicting events that took place after the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, as well as the emotional effects the disaster had on people living in the area. The anthology is titled Letters to the Future – On Our Way There
• On International Women’s Day, the National Film Board of Canada announced that at least half of its productions will be directed by women and half of all its production spending will be allocated to films directed by women. The plan to acheive gender parity will be implemented over the next three years. The NFB has long been a champion of women in animation. Evelyn Lambert was one of its first artists, and NFB Oscar nominees and winners include Eunice MacCauley, Alison Snowden, Carolyn Leaf, Wendy Tillby, Amanda Forbis and Toril Kove.
• As part of their effort to encourage diversity, the Academy named Jennifer Yuh Nelson to the Board of Governors.
Happy Birthday to Morph, Wallace, Gromit…
In June, Peter Lord and David Sproxton marked the 40th anniversary of the Aardman Animation Studio. They also announced plans for a sequel to the delightful Shaun the Sheep movie.
Set the Tivo!
Genndy Tartakovsky went to work on a new season of Samurai Jack.
Get in Line for Tickets—NOW!
In the NHK television special Owaranai Hito Miyazaki Hayao (“The Man Who Is Not Done: Hayao Miyazaki”) in November, Miyazaki said he wanted to make another feature film—three years after retiring from directing features.
Eric Goldberg knocked it out of the park with his Simpsons couch gag that spoofed Snow White, Cinderella, Jungle Book and Fantasia.
Wait, There’s More
The stop-motion animation sequence in the otherwise pedestrian and muddled Little Prince evoked the poetry of Saint-Exupéry’s words and drawings.
ASIFA-Hollywood donated $20,000 to the Motion Picture Academy to help curate and document a trove of production artwork from Richard Williams’ epic The Thief and the Cobbler, including hand-painted cels, pencil animation, backgrounds, etc.
The handsome exhibit “Mel Shaw: An Animator on Horseback” opened at the Walt Disney Family Musuem on January 13. The Museum followed it in April with a blockbuster show about Pinocchio, curated by animation maven John Canemaker.
In November, Tonko House and Fox Animation announced plans to develop a feature film based on The Dam Keeper, the 2015 Academy Award-nominated animated short written and directed by Tonko House founders Robert Kondo and Daisuke “Dice” Tsutsumi.
• In an interview in February, director Mamoru Hosoda stated, “Animation is drawings. I don’t think of animation as an extension of live-action; it’s an extension of the arc of art history.” Hosoda won the Japanese Academy Prize for Animation of the Year for The Boy and the Beast—his fourth win.
• Miss Hokusai director Keiichi Hara said, “Printmaking of the Edo period is strikingly similar to the production process of hand-drawn animation. They are both the result of tight teamwork among very specialized craftsmen aimed at mass audiences; no original art survives, only reproductions. Publishers in the Edo era would decide on the project, select the staff, do the marketing–exactly like today’s animation producers. And like animators, Edo period printmakers, including Hokusai, were considered ‘artisans’ rather than ‘artists.’ I certainly don’t command Hokusai’s creative powers, but I like to consider myself an artisan, striving to make my way through an endless wilderness of white paper, holding nothing but my pencil.”
WINTER OF DESPAIR DEPARTMENT
Baby, it’s cold inside… the theaters
• Proving January is still a cinematic landfill, the first animated film of 2016 was the dismal Norm of the North. The film received a 0% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and went on to gross about $17 million.
• Faring even worse was the dire Canadian/Chinese game-based feature Ratchet & Clank, which grossed only $7.1 million in its first two weeks—in more than 2,600 theaters, rivaling the 2014 bomb Legends of Oz: Dorthy’s Return. Fighting it out for the bottom of the barrel was The Wild Life, which had a similarly ignominous run.
• Ice Age: Collision Course opened in 5th place in July with only $21 million and a 13% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Director Mike Thurmeier tweeted, “Welp, that didn’t go quite like I imagined it.” The film did much better overseas as all the previous installments have…for some reason.
• Monster Hunt, a weird CG/live action combination set a box office record in China. It flopped when it was released in the US in January.
For the Animated Feature Oscar, the Academy overlooked Minions, one of the biggest money makers of 2015, for smaller films—much as they overlooked Lego the year before. Then why did they have the Minions—characters who can’t really talk–anounce the winner for Animed Short?
In January, in a frank and articulate interview with NPR’s “Marketplace,” Chris Meledandri revealed that Fox had taken a $100 million write-down on Don Bluth’s Titan A.E. in 2000 (!).
In May, Sony and Rovio revealed they were spending $400 million to promote the Angry Birds movie—more than five times what the film cost, which was reported at about $73 million. Plans for a sequel were announced a few months later.
In March, Paramount abruptly dropped the release of the feature of The Little Prince a week before it was slated to open. Netflix picked it up, but it failed to attract viewers in America.
Another Reason to Stay Home Department
• In July, Legendary Entertainment announced it would launch the first live action Pokémon franchise with a “Detective Pikachu” movie slated for 2017.
• Redrover and Monlove announced plans for a Nut Job stage show to tour during four years in 100 countries, with merchanidse sold on site.
• A Secret Life of Pets sequel is scheduled for July, 2018.
• Disney announced plans to have John Favreau do a “reimagining” of The Lion King—plus a sequel. A few weeks later, they revealed that they were at work on a live action version of Snow White.
In November, a federal jury in Boston convicted catoonist Jayme Gordon of wire fraud and perjury. He had tried to sue Dreamworks for stealing the idea for Kung Fu Panda. To bolster his claim, he created fake concept art that supposedly dated back the early 1990s. Dreamworks’ lawyers discovered his “1992 artwork” was actually copied from a 1996 Lion King coloring book. He could face up to 25 years in prison.
Sausage Party grossed almost $100 million: There comes a point where a civilization deserves to fall.
Finally, to this writer for being curmudgeonly above and beyond the call of duty at times.