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Is animation developing a success-quality gap?

March 29, 2010 | 10:06 am

Dra With the $43.3-million opening of "How to Train Your Dragon," the animation category, as it does seemingly every year, continues to outdo itself.

In 2006, four animated movies reached the magic mark of $100 million in domestic box office. In 2007, five films did. Last year, no fewer than eight movies topped that figure. It's starting to feel a little like the latter stages of Wayne Gretzky's 92-goal season: The only record it keeps breaking is its own.

With installments in powerhouse franchises like "Shrek" and "Toy Story" coming this summer, and new additions to the canon such as "Despicable Me," 2010 promises to be another banner year at the box office for the category.

But as animation continues to mature, the success doesn’t apply equally. In fact, it seems to apply unequally. And, from a quality standpoint, it tends to favor the lesser movies.

Sure, Pixar has its annual blockbuster, an "Up" or an "Incredibles" that is also exceedingly well-reviewed. But a look at the larger history shows a notable pattern, one in which audiences tend to more tightly embrace movies that critics tend to push away.

"Shrek 2" and "Shrek the Third,” for instance, are two of the most profitable animated films in the category's history (they sit at No. 1 and No. 4, respectively, in all-time domestic box office), even as they drew lukewarm reviews. Critics' favorites like "Coraline" and "Wallace & Gromit?" They’re way down at Nos. 61 and 75. (The latter two each cracked 80% on movie-review site Metacritic, surpassing the middling reception for the two "Shrek" sequels.)

True, some of these lesser-performing films were given different marketing budgets and release patterns.  But you pretty much can't orchestrate a better test case than the one completed this past weekend, when DreamWorks Animation's "How to Train Your Dragon" opened on the same weekend as "Monsters vs. Aliens" the year prior. Here were two animated films from the same studio, released on the same weekend exactly one year apart, both in 3-D. And yet, despite drawing far weaker reviews, "Monsters & Aliens" grossed about 30% more. (It is telling that "Dragon" received an 'A' on CinemaScore -- even though not as many moviegoers went to see the film as the studio had hoped, those that did really liked it.)

There's also a whole tier of middling animated films -- "Bee Movie" and "Chicken Little" and "Over the Hedge" -- that seem to have no problem grossing $125 million or more. And even among the Pixar hits, the higher-quality films tend to lag relative to their more mediocre counterparts; "Ratatouille" and "Wall-E," for instance, both didn't fare as well as "Cars."

We shouldn’t be entirely surprised by this gap -- live-action films, after all, have seen audiences' and critics' tastes diverging for years. But animation was supposed to be an exception. It was possible to create great films that also happened to be huge money-earners, the business' stalwarts kept reminding us (and as the landmark best-picture nomination for "Up" this year confirmed).

Turns out it's not that simple. You can create really good animated films but, as a rule, you'll have more success if your films aren't that great. Animation is like everything else, a little less like Gretzky and more like a solid right-wing, fallible and prone to foibles.

-- Steven Zeitchik

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Comments () | Archives (10)

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Oh, please. There have been a lot of really bad animated films that got killed.
"Home on the Range", anyone?
If IMDB is accurate it cost $110,000,000 to make, and made less than half of
it back in the US. It scores a 50 on the metacritic site.

A film, animated or otherwise, needs to first have story that appeals to those
who are watching it. Next, it needs to be delivered in an acceptable way.
First season of South park quality is not usually going to cut it in the theater.
And it has to be available to its audience and that audience needs to know that
the film exists and there must not be something else they prefer to watch/do
instead.

The formula is quite tricky given Hollywood's thought patterns that if we will
buy it once, we will buy it again and again even if they cut a few corners.

Quality is also a nebulous term given that the audience is NOT the critic for
many of these films. A critic that can properly relate to the mindset of a
child, as opposed to being childish and petulant, is rare.

Its "Despicable Me" that is coming out this year not "Desperate Me"

It's an unfortunate little trend, but if the result is a higher awareness of the medium from the public and an increased sensitivity to critically-astounding projects from studio executives, I won't complain.

DWA's HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON is quite easily their best feature animation production to date, but would they have hit this landmark if they hadn't produced a series of lackluster sequels to their other franchises before it, or if Katzenburg hadn't been pushing so hard for 3D, or if Sanders hadn't been booted from working on Disney's BOLT? It's part of the medium's evolutionary curve, for the U.S., at least.

The good gets better and the bad becomes more mediocre. But with this in mind, the blame doesn't rest with the business of features production, rather, it rests with moviegoers who clearly don't know any better...

"Shrek 2" and "Shrek the Third,” for instance, are two of the most profitable animated films in the category's history (they sit at No. 1 and No. 4, respectively, in all-time domestic box office), even as they drew lukewarm reviews. "

Uh, you mean that kids, who had watched "Shrek" on DVD a gagillion times...per WEEK, would be brought in droves to see the sequels to this movie? Duh! That's surprising?

So long as you make an animated movie with interesting, funny characters, kids will watch incessantly. Then, once the DVD gets scratched - which happens regularly with a few kids around - it's time to buy yet another copy.

Hmm, would you please explain again why animated movies, directed toward kids, make money? It's not a tough formula to understand. One only has to spend a few moments trying to find something in pop culture that is kid friendly - shows, movies, commercials (!) - to come to the realization why these flicks gross huge dollars.

For the record, both Wall-e AND Ratatouille outperformed Cars at the worldwide box office.

Ratatouille: $623,707,397
Wall-e: $521,311,813
Cars: $461,983,149

Animation in the U.S. is still largely perceived as a kid's medium. Ratatouille or Wall-E or Ponyo vs. Monsters? Aliens? Slime? Goofy critters (Madagascar, Hedge, Ice Age, etc.)?

With kids, slapstick beats serious every time. Finding the right mix is every animation studio's dream. Kill the wabbit.

Sorry Mr. Zeitchik, but the customers (movie viewers) determine the quality of a film by either watching it, or ignoring it.

Not the critics at RottenTomatoes.

How can you talk about Dreamworks without mentioning Kung Fu Panda once? A respectable 89% at RT, a much better MetaCritic score than MvA and and the only non-Shrek Dreamworks film to make more than $200 million at the domestic box office.

Also, what about Up? 98% at RT, $293 million at the domestic box office, more than any other Pixar film except Finding Nemo, yet you mention the film exactly once in passing.

How can you talk about the inverse relationship between critical acclaim and box office success and not bring these films up? It's the height of not doing the research.

This is ridiculous. Shrek 2 has an excellent 88% on rottentomatoes. Plus it has a wide appeal which allowed it to do so well. And with animated movies, more often that not quality always wins out. How to Train your dragon has been holding up much better than Monsters vs Aliens and is on track to beat it.

And i don't understand your definition of quality. Over the Hedge has a 74% on rottentomatoes better than some oscar nominated movies.

Overall i think quality in animated movies continues to be several notches higher than the typical drivel produced by Hollywood.

I partially agree with the writer but at the same time. The content is the king, If there is an audience for live action content, so be it. There will always be consumers for Animation. And above all, we shouldn't discount the effect technology has brought to the whole film experience. Be it creating the content, doing the pre-production or post-production, technology has made the process easier, faster and better.


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