Once upon a time, animated films for kids represented some of the most innovative work coming out of Hollywood.
The technical achievements in CGI that Pixar ushered in with 1995’s Toy Story, coupled with a fresh new way of telling stories that had both sharp humor and emotional depth, marked a paradigm shift from the classic 2D fairytales that dominated the genre. In 2001, DreamWorks Animations’ Shrek pushed the narrative even further with its cheeky tone and sophisticated humor that redefined what an animated comedy, ostensibly for kids, could be. It also took home the Oscar in the Academy’s inaugural Best Animated Feature category. For much of the early aughts, Pixar dominated the CGI-animation landscape with a string of critical and commercial hits, including Monsters, Inc.; Finding Nemo; and The Incredibles. But there was also competition from 20th Century Fox’s Blue Sky (Ice Age), Universal’s Illumination (Despicable Me), and Pixar’s own parent company’s Walt Disney Animation (Frozen, Wreck-It Ralph).
As a genre, 3D animation was a new force to be reckoned with, raking in billions at the worldwide box office.
But in the past few years, 3D animation has started to look more like the greater Hollywood landscape, becoming more and more dominated by uninspired sequels and a sense of dull sameness. The latest sequels to films like Shrek, Ice Age, and Toy Story have morphed into cash grabs. For every fresh, imaginative offering like Frozen, Zootopia, or Inside Out, there are just as many desperate examples of studios trying to kick-start a franchise from existing IP with dismal results (see: The Angry Birds Movie, The Emoji Movie, UglyDolls). Twenty-five years after Toy Story injected the genre with a vibrant new visual and narrative energy, 3D animation at the big studios just isn’t the groundbreaking art form it once was.
“Big-budget studio films have been a very generic place for a long time,” says Sam Summers, a researcher in animated film at the University of Sunderland in the United Kingdom. “But what a lot of big animation fans would say is that they would want to see a bigger range of technique on the big screen—not just different styles in the CGI films, but more hand-drawn films and more stop-motion films. The only place that that’s really being done is in independent and international animation.”
Independent animation houses like the Oregon-based Laika have experimented with expansive CGI/stop-motion hybrid worlds in such films as 2016’s Kubo and the Two Strings and this year’s Missing Link. Poland’s BreakThru Productions made a name for itself when with Loving Vincent, which chronicles Vincent van Gogh’s final days via 65,000 oil paintings painstakingly created by more than 100 artists. It was nominated for an Oscar, as was 2016’s My Life as a Zucchini, a co-production among Switzerland’s Rita Productions and France’s Blue Spirit Productions and Gebeka Films, and 2017’s The Breadwinner, from Ireland’s Cartoon Saloon, both bold breaks from conventional storytelling for children.
“You can’t out-Pixar Pixar,” says David Jesteadt, president of indie animation distributor GKids, which released The Breadwinner, as well as several other Oscar nominees, including Song of the Sea and Ernest & Celestine. “These studios are so good at creating films that are meaningful to incredibly broad audiences. And while I think that they create great films with that mandate, that does provide some natural limitations in terms of the kind of things that you can do before you start worrying about narrowing the potential audience. For us, it’s focusing on films that have really strong, authorial visions from the directors and the writers and producers who feel like they have something meaningful to say with a distinctive artistic style.”
These animated films made outside the traditional U.S. studio system tend to have freer rein to take chances on both story and style, but their artistic merits aren’t always reflected commercially. For example, the combined global box office grosses of The Breadwinner, My Life as a Zucchini, Kubo and the Two Strings, Missing Link, and Loving Vincent is $147 million. Compare that to Pixar’s lowest grossing movie ever, The Good Dinosaur, which topped out with $332 million worldwide.
Moreover, more robust subsidies for animated films abroad (particularly in Europe) help foster a more fertile alternative to the U.S. where Disney and Universal’s Illumination dominate. GKids, which is the official distributor of Japan’s famed Studio Ghibli films in North America, has long been a key player in bringing these foreign-grown films to the States.
But the rise of streaming has helped give animation a wider platform. Netflix has created an alternative venue where a film can reach a large audience without the high costs of distribution and advertising of a traditional theatrical. In the streaming universe, any individual title doesn’t have to produce hundreds of millions in revenue to justify its cost; it’s about discovery and engagement and being the motivating factor for a driven niche to sign up for or keep a subscription. That’s why HBO Max announced this week that it had acquired the rights to stream the Studio Ghibli films.
“What streaming has enabled,” says Chris Butler, the writer-director of Missing Link, “is for people to make more creative gambles and still have it seen by a large group of people.”
Digging for deeper stories
None of these movies would be worth the price of admission (or your streaming subscription) if they didn’t tell compelling stories that you’d be hard-pressed to find in their big-budget studio counterparts.
Laika’s 2012 film ParaNorman featured the first openly gay character in a mainstream animated film with Mitch, a burly, sports-loving teen who just happens to be gay. The Breadwinner tells the story of an 11-year-old Afghan girl whose father is arrested by the Taliban and who, to provide for her family, poses as a boy.
Director Nora Twomey wasn’t interested in making a heavy political film. She just wanted to make a movie with themes that any kid could relate to. “Afghanistan has such an incredibly complicated geopolitical history. I didn’t want to make a documentary,” she said in a previous interview with Fast Company. “I wanted to make a story about family and the strength of one young girl, and the idea of hope and what you do when your whole world falls apart. For me, these were the most important things.”
My Life as a Zucchini centers on a little boy who accidentally kills his drunk and abusive mother. Having no other relatives, he’s shuttled off to an orphanage, where he finds a new sense of home with the other kids coping with their own traumas, including drug-addicted parents or parents who were arrested for being undocumented immigrants.
Films like ParaNorman, The Breadwinner, and My Life as a Zucchini are just a few examples of how these alternative animated films are able to go deeper than most major studio films that are beholden to the age-old “four-quadrant” model of appealing to, basically, everyone. As heavy as the subject matter may seem, those movies aren’t weighted down by cultural politics or themes too adult for kids to digest. They’re honest portrayals of many kids’ real experiences that are still imbued with a heartwarming fuzzy feeling.
Pushing beyond the “Pixar visual model”
It’s not just the storytelling, of course. It’s also these movies’ unparalleled visual artistry.
While a small number of animated studio movies have diverted from the so-called “Pixar visual model”—The Lego Movie and The Peanuts Movie had unique styles that reflected their source materials—a quick scroll through the last decade of animated features produced outside the studio system gives you a sense of just how innovative children’s animation can be. There’s the watercolor-inspired palate of France’s 2012 Oscar-nominated import Ernest & Celestine, the breathtaking Studio Ghibli catalog, and hand-drawn masterpieces like 2014’s Irish tale Song of the Sea. “In mainstream animation, to all intents and purposes, the studio is the auteur,” Summers says. “Whereas in independent animation, there is no model.”
While Laika has been pushing the boundaries of stop-motion animation since its first feature Coraline in 2009, each feature has its own look. “We don’t really want to have a house style other than it’s beautifully handcrafted,” says Missing Link writer and director Chris Butler. “Apart from that, we want every movie to have its own unique look and feel. That’s what what we aspire to—with every movie, to make something that you haven’t seen before in this medium.”
From rapid prototyping and 3D-printed models to coating each tuft of clay-modeled Sasquatch hair in silicone to achieve the right movement to making history in costume design, Laika strives to elevate the artistry of stop motion.
“If you think about any other medium in film, there’s always an effort to push it to the next place, to use whatever is technologically available to drive that medium forward,” Butler says. “And I think stop-motion has suffered a little bit because it hasn’t done the same thing. It’s been put in a little box and people have said, ‘Oh, isn’t that cute and nostalgic?’ And that’s true. But that doesn’t mean that it should just stay in the box. We should be able to move it forward the same way that you do with live action, the same way that you’d do with CG.”
And sometimes pushing an industry forward requires inventing new techniques from scratch.
The first fully painted animated feature, Loving Vincent was a landmark achievement. Co-director Hugh Welchman says the visual medium was as much about honoring the post-impressionist painter as it was about making a film that stands out in a crowded marketplace.
“I couldn’t compete with a DreamWorks and Pixar ’cause there’s just no way I could assemble even a tenth of the resources that they throw at that their projects,” he says. “We needed a distinctive style to mark us out. If you put Coco and How to Train Your Dragon next to Loving Vincent, people aren’t going to go, ‘Oh, well, that’s just a low-budget version of those. We’re doing something that can kick their ass in terms of the way it looks—on a budget that’s 5% of theirs.”
Welchman currently has three painted animation films in the works: an adaptation of Nobel Prize-winning author Władysław Reymont’s The Peasants, a horror film, and a film set in Africa hundreds of thousands of years ago.
Netflix hardly qualifies as anything indie, but as the streaming wars rage on, the streaming leader is becoming a haven for alternative animated films and TV shows alongside the content it’s still able to license from major studios like DreamWorks Animation and Nickelodeon (for now, anyway). Netflix is applying its nontraditional studio model to original kids’ entertainment, mainly in not having a house style.
“It’s something we’re consciously not doing,”Melissa Cobb, Netflix’s vice president of kids and family content, told Fast Company in an interview earlier this year. “I thought that same question when I came here. I was like, We need a brand! Because I’d worked at Fox and Disney and DreamWorks. But I realized after coming here that it’s really important not to have a brand, and not to sort of box our content into a corner, because we’re serving such a wide audience.”
Animator and director Sergio Pablos can attest to that.
Pablos started his career doing character design at Disney before selling his story Evil Me to Universal, which became the basis for the multibillion-dollar Despicable Me franchise. Now, he directed his first feature, Klaus, for Netflix, a 2D reimagining of Santa Claus’s origin story that blends the two mediums he’s worked in.
The characters and world that Pablos created for Klaus (which is available November 15) have the warmth of hand-drawn illustrations, like a children’s picture book, that are blended with subtle touches of CGI in, for example, the shape and light in characters’ eyes. The film pops in a way that 2D animation, for all its charm, has not in many years.
“When Klaus came along, I thought, ‘This is a movie I think we can make in 2D, but I don’t want to just to make it look like something that came out 15 or 20 years ago,” Pablos says. “We have to keep pushing it. It was never our intent to make it more 2D. The intent was to bring the spirit of the imperfection of the human hand through the whole of the process, just the perfect integration that makes it feel like a moving storybook.”
Cracking the mainstream
So how can these movies, with their bold storytelling and visual style, crack the mainstream? Oscar attention can help. A nomination for a smaller animated film can attract new viewers who might never have heard of a title otherwise. When Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away won the Oscar in 2002, it played on 560 more screens across the country than it had during the peak of its original theatrical run and ended up grossing $13 million in North America. But with limited resources for marketing and campaigning, wins for these films are rare; to date, Spirited Away is the only animated feature produced outside the studio system to do so.
The Academy’s enduring love affair with live-action indies, which it rewards generously year after year, simply does not extend to animation.
Unlike their studio counterparts, these smaller films have not traditionally flooded the market with licensed merchandise simply because, as Arianne Sutner, a producer and head of production at Laika, puts it, “None of those toy companies want to touch you. If you don’t have a movie that has characters they know already from a show, a book, or a previous movie, they don’t want it.”
Summers agrees. “A lot of these movies are difficult to market, and I think that’s in part due to them being difficult to merchandise. Despicable Me is one of the most merchandisable franchises of the century. People go and see these movies because they like the Minions, but also because they’ve become so ubiquitous in toy shops and in children’s lives.” It’s possible, though, that Netflix or other streaming services could change those dynamics given their global reach.
Uphill a battle though it may be, Summers is optimistic about a shift in mainstream audiences’ tastes, thanks to the success of a recent studio film, of all things: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.
A Marvel movie released by Sony about one of the most popular superheroes of all time, Spider-Verse nevertheless had the look of a small movie wrapped up in a reported $90 million budget. The film’s debut of character Miles Morales, an Afro-Puerto Rican teen who assumes the Spider-Man mantle after Peter Parker dies, also introduced a splashy visual style that perfectly captured the distinct look of a comic book. The movie was a critical and commercial hit (it grossed $375 million at the box office and beat out Incredibles 2 and Ralph Breaks the Internet to take home the Oscar for Best Animated Feature), and Summers thinks it has the potential to usher in the next wave in animation.
“Computer animation can do literally anything. It can look like anything. It’s insane that for so long that has meant the Pixar style,” he says. “I hope and pray that Hollywood’s doesn’t say, ‘Let’s make movies that look like Spider-Verse.’ That’s not the point. That’s not what that movie represents. They should be taking the message of, ‘Let’s make movies that look like anything.'”