Thursday, January 19, 2017

ANIMATION FILMOGRAPHY: Classic Style and Characterizations Return in 2016 Features, Starring Pets, Storks and Singing Animals

It's typical to place Disney, Pixar and DreamWorks at the forefront of feature-film animation. Nevertheless, their influence is evident in other studios, just as others were on them. At the same time, most people probably don't know (nor have heard of) short-lived studios that have produced equally (though not always financially-popular) yarns for the big and small screens.

A lifelong animation fan, director Steven Spielberg created his own studio in the late Eighties, under the name of Amblimation (based on his company Amblin Entertainment, and distributed by Universal Pictures). The studio produced three feature films, including An American Tale: Fievel Goes West (1991), We're Back: A Dinosaur's Story (1993), Balto (1995). These films may not be classics per se, but they do stand as underappreciated features from a distinct studio. (It's interesting that these films--save for one--primarily consist of animal characters.) Amblimation, unfortunately, closing down in mid Nineties due to poor box office reception (not to mention competition from rival animation studios), while many of the employees went on to work for the animation department at the newly-formed DreamWorks studio at the time. A similar (though rather much-shorter-lived) studio around the same period was Turner Feature Animation, which released their first and only film Cats Don't Dance (1997), a period musical featuring anthropomorphic animals in early-20th Century Hollywood.

A red-sweatered Steven Spielberg, with his T.V. stars of the Nineties
At the turn of the same decade, the animation department at Warner Bros. was developing ideas for T.V. shows, to which Spielberg came on board to support. Whatever he lacked in box-office reception with his Amblimation films, he more than made up for in these series, from Tiny Toon Adventures to Animaniacs to Pinky & the Brain to Freakazoid. That amazing track record continues once again today with the newly-established Warner Animation Group (read here), which debuted its first feature film, The Lego Movie, in 2014, followed by last fall's hysterical Storks (an Chuck Jones-inspired comedy about storks delivering babies, directed by Pixar veteran Doug Sweetland and R-rated comedy auteur Nicholas Stoller).

Storks (2016) 
And although Warner Animation is still up-and-coming, perhaps no animation studio better evokes the classic characterizations and slapstick antics of Bugs Bunny and company better than Illumination Entertainment.

Chris Meledandri (former President of 20th Century Fox Animation, and producer of such films as Ice Age, 2002, and Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears a Who, 2008) founded the studiothe late 2000s, with the intention of creating feature films with low budgets but with great appeal and quality. Their first film, Despicable Me (2010), featured everyone's favorite bad-guy-turned-good-guy Gru, and well as his continued adventures (Despicable Me 2, 2013) and the origins of his Twinkie-shaped henchman (Minions, 2015). Their other lesser-known features, prior to 2016, include Hop (a 2011 poorly-received live-action/animated hybrid featuring Russell Brand as a rock star Easter bunny) and an adaptation of Dr. Seuss' The Lorax (2012). The studio really began branching out in 2016 with the crowd-pleasing The Secret Life of Pets and the showstopping Sing.

Chris Meledandri, with Pharrell Williams 

Minions (2015), a Three Stooges/Looney Tunes-style slapstick comedy
The Secret Life of Pets (2016) emphasizes cute and distinct characterizations of animal pets
Sing (2016) contestants await their calls--or exclusions.
Like Pets, Sing is a character-driven piece, but more in the animation style of MGM/Warner (something that La La Land also did extremely well), with a little Happy Feet, American Idol, and the aforementioned aforementioned Cats Don't Dance thrown in. The film involves theater owner Buster Moon on a mission to bring his theater back to its former glory, by way of recruiting "real talent from real life." The conflict, though, is that Moon has not had one successful hit in his career, and everybody doubts him. All but the talented singers he brings in, who help him realize that he's helped them become more than they thought, by doing what they love. This reviving interest in theater and performance also mirrors the reviving of character animation and appeal that Warner Bros and MGM were once known for, in both live action and in animation.

These studios show no signs of slowing down, as an adaptation of Dr. Seuss' classic book How the Grinch Stole Christmas (featuring the voice of Benedict Cumberbatch) is in the works at Illumination, following this summer's release of Despicable Me 3. Warner, on the other hand, has a few Lego spinoffs ahead, including The Lego Batman Movie next month and a Ninjago feature based on the popular toy brand. Actor/comedian Dax Shephard (Parenthood, Hit and Run) has recently been tapped to co-direct an animated film version of Scooby-Doo for the studio.

Walt Disney once said, Animation is different from other parts. Its language is the language of caricature. Our most difficult job was to develop the cartoon's unnatural but seemingly natural anatomy for humans and animals. Here's to Warner and Illumination for especially keeping the spirit of animal animation and caricature alive.

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