Is 3D animation the future of cinema?

Kids just love watching animation, in fact they can’t get enough of the quality stuff. And ‘kids’ are getting older – I remember going to the video shop one night and my 5 year old and 9 year old were swapping Spongebob jokes with the teenagers behind the counter. Seems to be the mark of success – if you can cross over the adult/child divide then you’ve cracked the animation game. Look at the Simpsons, Futurama, Pixar and Dreamworks titles…

My five year old was obsessed for a good while with Monster’s Inc and played it over and over for at least a one year period. I’m sure if Pixar had released more films in that year he would have moved on and watched all of them – and I would have bought the DVD (and probably taken them to see the film at the cinema too).

So it’s not surprising the spate of 3D animated features now appearing in an attempt to emulate the great Pixar successes. A recent article in the SMH titled Glut of Cute Films Fail to Animate Audiences

WITH more than a dozen computer-animated movies being readied for release by mid next year, Hollywood is facing viewer fatigue worthy of Sleeping Beauty. Now, with so many movies for audiences to choose from, some are failing to meet expectations or flopping outright.

3D animated films have been the mainstay of the entire US box office for the past few years. Last year, when Pixar didn’t release a film the total US box office receipts were down by half.

While mediocre 3D features may have been able to make their money back while they were still a novelty, the figures don’t look quite so good any more. Disney’s “Wild” and “The Ant Bully” have flopped and there are many more 3D movies in production and pending release. We can only speculate on how Warner Brother’s “Happy Feet” will fare as this movie has dominated Australian media production (on a dollar by dollar basis) for the past 2 and a half years. There is a lot riding on the success of this film and its success will make a big impact on future production here so we hope it does well.

But when it comes down to it, the success of an animated film has little to do with whether it is 2D or 3D animation – it’s the story that counts, then maybe marketing and production values a close 2nd and 3rd. The 2004 “Spongebob Movie”, which I mentioned was a big hit with small kids and big kids alike, was created using traditional 2D animation methods. This didn’t stop it pulling in $140 million worldwide at the box office (plus DVD sales). By contrast “Valiant”, the low budget 2005 UK 3D animated feature, barely managed to cover costs after failing to excite the US audience.

But this is the exception rather than the rule. When Disney recently closed their Sydney studio (which was the last 2D Disney studio in the world) I was interviewed by a Fairfax journalist about what this meant for the future of animation. The angle the journalist had in mind was that the digital media advocate would voice the opinion that 3D animation was the future technology of choice and that the Disney toons studios were obsolete.
I told the journalist this wasn’t my view at all and in fact I thought Disney was the victim of it’s own dated approach to storytelling. Their own forays into 3D like “Dinosaur” from the famed “Secret Lab” was as saccharine as their 2D fare and failed to cut it with a young audience brought up on the Simpsons and King of the Hill. This comment never made it to print which is a shame because it’s a fairly widespread opinion in the industry. The smartest thing Disney could do was to buy Pixar – not for their technological prowess but for their approach to storytelling which isn’t rooted in 1950’s family values. Let’s hope that Steve Jobs isn’t too many steps ahead of them and they get another five years of blockbuster box office out of the deal.
But if 3D animated movies are being rushed out in the hope that audiences will be attracted by the novelty of 3D I’m sorry to say that this moment has truly passed. If the story doesn’t connect with where audiences are now then they are doomed to failure. But of course a good animated film still needs to delight and surprise and I for one have now now seen one too many of the “Madagascar” variety. By the way, this dreadful film was the 9th most successful 3D animated feature of all time so maybe I’m missing something.

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