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Feature Films — Look Ahead and Back

Jerry Beck looks back on the surprises and failures of the 2003 animated features in the U.S. and casts a glimpse at what is to come in 2004.

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The 2003s buzz bordered behemoth Nemo and bohemian Belleville. Finding Nemo © Disney Enterprises Inc./Pixar Animation Studios. All rights reserved. The Triplets of Belleville © 2003 Sony Pictures Entertainment Inc.

2003 was the year that traditional animation cried uncle. And, unfortunately, Uncle Walt and his nephew Roy, left the building.

On the whole, sequels and TV spin-offs did OK at the box office, while big budget hand drawn films performed only fair to poor but of course, a little CG fish swam on to become the highest grossing film of the year.

What does this signal to Hollywood? You guessed it computer generated animated features are hot, with pre-sold TV and toy properties the only valid option left for 2D.

Thus, as 2004 begins, classic theatrical hand drawn character animation for the first time since... well frankly, for the first time since animation began is no longer being produced in Hollywood.

What went wrong? What went right? Lets take a look.

Disney and Nick learned that low budget sequels & TV spinoffs Jungle Book 2, Piglets Big Movie and Rugrats Go Wild respectively have a box office ceiling that averages around $40 million in the U.S. The main audience kids were quite loyal, but then no real attempt to lure adults was expended on these matinee flicks.

The good news: Miramaxs Pokémon Heroes tanked. The fifth feature length Pikachu epic nails the coffin shut on that annoying TV fad at long last. Anime, however, is very much alive and kicking, big time. The theatrical billboard release of TV anime hits Cowboy Bebop, Patlabor and Sakura Wars spun off into huge profits on DVD.

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The biggest surprise last year was the box office performance of Disneys Brother Bear, grossing more than $80 million. No one was more surprised than Disney they expected it to die but its performance proved that a well crafted, sincere traditional cartoon feature can still get a gross. The problem for Brother Bear and every other 2D animation project this year was the phenomenal success of Finding Nemo.

If one wants to know where the heart of Disney animation went it moved to Emeryville California. Pixar has now become the studio Disney once was. Finding Nemo, written and directed by Andrew Stanton, demonstrates the studios strength in blending computer graphics, classical character animation and good ol cartooning.

Pixars films all of em connect with audiences. It ISNT the computer animation Pixar will be the first to tell you that its the relatable stories, the appealing character designs and the innovative visuals. Hollywood is learning all the wrong lessons from Pixars success and thats great news for Pixar. Theyll continue to lead the pack deservedly so.

The years biggest box office disappointments were DreamWorks Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas and Warners Looney Tunes: Back In Action. Sinbad was actually a pretty good film in my humble opinion but the core audience for this comic book styled adventure film didnt turn out for it. This was the year that two other seafaring period films broke box office records Pirates of the Caribbean and Master and Commander but even that couldnt help poor Sinbad, nor the publics perception of hand drawn animation.

Joe Dante and Eric Goldberg made a silk purse from a corporate sows ear with Looney Tunes. Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Elmer Fudd returned in a wild adventure which I believe will be appreciated as time goes by as audiences will discover this zany gem on video. But its dismal box office showing didnt help matters. Warners foolishly marketed this film as strictly a kids flick but its on-screen sensibilities were clearly adult. I urge you all to give it a chance on DVD.

Traditional animation isnt completely dead. Animators Mike Judge and Don Herzfedlt started distributing their own short film compilation festival last year and garnered rave reviews and respectable box office. Sylvain Chomets The Triplets of Belleville and Satoshi Kons Millennium Actress wowed the critics and have a real chance for Academy Award gold. Quentin Tarentino included an amazing tour-de-force anime sequence (from Japans Production IG) as part of his Kill Bill: Vol. 1 and the original home video release of The Animatrix was a solid success (even if the two live-action sequels disappointed the die-hard fans).

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It will be a tough feat for Shark Tales fish (left) to out swim Nemo. Warner Bros. hopes to cash in once again on its venerable Scooby-Doo (right) franchise. Shark Tale © DreamWorks. Scooby-Doo © Warner Bros.

Where Do We Go From Here? The coming year will demonstrate if CG can keep hold of the audiences imagination. Big-ticket releases, like DreamWorks Shrek 2 and Pixars The Incredibles, are highly anticipated and expected to be huge hits. Star power will fuel Shark Tale (Robert DeNiro) and the mo-cap production The Polar Express (Tom Hanks). Live-action/CG animation Hybrids (Garfield and Scooby-Doo 2) are still potent novelties, appealing to movie goers of all ages; clever TV series spin-offs (and I have to admit these two look pretty good), Disneys Teachers Pet and Nicks SpongeBob SquarePants Movie, come prepared with a large built-in audience; and potential anime classics, Miyazakis Howls Moving Castle and Production IGs Innocence: Ghost In The Shell 2; along with independent animator Bill Plymptons latest, Hair High will thrill the art house crowd.

In 2004 we enter a new phase a time of transition. Corporate Hollywood has turned its back on classically animated feature films. Disneys April release of Home on the Range is the studios 2D swan song. Artists let go from Warners, Disney and other animation factories are banding together to form new independent studios. And while the road they travel will be a hard one initially its a path previously traveled by pioneer animation cartoonists Walt Disney, Max Fleischer, Paul Terry and Walter Lantz. The seeds are planted for a new generation of cartoon pioneers and for the sake of our favorite art form, I wish them luck.

[Editors note: The outlook for 2D animated films in Europe is good as Philippe Moins reports in his Panorama of the European Feature Film.

Jerry Beck has a nifty Website at www.cartoonresearch.com and had two books published in 2003, Outlaw Animation from Harry N. Abrams and Looney Tunes: The Ultimate Visual Guide from Dorling Kindersley.

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