Philippe Moins surveys the European animated feature scene and discover a vast array of subjects and styles.
Right now, many eyes in Europe are focused on the release of Arthur and the Invisibles. A EuropaCorps production, this project comes from the company of the producer and director Luc Besson, who has experienced great success at the French and European box offices with movies like The Big Blue, La Femme Nikita and The Fifth Element.
Arthur and the Invisibles is a CG feature movie, using 3D and mocap, and destined to appeal to a family audience. The movie boasts the biggest budget ever given to an animated European animated movie, around 65 million Euros. In reality, this prodigious investment will pay off as two movies will be made back to back.
This amount is incomparably larger than the average animated feature budget, that, according to Corinne Jenart of CARTOON, is around 7 million Euros today.
With 1.5 million Euros in ticket sales in France, Astérix and the Vikings, another big European production that was released in early 2006, didn't meet expectations. It stayed well below the performance of Astérix et Obélix: Mission Cléopâtre, a live-action release a few years before. So everybody is waiting for the release of Arthur...
An Impressive Variety
Even with the release of big titles like Arthur and Flushed Away (the Aardman and DreamWorks feature), the large diversity of European productions is apparent. In Europe, animation features are still financed by public organizations like Eurimage, and sometimes with important government financial aid. Producers that are traditionally very much involved in TV series in Europe, don't really step into features as well.
These projects are often based on a children author's or a comicbook artist's universe, where the artistic content is often fully developed. This creates a big diversity of inspired projects and graphic techniques, compared to other methods of development where conformity and the influence of commercial studios like Pixar and DreamWorks are noticeable.
It has been apparent that the weak point of most of these movies is the lack of international market opportunities. For every Piccolo, Saxo et compagnie (produced by Millimages and Haut and Court), which was sold to The Weinstein Co. a few weeks ago, how many other European features will only find an audience in their countries of origin?
The French Specificity
The recent release of Azur and Asmar, the new Michel Ocelot movie (Kirikou) gave the French media occasion to celebrate their favorite author. Inspired and original, this movie offers a very graphic 3D treatment and a message of love and tolerance that hit its mark. Coming in second at the box office behind Open Season, with more than 400,000 Euros ticket sales in the first week, Azur has since slowed down its pace, but still has surpassed 1 million Euros in ticket sales, providing optimism for its future total box office revenue.
There is a unique characteristic of European movies that can explain their often weak performances abroad. As the movies are made with quite modest budgets, bigger countries manage to reap the financial benefits in their own territories, accumulating theater and DVD receipts. Smaller countries also suffer as their local markets are smaller, making them more likely to look for foreign partnerships that may cut down their revenue. Even with obstacles indigenous to Europe, Ocelot is one of the few European animation directors whose movies are doing well abroad.
Unfortunately, that's not the case for another cute movie that also was released last autumn. U, directed by the illustrator Grégoire Solotareff and Serge Elissade, which hasn't scored well at the box office. It's of course easy to explain the failure of a movie once released, but it's fair to say that U didn't really reach its audience. The producers, excited maybe by a first unexpected success (Loulou), seem to have neglected the target audience, and, as a result, there was no support from moviegoers. Strongly attached to the notion of giving authors free creative rein, European animation experiences some success thanks to its "open mind," but sometimes suffers from the boundless limits it gives to the authors.
Very jealous about their specificities, some French professionals limit their co-productions to their fellow countrymen, sometimes rightfully thinking that it will guarantee involvement on their projects. In this way, Ocelot (Azur and Asmar) and Jacques Rémy Girard of Folimage (Raining Cats and Frogs) have parallel approaches. They both come from the short films universe and, as directors, guide their productions carefully.
Professionals from TV (Millimages, Belokapi, les Armateurs) think differently. For example, Didier Brunner (The Triplets of Belleville) the ex-producer of Ocelot's films, now co-produces with Ireland and Belgium. The latest movie he produced, Brendan and the Secret of Kells, a heroic fantasy project directed by Tomm Moore, is scheduled for a 2008 release. Phil Leclerc (The Rain Children) just finished La reine soleil for Belokapi that will come out in April.
Despite its small size, Denmark is the country with the most important production of animated movies. Thanks to the studio, A Film, which just celebrated its 17th birthday, Denmark is also the country of Jannick Hastrup, who's breaking the record for the number of features he's done. This year, A Film will almost simultaneously release two features. The Ugly Duckling and Me inspired by Andersen, is for kids, while Free Jimmy is for teens, and is an ambitious co-production with Norway by Christopher Nielsen. This CGI movie is a critical look at some actual trends in our society.
For years, A Film uses to develop co-productions with other European countries like Norway, France or Spain. As a production company and studio, A Film is certainly the most secure European structure, and has the most straight-line volume of co-productions.
Also from Denmark, very low budget movies are coming like Princess by Anders Morgentahler (limited budget of 1.2 million Euros). He would like to replicate the performance of Terkel in Trouble, a movie made a few years ago on a ridiculous budget, but won critical acclaim and large audiences in some European countries. In another genre, Denmark just finished a co-production with Latvia, The Three Musketeers, by Janis Cimermanis, a Latvian director famous for his doll animations.
There aren't one or two standards in Europe, there is a multitude and they jealously preserve their particularities. Quantity is paramount for Spain's Filmax Animation, a part of Filmax Ent. Filmax delivers a large number of animated feature movies, which are released domestically in theaters, but go the direct-to-video route abroad. The company announced two new feature movies for 2007, the 3D Donkey Xote and Nocturna in 2D. Dygra Films, who precociously specialized in 3D, released this year Midsummer Dream, a hard-to-define movie that has struggled to find an audience.
Germany, which experienced some big success in the past with the feature movie, Werner, now thrives on a singular synergy. Warner Bros. Germany has collaborated with Thilo Graf Rotkirch on Little Polar Bear and Laura Star, directed by the Belgian Piet Derycker. These movies are the beneficiary of the Warner Bros. European network and are able to achieve things other productions can't. Most of the other European animated features are distributed by different independent companies in each country.
The Belgians, the main standard for features in the past, comes back with two new very atypical projects. Panic in the Village by Stepanhe Aubier and Vincent Patar, a crazy project in stop motion, is scheduled to start production in spring 2007. Fly Me to the Moon, a feature movie in "relief" 3D by Ben Stassen, is being made for IMAX.
The Salvation for Adult Animation?
The family audience in Europe, like everywhere else, is the main audience for animated features. There is a growing trend, however, to attract a new kind of audience, as in the case of Free Jimmy, Renaissance (a French movie by Christian Volckman released last year), and, most of all, Princess, selected by Cannes 2006 for La Quinzaine des realisateurs. Boldly blending live action and drawing, Princess boasts a very unusual theme for an animated movie: pornography, which is presented without a critical, puritanical point of view.
For years, people have hoped for the emergence of a European animation cinema for teenagers and adults and it seems now is the time for it to happen. Beyond Princess and Free Jimmy, Snow White the Sequel, by the Belgian Picha, and Memory Hotel, by Heinrich Sabl, belong to this category. It is a new niche for European animation. It perfectly suits its rebellious spirit, and it is too risky to find a lot of competition in its path.
Thanks to Oury Atlan for translating.
Philippe Moins is writer and teacher in Belgium, and also co-director of the Brussels Animation Festival ANIMA.