The Year in Animated Features

Jerry Beck muses about 2002s slate of animated feature films.

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High and low in 2002: Animation master Miyazaki's Spirited Away is the likely Oscar winner, while one wonders why Peter Pan II: Return to Neverland was even made. Spirited Away: © 2002 Nibariki. TGNDDTM. All rights reserved. Peter Pan II: Return to Neverland: © Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.

When all is said and done, 2002 will be considered an excellent year for theatrical animated feature films. By my unofficial count, a total of 19 fully animated films were released in Los Angeles county in the previous calendar year, and I saw ?em all.

Yes, I even saw Hey Arnold! The Movie ? but despite that, any year that can boast the charming Lilo & Stitch, the emergence of a new CGI powerhouse (Blue Sky) and a brand new Miyazaki masterpiece can't be all bad. Though my personal checklist of released titles (see http://www.cartoonresearch.com/movies2002.html) doesn't quite jibe with the Academy's official tally, the level of artistic quality I saw this year was quite impressive. And on the financial end, the total estimated U.S. box office gross for animated features last year was well over half a billion dollars ($569,695,919 to be exact) ? and that doesn't include revenues from home video sales and merchandising.

The year began with the national release of Disney Television's Return To Neverland, starring Peter Pan. This is one of the many "cheapquels" (thank animator Brian Mitchell for coining that term) churned out by the studio, ostensibly for home video, but one or two are given a bigger budget (and fuller animation) for a theatrical "window."

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Return To Neverland is capably made, but it begs the question: Why? Why was this made? Do we really need a sequel to Peter Pan? Or Cinderella? Or 101 Dalmatians? Or Lady & The Tramp?

No, we don't. But they make money.

When we were kids, Disney re-released a classic film every seven years, for a new generation of kids to see with their parents in a theatre. With cable TV, DVD, VHS and the Disney Channel there is no longer any theatrical life left in the original classics (oh, but wouldn't I like to see The Three Caballeros or even Sleeping Beauty on the big screen again).

Lilo & Stitch exuded great charm. © Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.

Lilo & Stitch exuded great charm. © Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.

Disney knows that there are enough young parents who'd still want to experience the tradition of taking their child to a Disney classic cartoon ? just as they had. Thus, Jungle Book 2: Electric Bugaloo. These safe sequels do have a audience ? but as soon as Mom gets wise to the Disney marketing patterns, she'll opt to wait home for the DVD ? and take the kids out to see DreamWorks/PDI's latest piece of new wave high-tech eye candy instead.

Speaking of high tech eye-candy, Ice Age opened in the early spring and introduced us to a new creative force ? Chris Wedge and his Blue Sky Studio. What a delight this film turned out to be. The script, the music, the animation and art direction, superb. I particularly liked how they designed and animated the human characters ? stylized, yet real.

beck05_powerpuffGirls.jpgbeck06_wildThornberrys.jpgThe Powerpuff Girls was a good looking movie, but suffered from story problems. Meanwhile, The Wild Thornberrys Movie delivered more than the TV show it's based on. Powerpuff Girls: © AOL Time Warner; Wild Thornberrys Movie: Courtesy of Paramount/Nickelodeon.

Another great looking film, The Powerpuff Girls, failed at the box office, but I hope it doesn't discourage Cartoon Network from trying again. The visuals were superb, but visuals alone, as they have learned, do not a movie make. Powerpuff had some story problems, which could have been fixed, but I did like the idea that they went with an "origin story" approach. Is the lesson of this film, and Hey Arnold!, one that people won't pay for what they can get at home for free?

The Wild Thornberrys Movie tried to disprove that theory at Christmas time. I admire Klasky-Csupo's ambition with the features they've made and Thornberrys didn't disappoint. Families who saw this film were entertained with a big, bonafide theatrical feature, not a blown up TV pastiche.

beck07_treasurePlanet.jpgbeck08_spirit.jpgTreasure Planet and Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron were both strong works, but was Treasure Planet a victim of the executive changes at Disney? Treasure Planet: © Disney Enterprise, Inc. All rights reserved; Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron: Courtesy DreamWorks Pictures.

Lilo & Stitch, Treasure Planet and Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron were enjoyable, strong state of the art, character animation films. But why, oh why, did Disney decide to kill Treasure Planet three days after it opened? The trouble brewing in Disney's executive ranks exploded at year's end. Let?s hope a phoenix will rise from these ashes. I believe it will.

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The low budget Jonah: The Veggie Tales Movie was not the embarrassment I thought it would be. Aimed at young youngsters, it was suitable family fare and made a tidy profit at the box office. A couple of other films snuck into L.A. for Academy consideration, though nobody saw Mark Swan's The Princess And The Pea nor Italy's The Living Forest and lived to tell about it.

I sort-of admire the surrealistic Eden (from Poland). It was like one of those abstract, absurdist student films you see at short film festivals ? only it went on way too long and wasn?t very funny. India's CGI Ali Baba feature was clearly the worst animated film I'd saw last year. Stiff motion-capture is hard to achieve, but the Pentamedia studio achieved it. To the film's credit, I still can't get some of its haunting images out of my mind. The nightmares from the atrocious dubbing, poor animation and horrible character design are ones I'll likely keep forever.

Eight Crazy Nights turned into two long hours for some viewers. © 2002 Columbia Pictures. All rights reserved.

Eight Crazy Nights turned into two long hours for some viewers. © 2002 Columbia Pictures. All rights reserved.

Adam Sandler's Eight Crazy Nights is a film I so wanted to like, but it fought me at every turn. I love scatological humor, I love subversive animation, but this was just plain poor. I'm happy the project gave many animators a nice paycheck for several weeks, but for me it was a waste of two hours.

As I look ahead to the Oscar race, one thing seems certain: Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away is a shoo-in to be nominated ? and is the leading contender to win. I wish I could say I liked the film better. It's great, to be sure, but is it really better than My Neighbor Totoro or Laputa: Castle In The Sky or Nauissica? No, not in my book. But Miyazaki deserves the prize, even if it's symbolic for lifetime achievement. Can you think of a living animator with a greater body of quality work in feature animation than Miyazaki? I can't.

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Upcoming animated fare for this year include anime's Cowboy Bebop and Disney/Pixar's Finding Nemo. Cowboy Bebop: © Bandai Entertainment; Finding Nemo: © Disney/PIXAR.

2002 was a year of ups and downs, highs and lows ? and the forecast for 2003 looks like more of the same. More than ten features are scheduled to debut during the coming year as of this writing. This includes more Disney cheapquels (of Jungle Book and Pooh in the form of Piglet's Big Movie), even more anime (Millennium Actress, Cowboy Bebop), a new Pixar (Finding Nemo), another Disney (Bears), an SKG "tradigital" (Sinbad), and a variety of others (including Sony's R-rated Lil? Pimp, Warner Bros.' live-action animated Looney Tunes movie, and a new Klasky-Csupo Rugrats adventure).

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Disney has two more "cheapquels" set for 2003: Piglet's Big Movie and Jungle Book 2. © Disney Enterprises, Inc.

The good news is that animated features have come of age. Disney isn?t the only player in the field and the quality of competing films is quite high. Grab your popcorn, we?ve got a lot to look forward to.

Jerry Beck is an animation producer and cartoon historian with a nifty Website www.cartoonresearch.com and a new book, Outlaw Animation, due out this spring from Harry N. Abrams.

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