On Thanksgiving, I officially began my transition to geezerhood by telling a couple of young family friends a “Back in my day, sonny” story. Turns out it’s surprisingly fun to blow teenagers’ minds—in this case, by letting a couple of anime connoisseurs in on the hoops fans used to have to go through to watch foreign animation less than 20 years ago. In my case, a friend periodically got VHS tapes from a buddy in Japan, who recorded shows off broadcast TV, and we’d have parties where we watched the latest Bubblegum Crisis or Dirty Pair episode, without subtitles and in Japanese, which none of us spoke. We’d keep up with the story by downloading scripts from the Internet, printing them out on continuous-feed computer paper, and reading them out loud to each other while we watched. To the teenagers I was talking to, who have access to hundreds of anime shows and films streaming through Netflix Instant, Amazon Prime, and Hulu, not to mention cable-channel blocks and DVD full-series box sets, this all sounded as archaic and primitive as doing accountancy with an abacus. Kids these days, I tells ya, they sure gots it easy.
Unless, that is, they want to watch current foreign animation—not just anime, but any animated feature films that don’t come from major American studios. 2013 was a solid but not standout year for theatrical American animation, as the medium continues to slowly mature and settle into a rut at the same time. In an increasingly competitive field, studios are getting more daring in an effort to stand out, whether by reaching beyond proven formulas, or embracing them in agreeably weird ways. In some aspects, the animated-feature field is immensely different today than it was a few decades ago, when Disney had a near-monopoly on what’s become an incredibly lucrative market. In others ways, it still isn’t that different from the days where imports were deemed unsellable. The theatrical market is still all but closed to animated imports, and fans are still getting their fixes via bootleg copies. These days, they’re just finding the films online, in addition to the scripts.
In November, AMPAS announced 19 features were eligible for 2013’s Best Animated Feature Oscar. Only the American releases (including The Smurfs 2, which qualifies as animated under Academy rules) have opened wide in the U.S., or even played anywhere outside the occasional film festival. Even the most high-profile of the eligible foreign releases, Hayao Miyazaki’s reportedly final feature, The Wind Rises, has been shunted to a February 2014 rollout in America. Meanwhile, the other 2013 Oscar-contender titles remain largely or completely unavailable here: France’s Ernest & Celestine (from the directors of A Town Called Panic), Japan’s A Letter To Momo, Brazil’s ambitious Rio 2096, South Africa’s Khumba, South Korea’s The Fake, Canada’s The Legend Of Sarila, and Spain’s eerie stop-motion feature O Apóstolo.
Looking at all 19 Oscar-eligibles, it’s instantly clear how much wider-ranging the imports are in visual style, subject matter, tone, and intended audience than the American releases. Ernest & Celestine is a cute children’s-book adaptation about a bear and a mouse who are friends, executed in simple lines and soft watercolor-esque shadows. The Fake is a visually sophisticated, grim adult thriller about a con man who uses religion to sway a rural village into clearing the way for a dam—and for profits. Khumba looks like a decade-old DreamWorks feature, with wacky CGI animals on a rollicking adventure, followed by a big moral about tolerating differences. Rio 2096 is a centuries-spanning love story and science-fiction epic. There’s an incredible diversity in this field, which makes America’s biggest animated hits of 2013 look remarkably samey by comparison. (That’s without even getting into all the big 2013 animated foreign films that lacked even festival screenings, like Germany’s Tarzan, Uruguay’s Anina, or Argentina’s Foosball. Seriously, check out the trailer for that last one, a Universal release that looks maddeningly familiar, yet culturally alien to non-soccer-obsessed American eyes.)
The problem with American animation in 2013 is that the studios are all emulating the Pixar formula that turned CGI animation into billion-dollar business and respectable art. In some respects, this is a great problem to have. At its best, Pixar has consistently pushed the boundaries of what CGI can do, pioneering new technical breakthroughs every year. And it’s similarly pushed the narrative boundaries of American animation, both in terms of challenging content and in terms of reaching out to adult viewers with sophisticated plots, rather than just lobbing the occasional joke at them, over their children’s heads. Its focus on unusual settings and original stories has given its films much more texture and range than the Disney model. Its attention to complicated emotions, and the sometimes intense situations that provoke them, has pushed American films away from a classical Disney pastel palette. Other studios have gradually come around to Pixar’s base model, with DreamWorks in particular producing films as visually and textually sophisticated as Pixar’s, and Walt Disney Animation Studios (under the wing of Pixar exec John Lasseter) jumping from the thin, forgettable Chicken Little to the winning Tangled in just five years.
The upside of all this Pixar imitation is that most of the year’s animated studio releases are, at the absolute least, visually exciting and narratively rich. Leaving aside Free Birds and the cheap, boring, but successful money-grab Planes (plus Escape From Planet Earth, an enjoyable-enough time-waster that didn’t make the Academy eligibility list), animated movies in 2013 were a reliably safe bet for entertainment.
Sometimes that’s because of the growing emphasis on creative design and camera movement. Sony’s Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs 2 is lightweight but kinetic, with tremendously colorful, creative character designs. The bizarre noodle-armed inventor/villain Chester V, with his tendency to spiral all four of his limbs into eerily precise geometric shapes, is just the tip of the imagination iceberg in a film that sends its protagonists among a seemingly unending series of living food/animal hybrids like flamangos and wildebeets. Blue Sky’s Epic is an often thrilling fantasy adventure that throws viewers into a magical, miniaturized kingdom of tiny warriors, and sends the camera soaring, spinning, and diving along with them. Both films are fairly conventional children’s stories in format, but they use perspective, movement, and production design ambitiously enough to make sure viewers are always seeing something new, and they both make thrill rides out of the viewing experience. That isn’t a new approach to animated films by any means, but every new year gives animators more sophisticated visual tools and a more demanding audience, so each new take on the thrill ride pushes the limits further. DreamWorks’ similarly visually dynamic Turbo is a same-plot, different-day take on the standard “Follow your dreams and you can do anything” fable, this time about a snail who wants to race in the Indy 500, and gets his chance after a freak accident gives him super-speed. But what makes it appealing is its incredible weirdness, as Turbo the snail finds a home among other crazy racing-obsessed snails and a found family of strip-mall denizens looking for a mascot to revive their flagging businesses and their own belief in their dreams. Again, the framework is nothing new, but the details are surprising and inventive.
Some of 2013’s animated entertainment value came from fine-tuning familiarity. Illumination’s sequel Despicable Me 2 and Pixar’s prequel Monsters University both brought back hit characters for amiable second go-rounds that isolated and highlighted what made the original films so popular. With Despicable Me 2, that means a lot of cute kids, weird gadgets, big action (including a luchador superhero riding a shark into a volcano), and especially lots of the little babbling yellow capsule-shaped people called Minions. With Monsters University, it means catching Monsters, Inc. protagonists Mike and Sulley before they were partners, before they were friends, and even before they were really themselves, and watching their personalities and their partnership form. Where the previous film focused on a comfortable working team, Monsters University takes pleasure in watching them learn teamwork together, culminating in a terrific scene where they work in tandem properly for the first time. Disney’s Frozen, meanwhile, feels familiar as well. It’s a new story, and a new paradigm, exploring the relationship between adult sisters driven apart by the elder sister’s magic powers and her fear of hurting someone with them. But in pacing, animation, humor, character types, and broad outlines, it’s Tangled again, except this time the weirdly puppyish steed is a reindeer instead of a horse, and the antagonist is sympathetic rather than selfish.
The downside of 2013 is that while each of these movies have their own intense pleasures in the moment—while they’re each a bit of a sugar rush, with memorable characters and memorable moments—none of them feels new. Every single one of them is about a diverse biological or created family facing adversity in ways that involve animation-friendly chases and battles, and a familiar pattern of emotional ups and downs. They’re all parked in the same wheelhouse of revved-up yet sentimental stories that try to hit the widest audience possible by staying safe for children, but rich enough to keep adults involved. And while they all have different design quirks, they’re all still similarly bright and glossy, candy-colored, three-dimensionally shaded CGI, to the point where an Epic fairy wouldn’t look particularly out of place talking to the princesses of Frozen, any more than Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs 2’s foodimals or a stray Minion or two would look improbable wandering around Monsters University’s campus.
Even 2013’s most ambitious and unusual American animated film, DreamWorks’ The Croods, hits those same beats like the others. It’s just more emotionally textured, with a more unusual cast: a caveman family that’s survived an incredibly lethal prehistoric world thanks to their patriarch’s suffocating paranoia, which is wearing on his increasingly frustrated and incautious teenage daughter. Like the best American animated films of the past decade, The Croods delves deeply into interpersonal bonds, the insecurities and frustrations that weaken them, and the convictions that strengthen them. And like its peers, it stands out because of its well-thought-through, idiosyncratic way of visualizing the people trying to bond, and by mining character out of relatively subtle animation choices—in this case, the way the characters switch fluidly between human and animal movement and behavior, as if both are part of their heritage.
But The Croods is still strikingly similar to the rest of 2013’s animation crop, animated in fundamentally the same style, and following the same pattern of setup, adventure, temporary defeat, and final uplift. It’s that familiarity in the aggregate that’s troubling, because it implies that Pixar’s innovations only go so far, and that American studio animation still hasn’t really grown up. As long as it’s all aimed first and foremost at kids, it can only go so far in terms of ambition, narrative complexity, serious subjects, and serious diversity.
This is where having access to foreign imports could make a difference, given how much more prevalent animated films aimed at adults are in the rest of the world. Foreign animation does occasionally make it to America’s arthouses and DVD shelves, and an Oscar nomination helps a good deal—recent films like The Secret Of Kells, A Cat In Paris, and Chico & Rita all got a significant enough boost from Oscar nominations to at least make it into U.S. DVD release. But imports never get the advertising push or marketing tie-ins of studio flagship products, and they rarely push past niche markets.
There’s plenty of hope for American animation. American comic books had the same problems for decades, but are now more diverse than they’ve ever been, with everything on the market from comics for toddlers to sophisticated adult fare. Just as a generation raised on Japanese bootlegs paved the way for Adult Swim, and a generation raised on Adult Swim paved the way for the ubiquity of anime on streaming services, people raised with the ability to find diverse animated stories online will grow up with different expectations for the field, and hopefully more ability to fulfill them. And the kids raised on Pixar will similarly grow up loving animation, and wanting it to continue growing up with them, as the Toy Story movies did. Maybe as more studios turn out picture-perfect Pixar imitations, Pixar will be forced to innovate its way into adult animation to compete. Or maybe new competitors will enter the field to fill the gaps that still exist. Maybe serious adult animation fans will keep scratching their itches with the 2013 equivalent of VHS tapes mailed directly from the source. Until then, 2013’s animation crop feels like a step toward joining how the rest of the world sees the medium, but still a baby step at best.