Keith: This past weekend, I saw Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs 2, a sequel to a delightful 2009 movie that loosely adapted a beloved children’s book. It’s all anyone could ask of a Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs sequel, maintaining the original’s appealing look and wit. I liked it a lot, but it also felt a tad unnecessary: Many of the characters returned, but didn’t get much reason to participate in the story, and the emotional core that helped put the original over the top isn’t as strong. That said, it’s sweet, imaginative, and hugely entertaining. I’d say it was almost as much as anyone could expect from any animated sequel, if the gold standard hadn’t been set by Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3, two sequels at least as good as the original—maybe better.
They’re also the exceptions when it comes to animated sequels, which used to be rare, and are now becoming unavoidable. In addition to its Toy Story films, Pixar has already released Cars 2 (to no great acclaim, to say the least) and Monsters University, with Finding Dory just around the corner. Dreamworks has cycled through four Shreks and and a spin-off, and is now two films deep into the Kung Fu Panda series, with more on the way, alongside more How To Train Your Dragon films. And so on through your Ice Ages, your Madagascars, your Happy Feets, etc. The big-studio need to turn everything into franchises has crept into the animated world, and seems likely to stay.
It wasn’t always so. Animated sequels like The Rescuers Down Under used to be the rarity. Then, in the 1990s, Disney began the habit of churning them out on the cheap for the profitable home-video market, where they enjoyed a sort of poor-relation status. There was Aladdin and there was The Return Of Jafar, but there was also no mistaking one for the other. Toy Story 2 began life as just such a film, then got bumped up to real-film status and showed everyone that animated sequels could be just as good, and just as profitable, as original efforts. Most of the animated sequels I’ve seen have gone for the just-as-profitable goal without checking off the just-as-good box. I have some thoughts as to why there are more like Ice Age: Dawn Of The Dinosaurs than Toy Story 2, but let me throw that out in the form of a leading question first: Why are most animated sequels unmemorable?
Tasha: I have a knee-jerk tendency to blame Disney for that, because it set such a low bar with that move you mentioned, from the prestigious “Spend years laboring over one standalone classic at a time” model to the lucrative “Pump out straight-to-video sequels by the bushel” model. Even as a would-be Disney completist, I entirely checked out on Disney DVD sequels years ago, to the point where until I started researching for this Conversation, I didn’t realize Disney stopped making them back in 2008—apparently in large part because John Lasseter and Bob Iger, bless ’em, wanted to preserve the company’s good name and make sure they weren’t putting out inferior product.
“The current landscape still feels incredibly rich and energetic to me, by contrast with what I grew up with.”
But that inferior product was extremely lucrative. Which brings up the old familiar, obvious reason animated sequels (and sequels in general) tend to be unmemorable: They’re often made more for financial reasons than out of artistic excitement or narrative necessity. Disney’s DVD sequels tended to be forgettable because they were so obviously second-string projects that got less love and attention: simpler animation (from a different subset of the studio, DisneyToon), more generic songs, more generic writing and direction. (Disney’s sequel problem hasn’t been entirely solved: DisneyToon was behind the Cars spin-off/rip-off Planes, which has all those problems but the song issue, since it isn’t a musical.) And the stories always had lower stakes than the originals, and felt awfully familiar to boot: The ones I watched all seemed to deal with either a child of the original protagonist or a relative of the original villain recapitulating or rotely reversing their predecessors’ choices from the first film. Churning out an inferior clone of a movie is a great way to make sure that even when people try to think of the sequel, they only really remember the original.
Even outside of the Disney model, though, the problem with animated sequels generally comes from the scope of the original story. While the last 20 years have seen great strides in mostly improving animation to a whole-family proposition instead of a kids-only proposition, those films still tend to follow broad fairy-tale models: There’s virtually always an underdog protagonist, and a powerful villain to be overcome, or a major life lesson learned. It’s hard to follow that up, because once the underdogs have triumphed, they aren’t underdogs anymore, and animated villains generally aren’t defeated in ways that let them come back later. Besides, so many animated movies involve an isolated character finally emerging into the world—a perfect coming-of-age metaphor for children growing up. When Shrek and Quasimoto and Belle and Ariel and Mulan and Rapunzel in Tangled and Ralph in Wreck-It Ralph and Hiccup in How To Train Your Dragon and Turbo in Turbo get out into the world, they discover what they’ve been missing and expand hugely as people, achieving their life goals. What’s left for a sequel, beyond (as the Shrek movies repeatedly do, to waning returns) dialing back and undermining that success so the heroes still have major problems?
There’s jumping back in time to tell an earlier story, like Monsters University or Kirikou And The Wild Beasts (the disappointing sequel to one of my all-time favorite animated movies, Kirikou And The Sorceress), but that tends to feel lightweight because of the need to come back to zero by the end of the story; if that story mattered at all in the protagonist’s life, why wasn’t there any hint of it in the first film? There’s introducing a new villain, as Kung Fu Panda 2 and Despicable Me 2 do, or exploring more minor characters, like Lion King 1 1/2, or just carrying forward into slighter and less iconic adventures, like Charlotte’s Web 2. But the former tack can seem repetitive, while the latter again weakens the triumphs of the original movie. I can think of very few sequel models that actually work at all consistently, and they generally require the right kind of story to begin with: The world (and preferably the cast) has to be big and complicated enough that everyone’s problems aren’t solved by the end of film No. 1. Can you think of any sequel models that reliably work well for you, Noel?
Noel: Well, Keith mentioned the second and third Toy Storys, which I think work because they’re less about concocting new adventures and concerns for the heroes than they are about recontextualizing these toys’ lives through their evolving relationship with their owner. As much as I love Toy Story 3, it’s pretty much a thematic rehash of Toy Story 2, and even repeats some of its predecessor’s plot points. But what makes it different is how Andy, now heading off to college, sees his toys in a new, nostalgic light. What’s poignant is how the owner changes, but the toys stay more or less the same. (And now I’m thinking about Andy teaching that little girl how to play with his toys, and I’m getting all choked up again. Damn you, Toy Story 3!)
The problem is that not every studio has Pixar’s uncanny knack for tying a fun, fantastical action-adventure story to a theme that resonates with parents but doesn’t bore children. I give the Ice Age team credit for trying, but every time I see one of those sequels, I’m stymied by how they seem to think kids will connect to stories about middle-aged animals worrying about keeping their families together while trying not to lose their edge. I’m not even sure most parents connect to what these Ice Age movies are trying to be about—unless those parents are in show business. Contrast that with Pixar’s Up, which is about getting old and feeling alone, but in a deeper, more subtextual way, with much less of Ray Romano and Denis Leary whining. I have the same issue with the Shrek sequels that I have with the Ice Ages: They’re about the kind of narcissistic “What have I become?” anxieties that 45-year-old studio executives experience, not the kind of things parents or their children spend even a second of their day fretting over.
We’ve been picking on sequels here because they seem the most overtly mercenary, but are the original animated features of the past half-decade or so much better? I recently revisited The Little Mermaid on Blu-ray (my review will run tomorrow), and what’s remarkable about that film is its sense of discovery, and in some cases rediscovery, as the Disney animators have this collective, dawning realization that they don’t have to settle for “good enough for the kiddies” if they don’t want to. They can try to make something aesthetically pleasing, with richer characters and actual themes. I personally think The Little Mermaid is a baby-steps film, while Beauty And The Beast is the great leap, but I have a lot of affection for the former, for the way it wobbles its way toward real quality.
It’s been frustrating, though, to see how American animation studios (Disney included) have tried to to convert the successes of a Little Mermaid or a Toy Story into a checklist, which includes not just “insert comic relief” and “write catchy songs,” but also “explore profound theme”… with the latter often feeling like an afterthought. When I think about some of the best non-sequel mainstream animated features of recent years—Tangled, How To Train Your Dragon, Kung Fu Panda—what stands out is how they all have resonances that emerge naturally from the kinds of stories they’re telling. I’m not sure I could say the same about Brave or Wreck-It Ralph, even though I like both of those movies.
Keith: Your inventory makes me worry that we’ve come upon a shortage of exciting ideas and, pardon me, brave new worlds in animation. Which brings me back to my original point: Animation, more than any other genre of film, has the ability to create a world unto itself. Sure, animation companies have their house styles, but when you think about Snow White and Bambi, or Toy Story and A Bug’s Life, these feel like separate universes, even though John Ratzenberger tends to show up a lot in some of those universes. A sequel closes off the chance of creating such a universe, even if there’s still an opportunity to make a good, even great, film within a universe that’s already out there. (Witness, again, Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs 2 and the Toy Story films.) It seems like the bigger issue we’re talking around is a sense of creeping predictability: too many sequels, too many rehashed stories, not enough inventiveness and excitement. Which, if I recall my history correctly, is why animation needed a shot in the arm in the 1980s. Are we nearing another crisis point?
Tasha: I can’t ever get excited about alarmist questions like that in pop culture, or culture in general. Countries reach crisis points; culture just slowly evolves, sometimes in maladaptive ways. Even if all animated films were essentially telling the exact same story right now, I wouldn’t consider that a crisis, so much as an opportunity for the next Brad Bird or Henry Selick or John Lasseter or Pete Docter. In a field where everything feels samey and mass-produced, an original vision really stands out.
But I don’t think we’re at that threat point just yet. If anything, I think we’re coming off a new mini golden age of animation, and any concerns about where the field is headed comes from a sense that we’re on a slight comparative downward decline in quality (led, sadly, by Pixar) after a decade of American animated cinema getting progressively more exciting and ambitious every year. In the same way the $400 million domestic theatrical success of The Lion King encouraged many more major studios to get into cel animation, in hopes of competing with Disney for that kind of payday, Pixar’s huge financial success with ambitious, smart, adult-accessible films encouraged studios to try for more original and personal visions, and amiably weird films like Tangled, Kung-Fu Panda, Turbo, Despicable Me, Megamind, and How To Train Your Dragon resulted. (Personally, Noel, I’d put Wreck-It Ralph above all those, both for creating the kind of rich original world Keith’s talking about, and for organically building depth out of the kind of story it’s telling, the way you’re asking for. I adore that movie. But that’s a separate debate for another time.) None of these films are really outré—they all fall into the general arena of kids’ stories that adults can enjoy, and they all follow that isolated-outsider model. But they still represent an impressively wide range of worlds, and they’re each hugely entertaining in their own ways.
If there’s a problem with American animation right now, I suspect it’s because of rising costs. Monsters University reportedly took a staggering $200 million to make, which is firmly in blockbuster-filmmaking territory. Most of 2013’s other big animated films—Epic, The Croods, Turbo—were budgeted around $100 million, while Despicable Me 2 only cost $76 million, which helped make it the year’s biggest animated success story. (Planes only cost $50 million, but the relative cheapness is highly visible on the big screen.)
With blockbuster budgets come blockbuster-filmmaking concerns—mainly, the desire to play it safe, appeal to the widest possible demographic, focus on spectacle, and if at all possible, tail an existing success and form a merchandisable franchise. Everything we’ve been saying lately about the problem with the blockbuster model applies to animated films, too. So yes, there’s cause for concern about animated films stagnating under “cookie-cutter movies are safe” thinking, but no more so than with any other kind of big-budget cinema.
“It seems like the bigger issue we’re talking around is a sense of creeping predictability: too many sequels, too many rehashed stories, not enough inventiveness and excitement.”
Besides, frankly, I’m old enough to remember when Disney was so close to the only game in town that the occasional American animated film of any quality at all, like Charlotte’s Web or The Last Unicorn, was a huge and welcome surprise, and when imports like Hayao Miyazaki’s films, or Akira, were solely the provenance of isolated urban arthouses and college-campus cinema clubs. The current landscape still feels incredibly rich and energetic to me, by contrast with what I grew up with. While innovation and daring will always be hugely welcome—which is why we’re all still happily reeling over the wordless, expansive, endearing opening of Wall-E—I think the problem still lies more with laziness in individual films than with the industry as a whole. And looking at individual films, I still have hope even for the franchisiest of the franchises. The teaser trailer for 2014’s How To Train Your Dragon 2 is so ebullient, so rooted in the leisurely but joyous exploration of a single emotion, rather than in fast editing and dumb gags, that it gave me chills. I don’t want to see American animators resting on their laurels, but I’m not ready to sound the alarm bells on them yet, either.
Noel: I think those are all fair points, Tasha. With so much money at stake, it makes sense for studios to try and lock in as many reliably salable elements as possible, which sometimes means that creative types only have enough room to doodle in the margins. I wonder if it mightn’t be better for the artform if the Hollywood branch of the animation industry went through an extended commercial slump, so that they’d be forced to break some of the reliance on formulas, or so that we’d see a return to those days you mention when the arrival of an independently produced feature or an import from Europe or Japan would be treated as more of a big deal. It’s too bad that Disney has been using its low-budget wing to make sequels, instead of looking for ways to innovate on the cheap.
Because it’s hardly an impossibility that big-screen animation could become exciting again—as it was in those not-so-long-ago days when I could count on one or two animated films landing on my year-end Top 10. Even taking into account that Hollywood animation departments are hamstrung to some extent by the mandate to churn out family-friendly films, I only have to look at the plethora of creative work being done in children’s books and TV animation to see writers and artists that the major studios would do well to court. My beef with most of the recent big-budget animated features—and I hasten to add that it’s not a major beef, because I’ve enjoyed a lot of them—is that they have a lumbering quality. Even the ones that initially come across as uniquely screwy (like Despicable Me and Megamind) are pushy in a way that dampens a lot of their fun and vibrancy, for me anyway. But there are still plenty of stories to tell that can be told in animation as well as any other medium, and plenty of bright talents out there who’d love the chance to give the medium a new look.