Animated features are becoming less child-centric, with even Pixar exploring darker tones. John Hazelton surveys this year’s trends, plus the international productions that are making waves

If the list of 21 films submitted for consideration in this year’s animated feature category for the Academy Awards is any indication, the feature animation business is not just healthy but also healthily diverse.

In commercial terms, of course, the animation landscape continues to be dominated by studio-distributed 3D CG blockbusters. But even among the big-budget computer-animated entries on the Academy list (from which between three and five Oscar nominees will eventually be selected) there is some evidence that feature animation is becoming a wider, less child-centric field.

‘People are beginning to realise animation is not a genre, it’s a medium; so they can tell any kind of story’

Katherine Sarafian, Pixar

Disney-owned CG pioneer Pixar, whose films have won four of the last five Oscars in the category, this year delivered Brave [pictured], a historical adventure about a rebellious Scottish princess that went through a difficult production process but largely restored the company’s critical reputation after the more poorly received Cars 2 — and grossed $534m worldwide.

Brave was made with Presto, a new proprietary software suite that replaces the system used since Pixar’s inception and which allowed the film-makers to achieve new levels of realism in depicting the Scottish settings and details such as the heroine’s mane of red hair.

“We had never done such an extreme version of a naturalistic, organic environment,” says producer Katherine Sarafian, who previously worked in various capacities on Pixar projects including The Incredibles and Monsters, Inc.

The PG-rated film also had a darker tone than most previous Pixar releases, the majority of which have been G-rated in the US. “It was a deliberate choice to tell the story with an edge of darkness in it, because we wanted to show a family relationship that was truly in jeopardy,” Sarafian says.

Disney’s own animation operation, meanwhile, has continued the resurgence that began with 2010’s Tangled with this year’s Wreck-It Ralph, a well-received comedy with a nostalgic video-game theme that helped broaden its audience during a strong start at the US box office. And at a lower budget level, the studio’s DisneyToon unit has gained some attention (as well as a spot on the Academy submission list) with CG fairy tale Secret Of The Wings.

DreamWorks Animation, another important presence on the animation scene, had a major hit this summer with Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted, the most successful entry to date in that franchise. The studio is now hoping for a holiday season success with Rise Of The Guardians, an elaborately animated adaptation of William Joyce’s The Guardians Of Childhood book series. 

Among the newer studio entrants on the scene, Sony scored this year with Hotel Transylvania; Universal hit big with The Lorax; and Fox and its Blue Sky Studios had a mammoth summer success with Ice Age: Continental Drift.

The studios have made the most of their investments in CG animation by perfecting marketing strategies designed to reach all four quadrants — young, old, male and female — of the movie-going public.

“Certainly parents and kids are the sweet spot,” says Anne Globe, chief marketing officer at DreamWorks Animation. But, she adds: “We’re looking at the big-event audience for every one of our releases. We’re always marketing to a four-quadrant audience.”

The result has been some massive box-office grosses, both in the US and internationally, with CG-animated features currently holding three spots in the 2012 worldwide top 10.

‘By fusing craft and technology we can take stop-motion places it’s never been’

Travis Knight, Laika

International markets have been a particular boon for the animation-invested studios, though not every animated film works in every territory. “More sophisticated product works well in places like the UK, Australia, Japan and France,” reports Dave Hollis, EVP of theatrical exhibition sales and distribution at Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures. “Titles more slapstick in nature tend to work well in places like Latin America, Korea, Russia and Germany.”

While CG features have produced the biggest box-office numbers, stop-motion animation has maintained a place in the landscape, and this year’s Academy line-up includes three studio-distributed stop-motion features: The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists (AKA The Pirates! Band Of Misfits), produced by the UK’s Aardman Animations and distributed by Sony; ParaNorman, made by Laika, with Universal’s Focus Features distributing; and Tim Burton’s Disney-distributed Frankenweenie.

Laika president and CEO Travis Knight, who served as ParaNorman’s producer and lead animator, concedes that “people have been declaring stop-motion dead for a generation”. But by bringing computers into the process, he says, Laika hopes to reinvigorate the art form. “By fusing craft and technology we can take the medium places it’s never been before,” he says.

With horror homage ParaNorman, “we had aspirations to make it more cinematic,” Knight goes on, “to tackle subject matter and techniques that are difficult to achieve in the medium.”

By further developing techniques such as the rapid prototyping used on its first feature Coraline, Laika was able to make the characters in ParaNorman more detailed and expressive than those usually seen in stop-motion animation.

And because stop-motion is less expensive than CG animation, Laika can maintain its business on smaller box-office takes (ParaNorman has so far grossed around $97m worldwide).

“If your budgets are lower, you don’t have to reach the same stratospheric level of success that a $150m CG film has to in order to be profitable,” Knight explains. “Our threshold for success is much, much lower.”

The international animation business has yet to produce a worldwide hit to compare to the output of the Hollywood majors. But it does produce a steady supply of animated films that are gaining attention outside their home markets, as evidenced by the non-US productions included on this year’s Academy list.

Among the international submissions are three French films, including graphic novel-based César winner The Rabbi’s Cat and 3D CG box-office success Zarafa, plus two Japanese offerings, including From Up On Poppy Hill, the Studio Ghibli production written by Hayao Miyazaki and directed by his son, Goro, which was Japan’s top-grossing homegrown release in 2011. Also on the list are films from countries with less well-established animation industries, such as India and South Africa.

Eric Beckman, president of GKids, which is distributing The Rabbi’s Cat, Zarafa, From Up On Poppy Hill and France’s The Painting in the US, says 2012 “has been a good year for the type of films that we distribute: artist-driven films being created for their home territories without a lot of thought of the US”.

‘Parents and kids are the sweet spot… but we’re always marketing to a four-quadrant audience’

Anne Globe, DreamWorks Animation

Beckman suggests that while bigger international animated films do not have broad enough appeal to warrant wide US release, there is a gap in the market for smaller, more artistic and sometimes more adult-oriented international offerings. GKids’ business model, he says, “connects the wonderful films that are being created in Europe and Asia with audiences in the US”.

If those international films do find a place in the US market, it may be that they will fit into what some US animation practitioners see as a business that could, in future, cater to niche as well as four-quadrant audiences.

Brave producer Sarafian, for one, thinks that as the cost comes down on animation tools, features will become more diverse and targeted.

“It’s an amazing time for animation,” she enthuses. “People are beginning to realise that animation is not a genre, it’s a medium; so they can tell any kind of story. I believe we’re not far away from a straight-up adult romantic comedy that’s animated. You can have an intense adult action film. You can do anything — and that’s the beauty of animation.”