Here we (let it) go again. Frozen II has broken box-office records with presales before it has even been released, and will doubtless cap off a triumphant year for Disney Animation and its subsidiary Pixar. The revamped Lion King is the biggest animation of all time; Toy Story 4 has also taken more than a billion dollars. Cue more fist-shaking at the unassailable hugeness of Disney. But if any rival is hoping to overturn this, they will have to try a damned sight harder.
At the beginning of the century, we considered ourselves in a “golden age” of animation, brought on by now-classic early Pixar titles Toy Story, The Incredibles and Finding Nemo, and the non-Pixar Shrek and Happy Feet. But looking around this year, you would have to acknowledge this era is over. Apart from Disney offerings, what have we had? Mostly underwhelming sequels and derivative new stuff. In the latter category you would put the recent, utterly extraneous The Addams Family, human-creature buddy movie Abominable, and forgettable stuff such as Ugly Dolls and Playmobil: The Movie. The rest are sequels: The Secret Life of Pets 2, Angry Birds 2, How to Train Your Dragon 3, The Lego Movie 2 – none of which made much of an impression.
It is not just that the stories are getting repetitive and the comedy more juvenile. Once we marvelled at the giant leaps computer animation was making: the fur in Monsters Inc, the food textures in Ratatouille, the balloon physics in Up. Now it feels as though everything is set in the same candy-coloured, hygienically stylised universe, like a bad trip in M&M’s World. Yes, I know they’re children’s movies. But so were those golden-age animations, except they were classy and appealed to a broad demographic.
Animated features now treat everyone like kids. And if you are the grownup watching, all you are getting is a few fart gags and a hackneyed “be yourself” message. Perhaps we have been buttered up by the era of creature-related internet cuteness, but right now it feels as if we are all in the high chair, being spoon-fed processed slop.
Of course, there are exceptions, such as the vibrant Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse, and there is some great animation for grownups (Cannes-winner I Lost My Body). But having piled into the game, Disney’s rivals are realising that animation is hugely expensive and risky. Meanwhile, Pixar is still giving us deep, ambitious stories such as Inside Out and the forthcoming Soul, and Disney has taken on criticism about representation, resulting in the smart, inclusive likes of Zootropolis, Big Hero 6 and Moana. True, Disney-Pixar has also succumbed to sequelitis – none of its three 2019 releases were original stories – but it is still setting a benchmark few others can match. It is almost like it has had some experience in this business.