If you’re a parent, you most likely see a lot of animated movies. I’m a parent as well as a film critic, which means that I pretty much see all the animated movies. There’s no denying it’s a magnificent genre that has provided us with some genuine classics: The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, anything from Pixar that isn’t called Cars 2. You get the idea. At the same time, there are some noticeable and annoying trends that have become all too common in the animation world. These things desperately need to change, because if they don’t, children will grow resentful of animated movies and stop going to see them, which in turn will bring about the downfall of cinema as a whole. Okay, maybe I’m being a tad melodramatic on that one, but we still need to halt the brakes on these trends.
Too much similarity. A lot of animated films have dealt with similar subjects. In just the last few years we’ve seen aliens (Escape from Planet Earth, Mars Needs Moms, Monsters vs. Aliens, Planet 51, Wall-E), animals (Alpha & Omega, Happy Feet, Ice Age, Kung Fu Panda, Legend of the Guardians, Madagascar, Open Season, Puss in Boots, Rango, Rio, Space Chimps, The Wild), fish (Finding Nemo, Shark Tale), monsters (Hotel Transylvania, Monsters University, Monsters, Inc.), and superheroes/villains (Despicable Me, The Incredibles, Megamind). Many of these movies have also had at least one sequel. There is no sign that this trend of similar subject matter will decrease anytime soon. One need only look at this summer’s animated slate to see proof of that. Turbo is about a snail. Epic has two characters that are snails. Monsters University features a monster that looks like… a snail. It’s enough to make you wonder whether the National Escargot Association has been lobbying Hollywood. (Note: The National Escargot Association is not a real thing, so please do not attempt to join.)
The commonalities don’t just extend to the subjects. Many animated films make use of the same voice actors. Here are some examples of multiple offenders: Ryan Reynolds (The Croods, Turbo), Seth Rogen (Shrek the Third, Monsters vs. Aliens, Horton Hears a Who, Kung Fu Panda 1 & 2), Robin Williams (Aladdin, Robots, Everyone’s Hero, Happy Feet 1 & 2), Jane Lynch (Space Chimps, Shrek Forever After, Rio, Wreck-It Ralph, Escape from Planet Earth), and George Lopez (Rio, Escape from Planet Earth, and the partially animated Beverly Hills Chihuahua and The Smurfs). Between identical actors and topics, animated movies are becoming like a game of Clue. “I’ll guess George Lopez as an alien in the DreamWorks!”
Even the music in animated fare is often the same. The pop band Owl City has contributed theme songs for five such films: Legend of the Guardians, Wreck-It Ralph, The Croods, Escape from Planet Earth, and the upcoming Monsters University. This is especially odd, considering that no one actually likes Owl City.
Hiring stars for voice work, even when it’s not appropriate. We’ve already established an overuse of the same actors, but using stars at all is becoming annoyingly repetitive. Nobody can deny that Mike Myers’ faux Scottish brogue made Shrek a beloved character, or that Ellen DeGeneres’ unique comic stylings gave Dory the fish a heart and soul. That said, it’s become standard for animated films to cast big stars, even if there’s nothing distinctive about their voices, and even if they don’t have anything especially vital to add. At least 90 percent of the time, the only thing name actors bring to an animated picture is the magical ability to make you turn to your spouse and say, “That voice sounds familiar. Who is that?” What exactly will Amanda Seyfried and Josh Hutcherson bring to Epic? They’re competent actors, but their ability to deliver vocal magic is questionable. And was Happy Feet –– a movie about dancing penguins, mind you — really improved by the vocal presence of Nicole Kidman and Elijah Wood? Did you even know it was them? Would Alpha & Omega have been even more forgettable than it already is if unknowns had played the titular wolves instead of Justin Long and Hayden Panettiere?
The casting of stars sometimes goes to ludicrous extremes. Taylor Swift was hired to voice the female lead in The Lorax, and they didn’t even ask her to sing, for crying out loud! I recognize Swift’s voice when she’s musically lamenting some guy who done her wrong, but I wouldn’t recognize her from Eve speaking. In Despicable Me, Russell Brand used a trick voice that sounded nothing like his own. Universal Pictures may as well have just flushed the money they paid him down the toilet! (They should have flushed Battleship, too.) Disney fired the generally likeable Jon Cryer from its upcoming Planes and replaced him with Dane Cook, a guy who was briefly popular in 2006, before everyone came to their collective senses and realized what a ginormous hack he is.
Bottom line: stars should only be used when they have something of value to offer. No one knows who did the voice of the Little Mermaid, and it doesn’t effect our love for that film.
Mandatory 3D. Hollywood is determined to make 3D last by forcing it onto half the movies it releases, whether the format is appropriate for the story or not. This is especially noticeable in animated fare. Almost every single animated movie that comes out these days is in 3D. Sometimes it can have merit. How to Train Your Dragon, for example, used 3D to convey height as the fire-breathing beast flew through the sky. That makes sense. Other cases don’t. Toy Story 3 was set almost entirely in a day care center. Nothing about that setting is 3D-worthy. If you want to see children tearing up a day care like deranged lunatics in 3D, you can simply go to a friggin’ day care!
The real drawback, however, is the price. On average, a matinee ticket for a 3D movie costs around ten dollars. If you want to take a family of four to the multiplex for an afternoon, that’s 40 bucks, just for one flick! During the peak moviegoing seasons of summer and Christmas, there are usually multiple big family films in release. If your kids want to see more than one of the 3D offerings, you are going to be shelling out a lot of cash. It’s sort of appalling. Parents shouldn’t have to decide whether to put their kid through college or take him to see The Smurfs 2.
In fairness, a lot of very good movies utilize one or more of these annoying trends. They don’t necessarily make a picture bad. But they are getting increasingly noticeable, and that’s not good. So let this serve as a memo to Pixar, DreamWorks, Blue Sky, and all the other animation companies: Find more original topics, use stars only when absolutely necessary, and limit the 3D. Oh, and please, no more Ice Age sequels. Only the first one was any good.