The Theatrical Animation Enemy: Mediocrity

OK, obviously “flash in the pan-itis” is a made up word, but mediocrity certainly is not, and it’s just as acceptable a substitute. So what do both words mean in the context of animation, why are they the theatrical animation enemy and what does it have to do with the industry right now? Let’s find out.

What is “mediocrity” as it relates to animation?

To start with what it is, mediocrity is basically exactly what you think it might mean: mediocre films, average films, middle-of-the-road films. Do note that this does not mean they are the film that everyone can enjoy, far from it, even the film that’s accessible for all ages can be far from ordinary.

What I mean is that we’re starting to see the kinds of films that we haven’t really seen before for the simple reason that not enough of them were being made. Looking back 30 years ago, you pretty much had Disney and, uh, not many others in the theatrical sphere. That meant of course that what was released was generally considered either good or bad with little middle ground.

Today, though, there are plenty of animated films studios (Disney, DreamWorks, Sony, Illumination, Blue Sky, Aardman (in the UK), Cartoon Saloon (in Ireland), even more in other countries) and they’re all releasing films every year. In 2012 we’re up to at least 13 (and that’s just the big ones in the cinemas). What this means is that we’ve seen the middle ground between the truly bad and the truly great open up and spew forth a rash of films that are, well, meh.

Films from the past few years that fit into this mould include The Lorax, Despicable Me, Flushed Away, Tangled (on the borderline),  Megamind and pretty much any sequel you care to name.

Why is it a problem?

Well, think about it! A good, really good film should stay with you for a long time after you leave the cinema. you should ruminate on it, contemplate its good and bad points and ultimately either like or dislike it in an informed manner. Films like those listed above, while generally good films, don’t tend to provoke strong responses outside of kids and overly-enthusiastic adults. Sure I like most of them (splurged for a Tangled poster even), but I honestly can’t say what it is about Despicable Me that forms my opinion of the film.

In contrast, say, with Brave, I can pinpoint exactly where it is in the film that my opinions come from (poor story, wooden characters but gorgeous animation). The same goes for any great film be it from Studio Ghibli to DreamWorks to Aardman. The point is that those films are burned into my noggin’, not simply threaded in front of my eyes.

Middle of the road movies provide quick and easy entertainment but God knows how the animation industry has struggled to free itself from the “babysitter” label for decades now. I don’t mean to say that every animated film produced has to be a work of artistic and critical genius, but it’s hard to look back over ten years of Shreks and see the uniqueness in any of them (the novelty of the original has long worn off, and the Disney parody it portrayed has become moot since they decided to start parodying themselves with Tangled).

Why is it the “enemy”?

Perhaps “enemy” is too harsh. What about “nemesis”? No, that’s even worse. Hmmm, how about “that melanoma that’s OK for now but will eventually get really ugly looking if you don’t treat it”? That sound kinda right, right?

What I mean is that mediocre films have to be tolerated, up to a point. If we let too many swamp the market, we set ourselves up for failure. Appealing to the broadest audience is easily done with boring films, but the problem is that they have no legs. Look at Disney, it’s still making (loads of) money from Snow White, and you know that that film was paid for many, many decades ago.

Now look at something like Shrek, or The Lorax. It’s barely ten years since the former and the latter has only just come out on DVD/download, but they barely blip on my radar any more. Why is that? Why have they sort of slipped into my subconscious into the “I saw them once, they were good, but I could stand to watch something else” place?

Now you could argue that continuous production of new content is necessary for employment and that the public wants to see new stuff, but that ignores the premise that the public always wants to see new stuff. They always have and they always will!

What does it have to do with the industry now?

The problem is that the industry as a whole is convinced that they are putting out the best movies they can. Unfortunately we won’t know for certain for a decade or two, but a great example can be seen in Disney output in the latter half of the 90s. Yeah the films were OK, good even, but they were mediocre films. Kids today know the Lion King, but can they name any of the films that came after it?

A focus on short term returns or profits may seem like a good idea but content (and copyright) last a lot longer. Why ignore all those potential future revenues? Walt Disney seemed to think they were worth it, certainly so when his films made a loss the first time out. He’s been proved right in the end. Who’s laughing now? (Hint: it may be Bob Iger).

The notion of a reaching a high bar is a noble one. Disney did it for a long time. Pixar came along and raised it again but too many films seem to be coming out that are happy with where that high bar is and are more than content not to reach for it. That’s kind of sad really. We should be seeing more films taking the risk and reaching for it. That’s not to say every film has to, but it would be nice to see at least a few more trying or appear to be trying. The alternative is a decade of theatrical animation that will be consigned to the history books.

2 thoughts on “The Theatrical Animation Enemy: Mediocrity”

  1. I agree. The reason so many animated feature films are mediocre today is greed. Studios are so terrified of not making a huge immediate profit on their investment that they will only do subjects that have already had some success and there’s nothing more mediocre than sequels. Walt Disney was a consummate risk-taker and he would have a fit if he could see how unoriginal and afraid his studio has become. You’re so right when you say the investment of original, soul-stirring content will pay off in the long run.

    1. Exactly. And I understand how investors and shareholders like to see a steady return, but the ups and downs of hits and misses is partly what makes the industry so fun in the first place!

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