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2004: Hopes and Expectations

Suffice to say, 2003 was not a red-letter year for animation. This is partially due to the overwhelming success of Finding Nemo, which seems to have sucked out the energy and interest in any other animated film sheerly by virtue of comparison. While I personally thought there were several excellent animated features this year (Nemo, Looney Tunes: Back in Action, Sennen Joyu [Millenium Actress], Les Triplettes de Belleville [The Triplets of Belleville]), there's no denying that when 2003 is remembered, it will be remembered for Nemo alone and not for animation in general. In addition to that, the year has been colored by the eruption of the feud between Roy Disney and Michael Eisner and the official announcements of cel animation being ended at both Dreamworks and Disney, further enforcing the appearance of 2003 as one of animation's darkest hours.


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2004 has a brighter outlook. Maybe it's just the optimist in me, but I think we'll be seeing the upside to Roy and Stanley Gold's departure from Disney this year. At this point, Eisner and company have quieted down the PR nightmare of having the blood of Disney quit the corporation that bears his family's name. 2004, however, is likely to see Roy and Stanley's "counter-attack", for the lack of a better term. They've had the time to ask around and plan things out, and it's unlikely they'll just sit by and let a year go by without making a move. I still hope they join forces with the last mainstream bastion of animated integrity, Pixar Animation Studios. As I said earlier in my article about Roy's resignation, it would be a large slap in the face to Eisner, whom has been trying to re-curry the favor of what is arguably the best studio working today. In fact, even if Roy and Stanley don't go to Pixar, Jobs and Lasseter are still poised to serve Eisner some serious crow, with the impending creation of a Pixar 2-D animation department. When Eisner sees a Pixar cel animated film succeed where he has failed, he's likely to keel over.

But let's go on to the actual output of 2004. There's not too much on the horizon that's cel animated (no surprise there). What may be Disney's last traditional film - at least, for a while - will be seeing the light of day in April, and that's Home On The Range. I admit to being a little put-off by the project when I first heard about it: a yodeling rustler? However, my tune has changed, following Jim Hill Media's enthusiastic rave about the film when one of Jim's sources saw a close-to-completion version of it back in October. The report was that the film was quite hilarious, which is probably a good bet given one of the film's stand-in directors, Will Finn (apparently, one of the funniest guys in the business). The trailer reveals an artistic style reminiscent of The Emperor's New Groove, certainly a good way to go when doing comedy. And after watching Outbreak and Jerry Maguire again recently, I'm aching for Cuba Gooding, Jr. to do a GOOD film. However, it's a animated western about cows being released in the semi-successful month of April, giving the film the chance to be a sleeper but the probability of only modest success, if that. Audience response is going to have to be really excellent for the film to surpass expectations.

Dreamworks/PDI has been pretty busy themselves, with two CGI films on their way this year. Shrek 2 is a safe bet for at least general box-office success, given the previous film's popularity. The cast has expanded to include even more big names like Rupert Everett, John Cleese, Julie Andrews, and Antonio Banderas as Puss 'n' Boots, a character that from the trailer alone looks to be one of the best of the year. The challenge for this film, of course, is going to be justification - is there really a story to tell in the world of Happily Ever After? Does it undermine the first film's finale to have further dramatic conflict? Time will tell. Meanwhile, PDI will be going a very different direction on the subject of CGI fish films with Shark Tale, which will sport a mafioso tale and has a cast of such adult-friendly names like Will Smith, Renee Zellweger, Angelina Jolie, Robert De Niro, and even Martin Scorsese. (Betting begins now on how often kids will be asking their folks why that one fish has utterly humongous eyebrows.) Now, I was one of the people whom were absolutely jazzed back when this project was called Sharkslayer, and rumors were circulating about the film possibly being PG-13. That rating has fallen on some of the most profitable and popular films of all time, and it's the PG-13 leeway that I feel animation could truly use. But the name has been changed to one more "kid-friendly" (although I fail to see how any child whom has been told a story about a dragon could be daunted by the word "slay") and the rating is apparently going to be the typical PG, so my interest has waned ever so slightly. I'm intrigued, but not as wildly excited as I was before. Hopefully, the film is solid enough to support whatever level of mature or immature content it holds.

Pixar's got another one, naturally, but this one is likely to be something of a change for the studio. The Incredibles will be the first Pixar film to be entirely about humans (or superhumans, as the case may be), and it's being directed by someone who's only just become a Pixar regular. Brad Bird is best known as a director for The Simpsons and the director/co-writer of The Iron Giant, an animated masterpiece that remains relatively unknown, thanks to Warner Bros.'s terrible marketing. Audiences were treated to a teaser trailer before Finding Nemo, proof enough that the film is already well-marketed. The teaser, which is probably composed of material remote from the rest of the film (like the teaser for Monsters, Inc., which had a single hilarious scene between Sully and Mike), has already got this Pixar fanboy a-twitter, with the animation on Mr. Incredible living up to his name, along with some of the best (and most truthful) animation of a man trying to get on a too-small belt that I've ever seen. The film's premise, however, is particularly novel for a Pixar production; I'll not reveal it here, but I will say that it has more to do with the world of adults than any of the past films. Few films for 2004, animated or not, are as anticipated by myself as this one.

These are only just the most mainstream and major of the animated releases of the year. Also on the horizon are TV-to-feature adaptations like Teacher's Pet and SpongeBob SquarePants: The Movie, non-major studio releases like Delgo, Valiant, and Kaena: The Prophecy, and anime releases that may not see the light of day in America this year like Hauru no Ugoku Shiro (Howl's Moving Castle), Steamboy, and Innocence: Kokaku Kidotai (Innocence: Ghost in the Shell). I'm particularly saddened by Howl's delay, since I could devour a new Miyazaki film a day if such an output were possible; still, nobody else could make me wait as patiently as Miyazaki can. There's a lot of promise in a lot of these films, unlike my general dread towards films like Rugrats Go Wild or Brother Bear. If nothing else happens in the world of the industry wars for 2004, an unlikely development, those of us in the audience can at least console ourselves with the large output on the horizon for 2004. Few years have looked as good from the outset.


A critique by Alex Weitzman
First Published on Jan 4, 2004

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