Is animation developing a success-quality gap?


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With the $43.3-million opening of ‘How to Train Your Dragon,’ the animation category, as it does seemingly every year, continues to outdo itself.

In 2006, four animated movies reached the magic mark of $100 million in domestic box office. In 2007, five films did. Last year, no fewer than eight movies topped that figure. It’s starting to feel a little like the latter stages of Wayne Gretzky’s 92-goal season: The only record it keeps breaking is its own.
With installments in powerhouse franchises like ‘Shrek’ and ‘Toy Story’ coming this summer, and new additions to the canon such as ‘Despicable Me,’ 2010 promises to be another banner year at the box office for the category.


But as animation continues to mature, the success doesn’t apply equally. In fact, it seems to apply unequally. And, from a quality standpoint, it tends to favor the lesser movies.

Sure, Pixar has its annual blockbuster, an ‘Up’ or an ‘Incredibles’ that is also exceedingly well-reviewed. But a look at the larger history shows a notable pattern, one in which audiences tend to more tightly embrace movies that critics tend to push away.

‘Shrek 2’ and ‘Shrek the Third,” for instance, are two of the most profitable animated films in the category’s history (they sit at No. 1 and No. 4, respectively, in all-time domestic box office), even as they drew lukewarm reviews. Critics’ favorites like ‘Coraline’ and ‘Wallace & Gromit?’ They’re way down at Nos. 61 and 75. (The latter two each cracked 80% on movie-review site Metacritic, surpassing the middling reception for the two ‘Shrek’ sequels.)
True, some of these lesser-performing films were given different marketing budgets and release patterns. But you pretty much can’t orchestrate a better test case than the one completed this past weekend, when DreamWorks Animation’s ‘How to Train Your Dragon’ opened on the same weekend as ‘Monsters vs. Aliens’ the year prior. Here were two animated films from the same studio, released on the same weekend exactly one year apart, both in 3-D. And yet, despite drawing far weaker reviews, ‘Monsters & Aliens’ grossed about 30% more. (It is telling that ‘Dragon’ received an ‘A’ on CinemaScore -- even though not as many moviegoers went to see the film as the studio had hoped, those that did really liked it.)

There’s also a whole tier of middling animated films -- ‘Bee Movie’ and ‘Chicken Little’ and ‘Over the Hedge’ -- that seem to have no problem grossing $125 million or more. And even among the Pixar hits, the higher-quality films tend to lag relative to their more mediocre counterparts; ‘Ratatouille’ and ‘Wall-E,’ for instance, both didn’t fare as well as ‘Cars.’

We shouldn’t be entirely surprised by this gap -- live-action films, after all, have seen audiences’ and critics’ tastes diverging for years. But animation was supposed to be an exception. It was possible to create great films that also happened to be huge money-earners, the business’ stalwarts kept reminding us (and as the landmark best-picture nomination for ‘Up’ this year confirmed).
Turns out it’s not that simple. You can create really good animated films but, as a rule, you’ll have more success if your films aren’t that great. Animation is like everything else, a little less like Gretzky and more like a solid right-wing, fallible and prone to foibles.

-- Steven Zeitchik



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