It’s been just over a decade now since Pixar introduced us to the colorful world of CG features, giving us Toy Story, and with it, a taste for the visually compelling medium of CGI. Before we could ooh and ah over the technological leaps that refined the look of the lovable toys in Toy Story 2, we welcomed invasions of digital insects in Disney/Pixar’s A Bug’s Life and PDI/DreamWorks’ Antz.
In 2001, these animation/technology powerhouses continued to hone their craft in Monsters, Inc., and Shrek. That same year, two newcomers to the field of CG animated features left their mark, as well: Square Pictures, with Final Fantasy, and DNA Productions, with Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius. Considered independent studios, both were backed by a big name: Square, with its hugely popular computer game group, and DNA, with producer Paramount Pictures and Nickelodeon Movies. Still, these two films showed there was room for smaller teams to play alongside the “big hitters.” In March 2002, Blue Sky Studios (subsequently bought by 20th Century Fox) entered the fray with Ice Age. And last year, Vanguard Animations released Valiant, though the movie failed to take off in the US—a rare occurrence for a 3D animated feature—despite its Disney distribution connection.
Until this year, semi-independent studios making their mark in the CG animated feature realm were the exception, not the rule. But in 2006, a revolution of sorts occurred. Indeed, audiences were entertained by the woodland creatures in PDI/DreamWorks’ Over the Hedge, the vehicles with character in Disney/Pixar’s Cars, the unwelcoming home in Sony Pictures Imageworks’ Monster House, the animal “hunters” in Imageworks’ Open Season, and the elaborate underground world of Aardman/DreamWorks’ Flushed Away. Yet, the year began with an independent spirit, starting with the fractured fairy tale Hoodwinked from The Weinstein Company, and will end similarly, with the entertaining penguins of Happy Feet, from Warner Bros., Village Roadshow Pictures, and Animal Logic. Between those two titles were other independent releases—some more independent than others—including Ice Age 2 (Fox/Blue Sky), The Wild (Disney and CORE), The Magic Roundabout (The Weinstein Company), Barnyard (Nickelodeon and Paramount), The Ant Bully (DNA Productions, Legendary Pictures, and Playtone), and Everyone’s Hero (IDT Entertainment, now part of Starz).
This poses the following question: Can a so-called independent CG animated feature compete for a slice of the box-office pie? And, does that pie taste just as good, or, in some instances, better, than what is offered by the animation studio giants? I believe the answer is yes—if the films are done well. Although Everyone’s Hero (see “Painting a Picture,”) did not require a complex technical achievement on par with the simulated water interactions in Aardman/DreamWorks’ Flushed Away (see “Flushed with Success,”), the film makes up for that in its heartwarming story and unique nostalgic look. But, is that enough to fill theater seats? After all, Flushed Away also gets style points for maintaining the charming Aardman claymation look within CG. Eventually, we’ll know how profitable each was in their endeavor. I, for one, am hoping that these independents will continue creating CG animated films, and that others follow in their footsteps. And in between those efforts, we can still be entertained by the animation giants who continue to innovate.