Animation nation

“You see, animation ain’t that bad, fuddy-duddy.”

“You see, animation ain’t that bad, fuddy-duddy.”

Perhaps it was just a happy coincidence that three giants of the animated genre—Hayao Miyazaki (Ponyo), Henry Selick (Coraline) and Pixar (Up)—had 2009 releases, but most of my favorite films this year were cartoons.

It’s clear that something serious is happening—either a severely arrested adolescence on my part, or a sea change in the supremacy of live-action films over their animated brethren.

The CGI-ification of the American filmscape is partly to blame; as live-action movies have “evolved” to look more like cartoons, animated movies have gotten better at mimicking real life. If you want sharp visual storytelling and honest emotions, you watch Fantastic Mr. Fox, not Fantastic Four.

Of course, money, now entering its second century as the only reason that Hollywood does anything, is the real motivator. Animated pictures typically earn more in the foreign markets than they do domestically, so they’re practically pre-sold.

Ice Age 3 made a respectable $196 million stateside, but grossed nearly $700 million overseas, and the foreign receipts for Ratatouille, Kung Fu Panda and The Simpsons Movie doubled their domestic tallies. Even Garfield: A Tail of Two Kitties, featuring an animated cat and a for-all-intents-and-purposes a live Breckin Meyer, did four times better in the foreign markets.

The guaranteed box office means that greater chances can be taken with the story, characters and visuals. While most live-action studio pictures are shot against green screens in small rooms, animated artists have few shackles on their imaginations.

That leads to masterpieces like Coraline and Fantastic Mr. Fox, but there’s also more soul and invention in middling cartoon features like 9 or The Tale of Despereaux than in a hundred Night at the Museum sequels.

How much longer before animated movies are the only palatable entertainment produced by the studios?