Looking back, 2016 was an impressive year for animated feature films. It was a period that saw an amazing twofer from Walt Disney Animation with Zootopia and Moana; stop-motion had an amazing showing with Kubo and the Two Strings and My Life as a Zucchini; we got quality sequels with both Finding Dory and Kung Fu Panda 3; Sausage Party provided big adult laughs; and even the more questionable projects, like The Angry Birds Movie and Trolls, managed to exceed low expectations. Overall. it was an impressive continuation of a trend, given how the medium has developed in the last decade.
This reflection begs an important question, however: in the wake of so many high notes, why has 2017 been such impressively underwhelming year for animated movies?
While it's true that the last seven and a half months have seen some highlights, including The LEGO Batman Movie and Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie, the entire rest of the field has wound up being shockingly disappointing. It says a lot when, excluding the aforementioned, the highest Rotten Tomatoes score for an animated feature this year is Cars 3 -- which was deemed by critics at large to be just marginally better than its predecessor (which has remained the only Pixar title with a 'Rotten' rating). Of course, The Emoji Movie (8% on Rotten Tomatoes) makes for a prime target in this discussion, but when also taking into consideration Despicable Me 3 (61%), The Boss Baby (51%), The Smurfs: The Lost Village (37%), and The Nut Job 2: Nutty By Nature (12%), it's clear this is a job for a shotgun, not a sniper rifle.
A big part of why this bad stretch is so significant comes from the way that modern animated movies are made compared to, for example, major blockbusters. Studios nowadays will not hesitate to jump into production on a live-action tentpole with only three-quarters of a script, but development works a lot differently in the animation medium, with projects given years and years of allowance to not only build the visual experience, but also refine story. Both the length of this process and the immense collaboration necessary is supposed to weed out issues and make these features bulletproof and beautiful, but the slate we've seen so far in 2017 almost suggests that something has broken.
Clearly, this is more than just a fan gripe, because the domestic box office numbers suggest that studios should really need to be paying attention (even in cases where money from foreign markets makes up for certain failings . For example, while different titles have certainly carried different expectations, what has remained consistent between all of the franchise titles is that they have all come up short compared to predecessors. Of the "chapter threes" that we've seen so far in 2017 -- Cars 3, Despicable Me 3 and The Smurfs: The Lost Village -- only the second doesn't currently rank last in its respective trilogy, and the truth is that Despicable Me 3 has only earned a little bit more than the original Despicable Me here in the United States. Meanwhile, The Boss Baby was able to turn a profit, but the numbers for The Nut Job 2: Nutty By Nature and The Emoji Movie have been poor in their opening weeks. Sadly, legitimate critical acclaim hasn't even a solvent for this dim period, as Captain Underpants earned an 86% on Rotten Tomatoes, but was out of the box office Top 10 by its fifth week of release.
Of course, the silver lining in all of this is that it's only August, and there is still time for animation on the whole to try to pick itself up and dust itself off a bit in the back half of the year. There is certainly some exciting stuff on the way, including the hilarious-looking LEGO Ninjago Movie and Pixar's Coco, plus we could still be surprised by Ferdinand and The Star. If not, however, a big bounce back is going to be expected of the animated titles that find their way into theaters in 2018.