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How Bad is the Year in Animation So Far?

Box office, Rotten Tomatoes scores, and Oscar buzz is low for major animated features in 2017.
By  · Published on July 31st, 2017

Box office, Rotten Tomatoes scores, and Oscar buzz is low for major animated features in 2017.

Children go back to school this week, at least in my neck of the woods. That means less time to go to the movies on a whim on any old day. Perhaps that’s why animated features for kids rarely open in August. This year is an exception with both The Nut Job 2: Nutty By Nature and Leap! arriving next month, and maybe they will do OK at the box office. It’d certainly be helpful if so, because so far this summer, the genre has been doing terribly.

Here are the summer’s four animated features’ domestic grosses through this past weekend:

Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie: $72.5M
Cars 3: $146.4M
Despicable Me 3: $230.4M
The Emoji Movie: $25.7M
Total: $475M

Last year, the same time frame gave us The Angry Birds MovieFinding DoryThe Secret Life of Pets, and Ice Age: Collision Course. Even with the last of them a surprise flop, their total through the end of July was $956.5M (adjusted for inflation). In 2015, there was just Inside Out and Minions, yet still the total that summer was $630.5M (adjusted). The previous year was a low point, though, as we got the disastrous flop Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return, followed by How to Train Your Dragon 2 and Planes: Fire & Rescue for a total of only $238.7M (adjusted).

In 2013, there was EpicMonsters University, Despicable Me 2, and Turbo. And that summer total was $837.6M (adjusted). Five years ago, in 2012, the wide-release animated features consisted of Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most WantedBrave, and Ice Age: Continental Drift. Together they grossed, by the end of July, $595.2M (adjusted). And here’s one more year for the sample bunch, 2011: Kung Fu Panda 2Cars 2, and Winnie the Pooh grossed a total of only $410M (adjusted).

You may have caught on with all this data that one thing is for certain: summers need a Pixar movie, but one more appealing and acclaimed than a Cars sequel. They also could use a breakout hit of some kind. With its estimated $25.7M debut, The Emoji Movie isn’t that, and Sony should be disappointed especially following the dismal domestic gross for Smurfs: The Lost Village earlier in the year. If anything new was a hit this season, it was The Boss Baby, which opened back in March but remained the talk of the playgrounds over the summer.

I guess that means we should look at how animated family features are doing this year in general through the first seven months. OK:

The LEGO Batman Movie: $175.8M
Rock Dog: $9.4M
The Boss Baby: $174.6M
Smurfs: The Lost Village: $45M
Total (including summer releases): $879.8M

And here are the previous six years (adjusted for inflation) for a comparison:

2016: $1489.7M
2015: $1002.3M
2014: $857.3M
2013: $1113.7M
2012: $948.1M
2011: $852.8M

The pattern is similar to when we look at just the summer months. So this is one of the lesser years for kid-friendly animation, which would seem to happen every three years. Of course, that can change if Pixar keeps filling a summer spot with something worth seeing. And all of the studios should learn that they can’t keep churning out sequels to their popular animated movies, because the young fans get tired of franchises quicker than the rest of us do.

Regarding the quality of this year’s animated features so far, it’s hard to believe any of the eight released so far could be an Oscar contender in its category. In addition to being a low-grossing year for animation, it’s also a pretty weak one with critics. The eight wide releases’ Rotten Tomatoes scores, in chronological order are 90%, 45%, 52%, 37%, 86%, 68%, 61%, and 7% for an average of 55.8%. There are a lot of duds in there, and I have to say that LEGO Batman‘s 90% is way too high.

It should be noted that the last few years’ Rotten Tomatoes averages up to this point haven’t been that much better anyway, though this year’s is on the lower end. Here they are for our sampled range:

2016: 54.8%
2015: 59.8%
2014: 54.7%
2013: 64.2%
2012: 74.4%
2011: 59%

Still, usually we’ve seen at least one nominee, and often the winner, at this point. Last year it was winning film Zootopia. In 2015, it was winning film Inside Out and nominee When Marnie Was There. In 2014, it was nominee How to Train Your Dragon 2. In 2013, it was nominees Despicable Me 2 and The Croods. In 2012, it was winner Brave and nominee The Pirates! Band of Misfits. And in 2011, it was winner Rango and nominee Kung Fu Panda 2.

For this year, I could see Captain Underpants earning a nod, if the Academy is desperate, but as much as I like it, it’s not really Oscar-worthy. And if they didn’t nominate The LEGO Movie, they shouldn’t bother with its not as good Batman spinoff. The rest of the year doesn’t look a whole lot better either, save for hopefully Pixar’s Coco. And aside from acclaim, that may only do really well financially thanks to the Frozen short attached to its theatrical screenings.

Other than that we’ve got the following: that sequel to The Nut Job, which wasn’t that great nor a huge hit; Leap!, which I doubt is registering with anyone; The LEGO Ninjago Movie, which could be a decent box office success but might not even be as good as The LEGO Batman MovieMy Little Pony, which will do well-enough given the fanbase but it doesn’t sound like awards material, either; Sony’s terrible-looking nativity film The Star; and Fox’s Ferdinand remake, which also looks pretty bad.

We’ll probably need some foreign animated features to fill up the category, such as the highly anticipated The Breadwinner, from The Secret of the Kells co-director Nora Twoey, which may hit US theaters in November following its Toronto International Film Festival debut. Otherwise, we could be looking at a very bland and unremarkable year for animation on the whole, on top of it being a complete bummer at the box office.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.