Remembering the Animation of Blue Sky Studios

As Disney shutters the 20th Century Fox animation division, we look back fondly on what they did best.

Blue Sky Animation

Epic (2013)

Epic Blue Sky Animation

Like with Rio, the opening sequence of Epic — a harrowing treetop and aerial battle between tiny people on hummingbird-back — begs the question of why people slept on this movie. It’s a visual delight, with gorgeous animated long-takes and better-composed action than even an Avengers flick. But the answer to the question would be the same as with Rio: even as the visuals astound and the characters brim with life, the serious, almost YA setting and premise set up a situation in which that expression cannot thrive.

Epic is Wedge’s first time directing since Robots, and it’s the first film he did without Saldanha co-directing. The attempt at a more serious film demonstrates how much he needed Saldanha’s comedic sense to balance out his ambitious storytelling. Add that to an increasingly expensive voice cast, which features freaking Beyoncé of all people, and it’s not hard to see why this movie struggled.


The Peanuts Movie (2015)

Peanuts Movie Blue Sky Animation

Blue Sky Studios’ work on Charles Schulz’s beloved characters feels like a return to form. The animation team behind The Peanuts Movie, including Martino back in the director’s chair, demonstrates a remarkable mastery of craft, combining elements of the various Peanuts animated specials, Schulz’s drawing style, and limited animation to make something that really feels like the original property brought to life for a new generation.

The Peanuts Movie is to Charlie Brown what Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse is for Spider-Man and what The First was for Lupin III: a love letter to the history of characters beloved by a generation. The art style and pure animation fundamentals, the understanding of what it takes to make a drawing move and feel not just believable but living and full of personality are on full display here.


Ferdinand (2017)

Ferdinand

With the release of Ferdinand, the studio has, to some extent, learned to set up a diegesis that better serves its strengths. Saldanha’s skill at directing slapstick is still very much front and center, but unlike with Rio, much of the visual comedy adheres to “the Pixar rule,” where the fantastic — namely, animals displaying human intelligence — is framed in such a way so as to not be so fantastic to the human residents of the movie’s world.

The movie’s animated sequences shine, and the environments are gorgeous. Small details, like how the background characters speak Castilian Spanish as opposed to Modern Spanish, show that the team did their research. Ferdinand is rough around the edges, but, like Robots, it has a lot of heart. So, what happened?

Disney happened. Ferdinand opened the same weekend as Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Even in second place, the animated feature tanked at the box office and many have forgotten about it. And it probably doesn’t help the film’s case that it addresses one of Spain’s most controversial traditions.


Spies in Disguise (2019)

Spies in Disguise Blue Sky Animation

At first glance, Spies in Disguise seems to immediately replicate all the issues of Epic. But by leaning into cartooney character and visual design and the absurdity of the premise, the film works surprisingly well on its own terms, with especially vibrant action sequences that take advantage of the animated medium to its full potential.

Spies in Disguise was Blue Sky Studios’ only film under the Disney umbrella, and its financial disappointment is partially the blame for the company’s decision to close the studio’s doors. This is despite the fact that Disney was responsible for its distribution and that now most of Disney’s current “economic realities” have to do with the COVID-19 pandemic shutting their parks and resorts, rather than any movie performance.


So what’s the takeaway from the story of Blue Sky? Besides the fact that celebrity stunt casting is expensive, and that monopoly is bad, I mean.

Blue Sky Studios did its best work when it played to its strengths: strong visual storytelling in physical action and comedy. It is unfortunate that slapstick is looked down upon as low-brow by filmgoers, but it is also easy to forget that slapstick has a history that goes back as far as cinema itself, especially in animation. This stuff isn’t as easy to do as it would appear; it requires a strong sense of space, good planning and setup, and experience.

Blue Sky demonstrated an understanding of and appreciation for the artistry of physicality throughout all thirteen of its films, and that’s something that even Disney actually lacks these days.

Rest in peace, Blue Sky! Animation is a cutthroat business, and the competition you faced was basically the Borg. You fought the good fight up until the end, and the strengths of your films will not be forgotten.

All I do all day is think about cartoons.