(Source: network.nationalpost.com) When the computer-generated, 3D animation train was chugging full steam ahead five years ago, filmmakers Wes Anderson and Henry Selick decided to hop off and walk in the other direction.

They partnered to form Revolution Studios and began developing a stop-motion adaptation of Roald Dahl’s children’s book Fantastic Mr. Fox, right before the economy sank. Unfortunately, Revolution went down with it, so Anderson moved the project to 20th Century Fox (an appropriately named studio, if there ever was one), while Selick, the director of Nightmare Before Christmas, went on to helm another stop-motion film called Coraline.

With both films receiving verbal standing ovations from critics and strong numbers at the box-office — Mr. Fox was released in Canada yesterday but pulled in almost $300,000 on four screens during its U.S. opening, making it the year’s second-best limited debut — this might just signal the end of the CGI craze. And if you’re of the mind that two is a coincidence but three is a trend, consider that yet another stop-motion film called Mary and Max premiered last week and was chosen as the opening night film at Sundance.

“It’s kind of unprecedented to have so many major stop-motion features coming out at once,” says Amid Amidi, co-editor of CartoonBrew.com, which tracks and critiques animation styles. “It’s one of the oldest techniques — it’s been around more or less since the invention of animation itself — but right now, it’s experiencing this mini-renaissance … and it’s kind of exciting to see the technique being revitalized with fresh blood and new ideas.”

Back in 1995, CGI itself was pretty fresh. The release of Toy Story, Disney-Pixar’s first entirely computer-generated feature film, saw major commercial success (as did its sequel), most of which was attributed to the shiny new technology. In reality, the story itself was pretty compelling, but no one really focused on that — and either way, according to most Hollywood pundits, stories can’t be relied upon to bring people into theatres.

Instead, at least when it comes to animation, audiences come to see something visually new and innovative. When movie budgets began to soar in the late ’90s, CGI developed a reputation in the industry as being both a novel and safe choice — a Wired magazine article claimed that films employing this technique consistently grossed around 20% more than any live-action movie.

And so, until now, this theory has prevailed.

“If you look at the top 20 animated features at the box office in the past decade, every single one has been CG except for The Simpsons,” says Amidi, “so for years, regardless of any demand for hand-drawn stuff, there just hasn’t been an opportunity for it to exist.”

Part of the CG fervour, he adds, also has to do with a misconception that traditional animation techniques aren’t progressive or original. But in truth, there’s nothing old-fashioned at all about hand-drawn art.

“What happened in the ’90s was that the studios got caught up in the fad and newness of CG,” he says, “but I think now they’re starting to realize that applying it to clichéd stories with dull characterizations doesn’t guarantee box-office success anymore. Films like Waltz With Bashir and Ponyo are becoming huge hits while Astro Boy and Planet 51 — which were CG, 3D and had celebrity voiceovers — completely flopped.”

At Teletoon Canada, manager of original productions Athena Georgaklis says she’ll hesitate to invest money in anything 3D now unless it’s an action-adventure, partly because it’s too expensive but also because it’s unreliable.

“We’ve recently seen a huge influx of 2D digital animation,” she says, “especially with our TV series, because the format is less expensive and performs well across all the demographics, especially with comedies. Stop-motion or puppetry, however, can actually be a huge risk for the 8 to 12 set.”

That said, when a renowned director such as Wes Anderson or Henry Selick latches onto the idea of stop-motion, it’s probably worth the risk. Tom Rothman, president of Fox Filmed Entertainment, observed in the New Yorker earlier this month that “the trick is, from the business side, to try to be fiscally responsible so you can be creatively reckless.”

This is precisely why Fantastic Mr. Fox is poised to do so well, and why Disney’s upcoming The Princess and The Frog — which was shot in traditional 2D hand-drawn style for just US$70-million — should profit, too.

“Mark my words,” says Amidi. “The [low-budget] animated feature will be the big thing of the next decade.”



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