The “Meh-ing” of American Animation

The 1966 television special “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” is a masterpiece, and one of the elements that makes it work so beautifully is the narration by silken-voiced baritone horror icon Boris Karloff (who also voices the Grinch). This voice work is as strong a testimony to Karloff’s legendary talent as his star-making turn in 1931’s Frankenstein. Cast your mind back to the special’s beginning, after the charming Whos have sung their opening carol and the narration kicks in:

“Every Who down in Who-ville liked Christmas a lot,” says Boris in his softest, most genial voice. “But the Grinch…” Here his voice drops an octave and his tone grows rich with menace. “…Who lived just north of Who-ville…” The menace grows as we understand this close proximity to the cheerful creatures who were singing a minute ago. “did NOT!” The stamp is sealed. From this moment we know, if we didn’t know already, we’re about to experience something awesome.

Some years later Hollywood made a live-action version for public consumption, a remake whose existence I steadfastly deny. Yet at least (from what I’ve heard) Jim Carrey made some attempts, albeit unsuccessful, to match Karloff’s deep, dark tones. The new animated remake from Illumination Studios makes very different choices. Benedict Cumberbatch voices the Grinch. Okay. He’s British and baritone, like Karloff. Yet someone at the studio advised him to flatten and Americanize his voice, apparently to erase any aural resemblance to the horror icon. As for the narration, that’s supplied by Pharrell Williams, the pop star best known for the peppy anthem (and theme from Despicable Me 2) “Happy,” about as far a cry from my beloved Boris as one can get. These changes were made, perhaps, to render the remake more distinctive from the original, more its own creature. That I can understand, sort of. Yet these particular changes still strike me as an attempt to substitute nonthreatening blandness for true excitement, to create a movie that will please children but offer little to parents or to adult animation fans.

I cannot see why a studio would remake a property for which they apparently have little affection. But then, the sad truth is that Illumination Studios has never made what I would call a good movie. The first Despicable Me is pleasant and amusing, but offers little to thrill or stir the heart; there are no “wow!” moments. The sequels, I’m told (I never bothered to watch), are even less inspiring. Nothing in Sing! or The Secret Life of Pets excited my interest enough to lure me into the theater, and the very trailer for Minions made me want to destroy something. Yet all these movies made the studio a tidy sum. The people there may not be geniuses at storytelling, but they know what sells. Why take the time and trouble to make good films when well-marketed mediocrity will make the green?

Illumination is only one part of a disheartening trend I’ve come to call the “meh-ing” of mainstream American animation, a genre I’ve loved a long time. I can remember when Zootopia, Kubo and the Two Strings, and Moana thrilled me one at a time back in 2016. Sadly, I haven’t felt quite that level of excitement since, and the lack, for me, has two main sources.

The first will surprise no one who knows me: the disheartening lack of female protagonists since Moana. Last year, among American animation’s mainstream releases, only Coco generated an unquestioned positive response, and to no one’s astonishment, it took the Oscar for Best Animated Feature. Yet I could never muster much interest in seeing it, as it struck me as very much one for the boys, with its misunderstood boy hero going on an afterlife adventure with the only ones who really get him, his male dog and his male guide through the land of the dead. The other nominees, with the exception of the non-mainstream The Breadwinner, were likewise male-centered. Things have gotten no better since then. This year’s front-runner is Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs, with a boy protagonist surrounded by a squad of seven canines, all male. Why do writers insist on making all their important animal characters male when they could just as easily have been female without any change to plot or theme??

Next year we have The LEGO Movie 2 (Emmett Must Save Wyldstyle from Straw Feminists), Laika’s Missing Link (Bromance With Female Third Wheel), Spies in Disguise, How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (which, okay, I do want to see), The Secret Life of Pets 2, Toy Story 4, Playmobil: The Movie, The Angry Birds Movie 2, Abominable, Sonic the Hedgehog — a whole lot of guy-driven movies. (I do have my eye on a couple of potential bright spots: Wonder Park and Ugly Dolls. If only they turn out to be good.)

Some of you may be thinking: there’s always Frozen 2, right? And aren’t I forgetting this year’s The Incredibles 2, which shows Elastigirl finally getting her share of the heroics? I won’t lie: I liked The Incredibles 2 quite a bit, and I delighted in seeing Elastigirl in action, just as I’m keen to see tough smart-aleck racer Vanellope thrown back into adventure in Ralph Breaks the Internet (Matt wants to see this one opening night, actually). But my joy in them is tempered, in that they can’t offer me what Zootopia, Kubo, and Moana gave me in spades: the thrill of discovery of a completely new world and the chance to fall in love with a new set of characters.

This brings me to my second point of dissatisfaction: everything — or at least 80% of what we’re seeing — is a sequel to something else or an adaptation of some already established character/world. This isn’t to say that sequels can’t be good; I actually liked the second and third of the Kung Fu Panda films much better than the original. But after we’ve traveled to the same destination three or even four times, no matter how much we may love the place, don’t we start to hanker for something we haven’t seen before? If an animation studio were to present us with something fresh and different, wouldn’t we embrace it? Coco may not have been my tipple, but in it Pixar at least gave us something original, which they haven’t done this year and don’t plan to do next.

I’ve painted Illumination as the chief bad guy in this situation, yet it may not be the greatest offender. Those we love have the greatest power to hurt us, and I’ve rarely been more disappointed in a studio whose work I generally admire than I was when I learned Disney had decided to shelve their project Gigantic — a potentially delightful take on “Jack and the Beanstalk” — and then read their lineup of forthcoming releases, a long string of live-action remakes of their old classics with only a couple of animated features, Ralph Breaks the Internet and Frozen 2, thrown in. How depressingly, cynically safe.

There’s the heart of both my problems. Mainstream American animation’s big-screen output reveals a staunch dedication to playing it safe, banking on our collective desire to seek comfort in the familiar (and not hurt their bottom line). How long will it be before fans start to become bored, and the studios realize they might need to start taking a few risks in order to reinvigorate the genre and reignite audience interest?

May that day come soon.

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