Toonmakers labor to make furry heroes stand apart from the pack

This was supposed to be the year the CG animation bubble burst.

Too many films, warned the analysts. A sure sign of the impending disaster, they said, was all those talking-animal movies. “Over the Hedge”? “Open Season”? Who could tell them apart? Surely, now that the novelty has worn off, auds would just skip them altogether.

But it turned out that it was the pundits, not the auds, who were confused.

Sure, a few films got lost in the shuffle, but by and large, the category boomed. “Cars” and “Ice Age: The Meltdown,” for instance, proved to be two of the year’s biggest box office performers, together earning more than $1 billion worldwide.

And if auds did get confused between “Over the Hedge” and “Open Season,” it didn’t stop either pic from raking in big coin in theaters.

“The more the merrier,” says “Cars” director John Lasseter, who now boasts the title of chief creative officer for both Pixar and the Walt Disney Co. “Look, there’s 52 weekends a year, and 14 to 16 animated films came out this year, so there’s still plenty of room. I’d much rather be part of a healthy industry than be the only player in a dead industry.”

In Disney’s heyday, the industry looked at animation as a distinct genre. That made a certain amount of sense when there were one or two similar-looking animated features released a year. Now, with one or two toons opening a month and considerable variety in style and stories, a change in thinking is in order.

No longer a genre unto itself, animation now serves as a specific tool filmmakers can use, while the movies themselves traverse multiple styles of storytelling.

Disney-released “The Wild” might have been a virtual redux of DreamWorks Animation’s “Madagascar,” but Sony’s “Monster House” couldn’t have been more different from Warner’s forthcoming “Happy Feet.”

All of which raises the question: How important is it that every animated feature stand out from the crowd, anyway?

The consensus among toon toppers seems to be: We don’t think that way.

Take Peter Lord, co-founder of Aardman Animations, which produced last year’s Oscar winner, “Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.”

“Let me assure you, never at any stage did we say, ‘How can we make this different?'” says Lord of the studio’s latest collaboration with DreamWorks, the all-CG “Flushed Away,” about a rat’s adventures in a London sewer. “Whatever amused and delighted us got in the film — it’s as simple as that.”

And yet, the competition does make Lord uncomfortable: “I feel like the family that discovered the glorious peaceful golden valley in the mountains, and then every other bugger’s come and moved into the valley and started building big hotels all around.

“I’m speaking semi-facetiously,” he says, “but I do fear that all these incomers, these noisy neighbors, will ruin the place because they make it more difficult for us to do what we want to do while they’re here.”

While Aardman lets storytelling instincts lead the way, Lasseter says his team at Pixar has been very careful to choose subjects that could take advantage of cutting-edge CG: toys, “monsters,” tropical fish, superheroes — whatever the state of the art allowed at the time. (Pixar’s next project, “Ratatouille,” about rats’ adventures in a French restaurant, might not sound visually appealing, but it allows the studio to tackle an entirely new challenge: digitally creating mouth-watering food.)

Lasseter describes Pixar as “a director-driven studio,” rather than an operation run by execs. “And we’re working to evolve Disney into a director-driven studio,” he says.

At Pixar, a single vision serves “as the creative soul of a project, and then we rally around that to help that director make the movie the best it can be.”

To date, the studio has never adapted a book or fairy tale; all its stories are originals. “Cars” was a personal project for Lasseter, just as “The Incredibles” was Brad Bird’s baby.

“It’s really challenging to create a story and characters from scratch, to set out to do something you haven’t done and no one’s done before,” Lasseter says.

According to Chris Meledandri, president of Pixar rival Fox Animation, “Ice Age” was “the first furry-animal CG movie.” That created a high-level problem with the sequel. Like sequels in live-action franchises, it needed to be different both from the original and from the imitators without straying too far from what audiences liked in the hit first film.

“It’s very important for us to differentiate each movie that we make,” Meledandri says. “We are more movie-focused than overall brand-focused. That’s one of the things that, in looking at the films we’ve made — looking at the ‘Ice Age’ films, at ‘Robots,’ and now at ‘Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who’ — each film is very distinct from the others.”

Warner Bros., by contrast, doesn’t even count animation as a regular part of its slate.

“We haven’t committed any resources to the development of an animation group or team or facilities,” says Jeff Robinov, Warner’s president of production. Instead, Warners gets involved with toons when a filmmaker with whom it wants to be in business approaches the studio.

This year’s releases came from picking up “The Ant Bully” in turnaround from Universal and developing George Miller’s tap-dancing-penguin pitch “Happy Feet.”

“It always comes back to the filmmakers for us,” Robinov says.

DreamWorks Animation has developed an identity without committing to a house style, which explains why the rodents in “Over the Hedge” bear no resemblance to the rats in “Flushed Away.”

“I think the reason you end up with a house style many times is because the person making the decision has a particular taste, a particular eye,” says DreamWorks Animation chief operating officer Ann Daly. “In today’s world, there is not an agenda to actually design (films) so they fit together as a family. Quite the opposite. They’re looking for a style (on each film) that suits the story.”

Sony Animation espouses a similar philosophy. “My feeling is we’re entering a golden age in animation,” says Sony Pictures Digital prexy Yair Landau. “There are a lot of voices that can express themselves in the medium, and one of our objectives is to let filmmakers tell the story in a style that suits their story, rather than (dictating how) a Sony movie will look.”

In the realm of talking-animal movies, he sees plenty of room to be unique. “I don’t think that the ‘Open Season’ story and the ‘Barnyard’ story have all that much in common … any more than ‘Hitch’ and ‘Pretty Woman’ do,” Landau says.

“You don’t see a lot of critics saying, ‘Gee, the boy got the girl at the end of that romantic comedy.’ I’m not going to shy away from talking-animal stories any more than Amy Pascal is going to shy away from romantic comedies.”

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