Henry Selick Slams ‘Despicable Me 2,’ Animation Biz

"Despicable Me 2" $781.2m

'Coraline' helmer reaches out to Web giants with new projects

Animated features have never been more popular or more important to Hollywood. Yet the directors of some of Hollywood’s top toon hits are frustrated with the state of animated features — and some are wondering if Netflix and its over-the-top ilk hold the key to restoring animation’s creative soul.

“It’s too homogenous. It’s way too much the same,” said Henry Selick,  who directed stop-motion pics “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and “Coraline.” “The films aren’t really that different one from the other. ‘Despicable Me’ could have been made Pixar, by DreamWorks. It’s not a great time for feature animation if you want to do something even moderately outside the formula.”

His hope, he says, is new media. “I have some feelers out,” he said. “For example Amazon is producing a kids animated series. I have more faith that people like Google, Amazon, Netflix, all these indie cable stations, would be a better home. I mean, that’s, there’s way more creativity in television, and risk-taking, but especially new media.”

He said he’s interested in making a “limited, 10-part series” for a digital or cable outlet.

Pixar’s Pete Docter said the idea of direct-to-streaming animation “seems like something that should happen.”

“The way things are set up right now, it seems like a win-or-lose situation, right? You put so much money in, the stakes are so high. I think that’s what Henry’s talking about, that leads to a similarity. There’s other ways to make movies. I think Henry is a great example of that.” Docter pointed to  series now being produced by Amazon and Netflix as an example of the digital channel’s potential. “Get a Henry Selick project going,” said Docter. “How cool would that be?”

Selick, whose last picture stalled in pre-production, said he’s disappointed to see less room than ever before for creative risk-taking at the studios. “They’d rather risk huge money on ‘The Lone Ranger’ or ‘White House Down’ than risk much smaller money doing something that’s a little interesting,” he said. “No one’s ever going to make a PG-13 animated film unless David Fincher executive produces it and puts it out on Netflix, and then if it’s a success everyone will change.”

The animation luminaries gave interviews before July 22’s keynote session at the Siggraph computer graphics conference at the Anaheim Convention Center. The keynote, presented in collaboration with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, was the Marc Davis Lecture Series: Giants’ First Steps, about how they broke into the movie business. Others in the keynote were Chris Sanders, Kirk Wise, David Silverman, Mike Mitchell, Kevin Lima, Eric Goldberg and Ron Clements.

While all the directors who spoke to Variety agreed the current popularity of animation is good news for the industry, Selick was not alone in lamenting the sameness of today’s animated features. Kirk Wise, best known for directing (with Gary Trousdale) “Beauty and the Beast,” also lamented lack of individuality in today’s toons. “I would love to see something come along that was just a little quirky, a little more special, that didn’t feel like the same movie that was released three weeks ago.” And Chris Sanders, helmer of DreamWorks Animation’s “The Croods,” said while big grosses for animation are great news, he’s worried that today’s animated studio fare is “monumental.”

“That’s one of the things that’s very much on my mind,” he said, “I think we need to create a variety of types of animated films, some that are not going to cost as much as others. Not every story is giant.”

Sanders said he wishes animation could be done more quickly, and therefore for less. He pointed to “Lilo & Stitch,” pictured, which he and Dean DeBlois wrote and directed before moving on to pricier fare like “How to Train Your Dragon.”

“It’s a matter of the studio committing to the idea (of a lower budget),” Sanders said. “We pitched (‘Lilo & Stitch’) with the idea that we would be paying for our story freedom with reduced schedule and a reduced budget.”

Sanders sees the lavish, large-scale family spectacle film remaining a staple, however. “I think those for the family market are going to continue to thrive if they’re well done. We’re seeing that. ‘Despicable Me 2’ just came out and people cannot stop seeing that movie.”

Docter and his Pixar pals certainly hope so. Docter is working on “Inside Out,” a Pixar feature exploring the human mind, which hopes to be a big family spectacle while also trying something different and new.

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  1. Sparky says:

    Ugh this headline is so misleading. Selick doesn’t ‘slam’ anything. He drives a great point without being an asshole about it.

  2. Who Knows... says:

    I have to agree with Henry Selick regarding the sameness of animated movies lately. Every movie looks the same, feels the same and sounds the same (too many celebrity voices and dialogue at Disney channel acting levels). The last two films I saw that were different were My Dog Tulip and The Illusionist. Both beautifully made and, best of all, individualistic. The thing I find amazing is that Paul Fierlinger did the animation and and his wife Sandra created the backgrounds as well as coloring the animation. That’s it. Just those two. On a computer. No army of animators behind them. And they aren’t exactly youngsters. While the budget was very, very low by today’s standards, they still managed to create a film that was visually interesting.

    Return on Investment seems to be a fantasy nowadays. You’ve got a giant robot fighting monsters that looks like it’ll end up being a loss for the studio. You’ve got cgi animated films that cost an arm and a leg and will be lucky to see a tiny profit, if any. As far as Mr. Selick’s films are concerned, with the exception of Nightmare, his films cost way too much for what they return. Let me repeat that: Way too Much for What They Return. I can see why a studio may be a bit concerned about funding someone who’s films may only eke out a profit. According to Box Office Mojo, Caroline’s gross was $124,596,398 internationally. Cost was $60,000,000 plus P&A and you’ve got a film that (unless there were tie-ins and the DVD’s sold earth shattering amounts) has to make way more than what it did at the theater just to break even. What sane businessman would want to risk that? The insane studios don’t need his creativity as they’ve got a whole load of now and future directors who happily pump out the crap that succeeds for them and, let’s face it, lately it’s all been pretty bad, even the “great” Pixar’s output has been stale: same story, same beats, different characters with the same problems).

    So, if Mr. Selick bemoans the sameness of animated films, it’s because the skyrocketing costs have forced the companies to go for the lowest common denominator. Instead of bemoaning the sameness, try to make a film for a heck of a hell lot less (and I call BS to anyone who says it can’t be done) and see what you come up with. The risk is minimized and you get more freedom.

    One more thing. I love stop motion, but it’s gotten to the point where it looks like cgi. What’s the point of creating a movie with this most magical of techniques if all we are going to get is something that looks like cgi? Why bother?

    Hat’s off to the Fierlingers and Bill Plympton. They do the work, make it interesting and don’t give us the same old, same old at a reasonable cost.

  3. Bob Claster says:

    You want to see original creative animation? Two words. Sylvain Chomet. And he can’t get a movie funded, and had to close his animation studio. But every frame of “The Triplets of Belleville” and “The Illusionist” is worthy of framing. Gorgeous stuff.

  4. David Nethery says:

    Others have said it , but I also feel compelled to say that the title of this article is misleading. Henry Selick did not “slam” ‘Despicable Me 2′ . He did point out a discouraging truth about the animation industry : the middle-brow “sameness” of most CG animated production produced by major animation studios. It’s not slamming ‘Despicable Me 2′ to point out the obvious fact that it looks like it could have been made at Disney/Pixarn’t/Dreamworks/Blue Sky/Sony . There is not enough variety in design, story, and style of animation .

  5. James EdWard Kennedy JR. says:

    This discussion seems to revolve around two parts of creating great animation, the first being creative freedom and the second being revenues gained from budgeting over site. I for one believe that both can exist as demonstrated through Brad Bird and John Walkers relationship during the making of the Incredibles back in 2004. What lies at the heart of this debate is a working partnership that allows for ‘creative’ to innovate while allowing for the ‘producer’ to produce. I watched the Siggraph keynote and didn’t feel that the discussion revolved around negativity, rather we were given a glimps into the mind of the creative side of the industry. The fact that most of the panel has had some sort of success through the current studio system, only allows for the debate to grow in its substance. And, these types of discussions aren’t new in the industry the Academy of Motion Pictures has always done a great job at bring lecture series on animation/film subjects, as well as the Walt Disney Museum. With the changing of how we get information it would be nice to carry more of the lecture series online, where an open dialogue can continue to help students like me grow with the industry. I agree that there is way to much similarity in ideas as far as studios are concern, sans Laika. However, I think as long as there are art schools such as Calarts, and internships that offer guidance in how to fulfill ones animation goals things should pan out.

  6. Frank Caruso says:

    What your expressing is the state of the whole studio system. I miss the days when studios were run by smart business men and creative people. Now the corporate culture has permeated every inch of much of the film industry. Thanks to some creative financial methods out there people who want to get things made can get investors or co-financing. But to go mass you are still at the mercy of the studio and distribution system in place with the exhibitors. But we are coming with terms that get there work out there via the internet, smart T.V.’s and companies like Netflix. Just because a studio owns a character or story it doesn’t mean that it should be retold over and over again. That’s like a publisher saying, hey Hemingway is dead, lets write a new version of “The Sun also Rises” or Steinbeck is dead, lets write a contemporary version “Of Mice and Men”

  7. Marc says:

    He’s not directly ‘slamming’ Despicable Me 2, but I do agree with them.
    I think Laika will be the studio to cross the boundary. I wonder if there’s a recording of the keynote somewhere online because I’d like to see if any of them mentioned ParaNorman.

  8. Animation Pro says:

    There is surely room for Henry’s art at the right price. Animation needs an indy film model a la focus features, risky content at half the price. Henry just needs to buckle down, get creative, forgo his salary for back end, and actually do some innovating.

  9. Industry Pro says:

    DON’T LISTEN TO HENRY SELICK! He’s a very talented artist who could not get a “studio film” made right now to save his life — so he’s ranting about an industry that won’t hire him. That’s all. If Henry could get a movie made – he be touting how fantastic the animation biz is! But Henry wants to make very expensive ART, at other’s expense, regardless of a return on a financier’s investment (ROI)…or BUDGET. “Nightmare Before Christmas” went WAY OVER budget and initially didn’t perform until DVD (and it had Tim Burton’s name all over it). “Coraline” had Nike’s Phil Knight’s Gazillion $$$ production financing and marketing budget, so we’ll never know the real net figures… And word from Disney is that Henry became so stubborn (usually the case) that Lassiter canned Henry and his project in prep. YES, Pixar and DreamWorks are guilty of far too many SEQUELS and milking the cash cow way to often, but attempting to condemn the entire feature animation business — is forgetting that it’s a business at all – not just Henry’s art!! Feature Animation is the most consistent performing sector in the film business. Pixar’s Ed Catmull recently admitted that Pixar’s been making too many sequels, and will now return to original films, which we know will be fantastic. Henry please don’t try to spin your inability to get your films made as a sign the animation biz need fixing – cause it just makes you sound BITTER…and it’s insulting.

  10. Stacy says:

    This is a misleading headline. Henry didn’t “slam” “Despicable Me 2” — he just said it didn’t have an individual stamp on it of a particular filmmaker or studio. Animation lends itself to unlimited styles and stories, and time has proven that there is an infinitely wide audience for animated fare, not just kids or families. Yet it is very hard to get a small, quirky, sophisticated animated movie made, no matter how carefully budgeted. Henry’s style of storytelling can enhance animated offerings without replacing what is out there now. Audiences would be the better for it.

    • Fred M says:

      It was a pejorative comment. But if you read carefully, he appears to be critiquing the original, not the sequel. Regardless, saying that neither of the Despicable Me movies displays qualities that distinguish it from Pixar and Dreamworks only reveals his ignorance. The differences are pretty obvious to me, from the Looney Tunes flair to the European feel. Look again, Henry–and work harder to hide your bitterness. It’s ugly.

  11. Bill says:

    Hmmm, can’t say I like either of his films, so I guess we’ll agree to disagree.

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