Two months ago at Bordeaux’s Cartoon Movie, Europe’s biggest animated movie showcase, no country made a larger impact than Spain.

A sneak peek of footage from Raul de la Fuente’s “Another Day of Life,” capturing war correspondent Ryszard Kapuściński’s life-haunting experience in Angola’s civil war, dazzled Cartoon Movie with the verve of its animation/live-action mix. The $20 million “Dragonkeeper,” about a feisty washer-girl slave turned dragon protector, sparked enthusiasm for its story and Western-Chinese animation meld. Alberto Vázquez (“Birdboy: The Forgotten Children”) drew the showcase’s second-biggest audience for in-the-works “Unicorn Wars,” about an ancestral battle between Teddy bears and unicorns. And Madrid-based Latido Films won Distributor of the Year for “Buñuel in the Labyrinth of Turtles,” about Luis Buñuel’s shooting of 1933’s “Land Without Bread.”

Spanish animation’s strong showing at Cartoon Movie was no fluke. Animation accounted for the highest-grossing Spanish hit last year — archeologist adventure-comedy ““Tad the Lost Explorer and the Secret of King Midas” — as well as its two biggest productions in 2018, “Dragonkeeper” and “Klaus.” Twenty-plus animated features were produced between 2012-16; 50-plus are expected between 2017-20, according to Animation from Spain.

There’s also a larger European context. Twenty years ago, Europe produced two or three animated movies a year. It now makes 15 or more, notes Cartoon head Marc Vandeweyer. Partially inspired by Studio Ghibli and 1998’s “Kirikou and the Sorceress” and 2007’s “Persepolis,” many of Europe’s greatest animators, especially in France, have focused on prestige 2D films.

Spain’s modern animation milestones, in contrast, are mainly family movies, led by 2009’s “Planet 51,” from Ilion Animation Studios, and 2012’s “Tad the Lost Explorer.” Both scored notable international grosses: “Planet 51” $90 million outside Spain, “Tad” $25 million abroad.

Backed respectively by Atresmedia Cine and Telecinco Cinema, part of Mediaset España, “Planet 51” and “Tad” also underscored that well creafted Spanish family animation movies promoted to the hilt by a broadcaster could better even most Disney fare at the Spanish box office. “Planet 51” earned $15.8 million in Spain; “Tad,” made for just €8.5 million ($10.5 million), grossed $23.9 million.

The result: a surge of foreign investment in major Spanish animation movies. In 2014, Paramount Pictures took worldwide rights to “Capture the Flag,” then did the same for 2017’s “Tadeo Jones 2,” then hired Ilion to animate 2019’s “Wonder Park.”

Last year, Ilion struck a production partnership with David Ellison’s Skydance Media, kicking in with coming-of-age teen fantasy “Split,” written by Linda Woolverton (“Beauty and the Beast”) and directed by Vicky Jenson (“Shrek”); as well as comedy “Good Luck Bad Luck,” with Alessandro Carloni (“Kung Fu Panda 3”) directing a screenplay from Jonathan Aibel, Glenn Berger (“Trolls”).

China Film Animation is an anchor producer on “Dragonkeeper,” also produced by Spain’s Atresmedia Cine, Movistar + and Dragoia Media.

“Spain has a long tradition of animation, large talent — hundreds of Spanish animators work at Sony, Disney, Pixar and DreamWorks — and a highly competitive landscape,” says Ilion president-CCO Ignacio Pérez Dolset.

Jordi Gasull, a writer-producer on the “Tad” franchise and “Capture the Flag,” agrees. “You can make highly cost-effective movies in Spain. Animation artists sometimes value the quality of life in Spain more than higher wages abroad.”

Family movies also attract SVOD players. Netflix acquired global rights to Christmas comedy “Klaus,” the directorial debut of “Despicable Me” co-creator Sergio Pablos. Telefonica’s Movistar + co-produced the two “Tads,” “Capture the Flag” and “Dragonkeeper.”
Movistar + has a huge range of clients, and invests in multiple types of films, “but animation, so far, has given us the happiest results,” says Gabriel Arias-Salgado, its film production head.

One reason: “All have been family-oriented comedies, which work best in Spain.”

“In comparison to 10 years ago, producers in Spain have understood the importance of telling stories that travel around the world,” says Tania Pinto da Cunha, who heads up Pretty Parrot’s new Spanish office.

“Their strength is also in CGI or 3D. The commercial potential is definitely related to 3D animation and Spain is one of the strongest in Europe.”

Meanwhile, Spain has seen a push phenomenon: an emerging generation of young vocational animators, working both in 2D and 3D: Vázquez; “Dragonkeeper’s” Ignacio Ferrera, whose “Wrinkles” opened 2012’s Cartoon Movie; Headless trio Victor Maldonado, Adrian Garcia, Alfredo Torres (“Nocturna”); and Salvador Simó (“Buñuel,” “Gabo: Memoirs of a Magical Life”).

“The vocation of Spanish animators is beyond doubt,” says De la Fuente, adding that “Another Day of Life” took nearly 10 years to make. “Animators, like documentary filmmakers [in Spain], don’t really only put a commercial value to what they’re doing. It’s irrational. We just can’t stop doing the work.”

“We’ve been able to develop two kinds of animation films, arthouse and family. The variety’s highly healthy,” says Manuel Cristobal, who’s producing “Dragonkeeper,” “Buñuel” and “Gabo.”

Twinned with established tax credits, 40% tax rebates on international productions’ spending, introduced in 2015, have helped fire up an animation industry in the Canary Islands.

Four studios in Tenerife alone are producing, co-producing or providing services on one animated feature and six series for 2018-19, according to Xulay Rodríguez, a consultant at Tenerife.

Some 18 production house or studios now operate there.

“For the first time, Spanish producers are betting on feature film slates, not individual projects, ensuring continuity in production,” says José Luis Farias, an organizer of the Quirino Awards and 3D Wire.

Challenges remain, however. Spain lacks private investor backing, Farias laments. Levied on the Spanish peninsula at 20% of spending, and capped at €3 million ($3.7 million), rebates need to be far more competitive, Cristóbal adds.

That said, animation remains one of Spanish cinema’s biggest growth narratives.