Fifth Column: Are we suffering from pixel fatigue?

Has the perennial gloss of the latest CGI cartoons and stylised action films made us weary for something grittier...?

Hooray it's yet another Shrek renderfest...

It’s now been over a decade since Toy Story burst onto our screens, breaking a fair few moulds along the way and inspiring a fresh splurge of computer animation. And it’s great that it was Pixar that made the crucial breakthrough, given that every single one of its projects – even the weakest – at least has a good script sitting at the heart of it. 

That said, the jump to computer animation has allowed many other companies who have tried and failed in the past to break into the market. 20th Century Fox notoriously blew a lot of money making the underrated Titan AE, closing down its animation studio shortly thereafter. But off the back of Ice Age, its first major venture into computer animation, it’s been full steam ahead. The third Ice Age film arrives next year, and Horton Hears A Who has also proven to be one of this year’s most popular family films. Jaffa Cakes all round at Fox Animation, then.

Yet as time has gone on, the film-going audience has become more and more savvy to computer animation, and whereas five years ago any such film was all-but-guaranteed to be a sizeable hit, the likes of The Ant Bully, The Wild, Open Season and – tragically – Monster House have proven that the box office can’t be taken for granted.

There’s no doubt a fair amount of post mortem work being done over the corpse of the Wachowski Brothers’ Speed Racer movie that, in theory, should have been a huge summer hit. One of the pieces I read, in Variety, put part of the failure down to something called ‘pixel fatigue’. That is that the audience is fed up with bright colours, and unrealistic visuals, and wants something a bit more down to earth. Granted, the same piece isolates a series of possible alternative conclusions for the film’s demise, and the likelihood is that it’s a combination of many factors that cost Speed Racer – and Warner Bros – a fair amount of loot. But is there anything to this pixel fatigure theory?

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Certainly the novelty of computer animation has long since worn off, pretty much in line with the quality of the films that have been pouring out of the studios. DreamWorks make some of the better computer animated films, but even it realises that a well-marketed, three-star movie is about all you need to clean up at the box office (see: Madagascar, the Shrek movies, Kung Fu Panda and such like). Is it any wonder that it’s started work on a third Madagascar film even before the second one’s been released, and that Shreks 4 and 5 are also in gestation on its hard drives?

Ironically, it’s animation-masters Disney who has struggled to adapt the most to the new order, allowing many of its rivals to break onto Uncle Walt’s home territory as it struggled to play catch up. Thus, the likes of Chicken Little and Meet The Robinsons sit in the shadow of the likes of The Lion King’s box office. Fifteen years ago, it would have been unthinkable that Fox’s animation division would be so soundly beating Disney’s, but the tables have been thoroughly turned in that time, and the release schedules are now awash with computer graphics as a result. 

Yet it’s not just the big screen where the problem lies. Computer animation, as it has become more popular, has become cheaper. And, crucially, it’s become cheaper than hand-drawn animation too. Once everyone realised that they didn’t need to match Pixar’s standards to bring in healthy profits, the floodgates opened, and now you can’t turn on a kids TV channel within being greeted by an avalanche of mutant computer animated characters. What’s more, the animation isn’t that bad, it just lacks the care and attention a bigger budget and a bit more time would offer.

So it’s interesting now that Disney is experimenting with bringing back hand drawn animation, with its first such flick since Home On The Range (remember that? Thought not) currently in production. And you wonder if, all of a sudden, hand drawn work will become a novelty. Certainly, witnessing the opening segment of Enchanted was like a refreshing blast from the past, and that it’s venturing back into this area at least gives it a differential from the likes of Fox, DreamWorks, Warner Bros, Nickelodeon, and anyone with a half-decent Apple Mac. 

Yet novelty only gets you so far, and the days when you could pump out bilge such as Shark Tale and watch the cash roll on are thankfully behind us. Of course, Disney has been through lean spells before, when the early 80s saw Basil The Great Mouse Detective and The Fox and the Hound struggling to recapture past glories (although the former is still a hoot). Yet it did learn from its mistakes, and got back to basics with a run that started with The Little Mermaid, and was still bringing the crowds nearly a decade later with Tarzan.

For the truth is obvious, yet tends to be forgotten as studios and producers follow the next gold rush in a bid to bag some swag for themselves. Good stories and good scripts tend to make good films. They don’t, granted, always guarantee hits (and I can’t help thinking about Iron Giant and the aforementioned Monster House when I say that), but it sure does improve your chances.

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Taking Pixar as an example, it’s a company that’s given itself a distinction not just by the sky high production qualities it clearly insists on, but because the story remains the king. Whatever your take on Wall-E, there’s a boldness at the heart of it that the likes of Shrek long since consigned to a land far, far away. And it also gives a Pixar film a strong chance of success. While the firm won’t maintain its record of 100% hits forever, you would calculate that you’d never see something as cynical as Shrek The Third bring pumped out of its computers.

Speed Racer, meanwhile, failed simply because people didn’t want to see it. Sure, it was badly marketed, and sure, it may find a new audience on DVD and high definition, but the cold, hard fact remains that nobody wanted to stump up to watch it, when Iron Man was playing next door. It certainly wasn’t pixel fatigue, not if the $200m US grosses of both Kung Fu Panda and Wall-E are anything to go by. 

That said, what’s clear is that computer animation is so commonplace that studios and producers will have to work harder to lure us to check out their work, rather than relying on some characters planted on billboards. But then maybe that’s just how it should be. Audiences that are taken for granted have a horrible habit of not turning up when they’re supposed to, and it’s simply not enough to throw some fancy graphics at a screen and expect us all to buy a ticket.

That’s not pixel fatigue, though. That’s just common sense.

This is just the fifth column that Den Of Geek publishes every week,so please stop saying ‘good moaning’ to us. Though that may apply…

Enchanted Blu-ray Disc reviewInterview: Angus MacLane of PixarThe DreamWorks animated movie ready reckonerThe Pixar ready reckonerCelebrating Pixar’s Brad BirdThe forgotten Pixar movie: A Bug’s Life

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