The Muppets, and the current state of family cinema

Has family cinema been utterly overtaken by CG animation, or do films such as The Muppets hold out hope for broader choice?

The Muppets

Some statistics for you.

Last year, The Smurfs movie, a hybrid of live action and CG animation, overcame generally not overly kind reviews to grab over half a billion dollars at the worldwide box office. As did fully-CG fare such as Cars 2 and Puss In Boots, too. The Muppets, meanwhile, tucked up $87m in its US run. Not a bad sum at all, but some way off the levels of a DreamWorks animated movie.

I can’t be the first to wonder it, and it’s a horrifying thought, but had Disney opted to make The Muppets as a CG film, would it have made more hard cash at the end of it all?

Thankfully, Disney held its nerve, and chose not to. And for the second time in a year, very much to its credit, it launched what seems to have become a non-traditional family film into the market. After all, the current definition of a modern-day traditional family movie now appears to be a CG animated (in full or in part) romp, with star voiceovers, perhaps a bit of quirky breaking of the fourth wall, and heaving leaning on comedy. Fortunately, over the past year or two, there are signs that things are changing a little.

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Disney’s attempt to do something a little different had actually come a bit of a cropper earlier in 2011, when the delightful hand-drawn Winnie The Pooh feature barely scraped together $33m worldwide (not helped by opening opposite Harry Potter, a film perhaps too dark for the full family, in the US).

With The Muppets? It again swam against the tide, funding a film that relied on traditional puppetry, along with musical numbers, a willingness to reference older material, and a desire to play to a full family audience.

This approach has not gone without reward. The critical reception to The Muppets was strong, and the film banked more than any other Muppet film in the US, with its worldwide roll-out in cinemas beginning around now. It’s fair to suggest that the DVD and Blu-ray release should do well, too.

What’s more, The Muppets, whose last cinematic outing was the borderline-tragic Muppets From Space, have been brought firmly back into the public consciousness (courtesy, it should be said, of a spectacular marketing campaign, that stretched right back here).

Now: it would be expected at this stage, I would imagine, for me to go on about what a sorry state family movies are in. But my thoughts are actually increasingly the opposite. What the success of The Muppets has proven is that there is room for real range in the family movie sector.

Sadly, more than most, it’s an area of the market that’s ripe for bandwagon hopping. Pixar hit big? Let’s go and make CG films! What’s this? A CG/live action hybrid works? Hollywood couldn’t commission them fast enough. Some of the products of the bandwagon following, to be fair, have been grand. Rango and Arthur Christmas last year, accepting the former was skewed towards an older audience, were both real treats, and The Adventures Of Tintin, too, offered a lot of fun. Even the less memorable CG movies, you can generally be pretty confident that they’ll have some entertainment in them somewhere.

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What I’d like, though, is for hand drawn animated films, and movies such as The Muppets, to be seen as less of a novelty. That Hollywood, and audiences too, lose the ties that seem to have developed towards CG, and show continued willing to adopt the appropriate format for the appropriate material. Time will tell, for instance, if the decision by Disney to pursue The Snow Queen in CG was brought about by it being best for the look of the film, or by market demands.

There a few films are coming out this year that offer particular hope, with stop motion movies particularly leading the change. ParaNorman, Frankenweenie (Disney again) and The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists! all look like they have a strong identity of their own. As such, they look infinitely more interesting than something like a third Madagascar movie, or a fourth Ice Age promise to be.

Perhaps the biggest casualty of the quantity and current surge of family movies, though, has been live action. Journey 2: The Mysterious Island is the current exception to the rule, but the bulk of family movies still involve animation somewhere along the line.

I sort-of made this point last year, when I questioned whether PG-13 and 12A had killed off good live action family movies, here. I’m not utterly sure they have, yet it strikes me that good live action family features are as much as a novelty as something hand drawn right now.

But still: as The Muppets explodes into UK cinemas, the choice for families this weekend is rich. Journey 2: The Mysterious Island is a hoot, The Muppets is pretty unmissable, Big Miracle is something a bit different (even if it’s not much cop), and there’s Monster In Paris, and Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace all inhabiting the multiplex (those pesky chipmunks are still around, too). That’s a range there, for different segments of the family audience, that means there should be something for most, and that has to be healthy.

It goes without saying which one I recommend, though…

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