Pioneered by Pixar, computer animation has arguably been the most consistent box office attraction in recent years with the average title grossing $155 million, but audience's interest in the format will be tested this year as a flood of C.G. features plow into theaters—The Wild is next up on April 14. A genre that has averaged two to three releases a year since 1998 is scheduled to have 12 in 2006 alone.
This means that we may be reaching the end of the CG Golden Age.
The Golden Age, where nearly every CG animation movie was above average in quality and many of them were great, was always a product of economics. The animation was so prohibitively expensive that only finely-conceived products could be made. Budget pressures forced filmmakers to write the movie to within an inch of its life and hash out story problems way before production.
Traditional animation had become so cheap that changes could be made on the fly. For example in the 2003 animated version of Sinbad, the script was a hash. The movie tested very poorly. As Dade Hayes and Jonathan Bing relate in Open Wide:
The movie's themes of loyalty between old friend and the romantic chemistry between Sinbad and Marina eluded younger audiences . . . As changes were made, the film would be tested again and again to maddeningly indifferent feedback. . . . There was a ray of hope, however. There was one character that test audiences perpetually wanted more of: Sinbad's slobbering canine sidekick, Spike.
Spike wasn't originally in the movie, noted producer Mireille Soria. "He was added about halfway through. He started out as an Akita but he was too perky-looking." . . .
Spike didn't speak but he was about to become the star of Sinbad. "Jeffrey Katzenberg decided Spike could be a good matchmaker," codirector Johnson recalled. "A lot of the shots of Spike were late additions." Entirely new scenes were ordered from the creative team. . . . The mantra of DeamWorks Animations became, "We need more dog."
The reason computer animated movies have been so good is because it's just too damn expensive to monkey around like that. Even if Pixar told John Lasseter that they wanted "more dog," the company couldn't afford to do it in a CG production. The upshot of which is that, for the most part, creative team have been getting things right the first time with CG animated films.
But if we're reaching a point where the technology is making CG animation more affordable--so much so that studios can crank out 12 of these projects a year--then it won't be surprising if the quality starts to dip. Once you have a margin for error, you can normally count on more mistakes being made.