Animation Companies and Identity

Ah, Illumination Entertainment. Well known for films such as Despicable Me, The Lorax, The Secret Life of Pets, The Minions and Sing.

What’s that? You don’t particularly care for any of those movies? You think they’re cheap knockoffs of DreamWorks style movies? Well Illumination doesn’t care because after only 7 films they have made a combined total of $1.9 BILLION. (x)

Holy crap! How did a low budget animation studio become a recognizable brand name in almost no time at all?

The biggest reason, of course, is marketing. Illumination makes sure their films are very well advertised (just look at the Minions marketing blitzkrieg). But the reason why their films have consistently remained successful is because they have a clear identity. They all have simple animation and character designs, they all have pop culture references, they all have their own brand of humor, and they’re all fun family films that don’t require a whole lot of thinking for. Basically, all Illumination films have a similar theme and tone.

By contrast, look at DreamWorks Animation (their current sibling company now that NBC Universal has bought them both). DWA’s profits have always flip-flopped, and by the time they were purchased by NBC they were in serious financial trouble, having to lay off hundreds of employees. Why? Because they’ve never been truly consistent. DreamWorks can range from beautiful works of art (How To Train Your Dragon) to generic kids stuff (Monsters vs. Aliens) to “WTF am I watching” (Bee Movie). When most people think of DWA they think of snarky, in-your-face movies with pop culture references, so when they’re faced with a How To Train Your Dragon or Kung Fu Panda, it’s enough to cause whiplash. And while Illumination movies tend to be generic, they also tend to be cute, harmless, and safe. DreamWorks can just come across as bizarre. You can watch more on how DreamWorks has an identity problem HERE.

By contrast, Pixar has a clear identity of making high quality, heartwarming, clever and original content that has given them massive success. They do get some backlash for making more generic or lower-quality films (The Good Dinosaur is their lowest grossing effort) and for making too many sequels, but not too much to the point where they get into financial trouble.

Laika also has a clear identity: unconventional, artsy stop motion flicks. This has won them massive critical acclaim, but not a wide audience appeal. Warner Bros. Animation, which has always struggled to find its audience and rake in money at the box office (their only theatrical feature length original film to win any prestige is The Iron Giant), has mostly settled on making LEGO movies, which has proven to be a hit.

I think identity is also a huge indicator of how Disney has gone through peaks and valleys during its 90 year reign. At their core, they’re a company that retells classic stories for a modern audience, and when the audience would change with time, so would they. One of the reason the early 2000’s was a bad decade for Disney was because, in addition to being overshadowed by Pixar, their movies were all over the place. Different animation styles, tones, and themes, and weird premises. Now, the animation is cleaner, softer, and more detailed, their genres and premises are simpler, and they deal with themes that are relevant to today’s society, such as female empowerment, mental health concerns, and prejudice.

In today’s age, animation companies are brands, and the audience comes to expect something specific from them; if they don’t get what they asked for, they won’t support it. It sucks that animation companies aren’t allowed to explore and have a wider range like live action companies, but until animation gets more respect as a medium, that’s going to happen for awhile. Identity can make or break an animation studio, because you can end up as a reigning champ like Pixar, or wind up being bought out and STILL end up in trouble like DreamWorks.


‘Kubo’ and Casual Ableism

Image result for kubo and the two strings

So despite Kubo and the Two Strings being problematic (if not outright racist) for casting white actors in the lead roles of a movie set in ancient Japan, I decided to go see the movie for myself. After all, the movie had garnered many glowing reviews calling it a masterpiece and being poetic and deep I decided to give it a go.

I wish I had those two hours of my life back.

Okay, I’ll give the film credit: it is certainly beautiful to look at, no question. The adventure story is pretty exciting, and the dynamic between Kubo, Monkey, and Beetle is lovely. But I’m sorry, it does NOT make up for the blatant display of ableism.


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‘Kubo’ and the Whitewashing Controversy

When Kubo and the Two Strings was first announced, I was excited. A new film from Laika, the creators of ParaNorman and Coraline! It looked like it was going to be an interesting film…until I read the cast list.

Charlize Theron? Ralph Fiennes? Rooney Mara? Mathew McConaughey? As main stars in a movie set in ancient Japan? And the main character, a Japanese boy, is voiced by the Irish Art Parkinson? When the movie was first announced, there were absolutely no Japanese or even Asian actors listed, so my interest in the movie went out the window.

Later, I was informed that George Takei would take part in the film…but not a very big one. In fact, the extended cast list does list a few Japanese actors, but they are all conveniently minor characters. All the major characters? No no, they belong to white people.

I know what some of you are thinking: but it’s not live action, so why does it matter? Well, the thing is, in all mediums, Asian American actors don’t get a lot of opportunity. (To the point where some Asian American actors have to go to to Asia to get roles!) And worse still, a lot of actual Asian roles get downplayed or erased completely to make room for white characters and actors. So Kubo ends up rehashing the Hollywood formula of taking parts of Japanese culture they like and not bothering to give enough roles to actual Japanese people.

This article is especially insulting because the director, Travis Knight, insists that Art Parkinson was picked on talent (oh so Asian actors aren’t talented enough to voice a character of their race?) and it’s clear that white actors were cast pretty much to rake in the money. Well it doesn’t look like that worked because this movie is disappointing at the box office, so really, it was all for nothing.

And what especially makes me especially wary of this film is that it looks like no Japanese people, save for a few actors, were involved with the film’s production (and please let me know if that’s not the case). So how do I know for sure that this film accurately portrays Japanese culture? Say what you will about Big Hero 6, but at least they accurate cast the characters (Ryan Potter, a Japanese/white actor, plays the Japanese white protagonist Hiro Hamada, Jamie Chung voices Gogo, Damon Wayans Jr. plays Wasabi, etc., and they even went the extra mile of casting black/Jewish Maya Rudolph as the white Aunt Cass), and Asian people were heavily involved with the production. Jin Kim and Shiyoon Kim worked as character designers, and Scott Watanabe created the world of San Fransokyo, just to name some of the more important examples. What is Kubo‘s excuse?

So I’m disappointed. Am I going to see this movie? Probably, because Laika is capable of telling amazing stories with progressive themes, along with some beautiful stop motion animation, and I wouldn’t want them to go bankrupt. But I want them to learn from this. I wouldn’t be too surprised if the whitewashing of their cast hurt this movie’s success, and while I don’t want this mistake to completely ruin them, they need to keep this in mind before they make more movies about non-white characters and non-Western worlds.