It’s getting harder to distinguish one season from the next, especially when the entirety of yuletide has felt like spring. Still, you can always tell if it’s winter by looking at the movies: January is the perennial dumping ground at the multiplex, the time when the unwatchable and unmarketable is made unavoidable.
Except, that is, for animation.
This month opens the movie year with a small burst of big-budget cartoons, a prelude to a year in which animation will be making a larger than ever mark on the marketplace. Among the more hotly anticipated features, not surprisingly, are sequels — “Ice Age: Collision Course,” “Space Jam 2” and, of course, “Finding Dory,” the long-awaited sequel to “Finding Nemo.” Elsewhere, there’s “The Secret Life of Pets,” “Kobo and the Two Strings” and “The Angry Birds Movie.”
More immediately, “Norm of the North,” which opens Jan. 15, takes a 3-D, stereoscopic view of global warming. A polar bear named Norm (the voice of Rob Schneider) and his three lemming pals are forced off the melting polar ice cap and land in New York, where Norm finds that his new corporate employers are responsible for the calamity back home. “It’s a lot more fun than that sounds,” Schneider said.
On Jan. 29, one of the big kahunas — “Kung Fu Panda 3” — continues that wildly successful franchise, featuring the voices of Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman and Angelina Jolie. (“Nut Job 2,” a sequel to the 2014 hit, was originally scheduled for this month, too, but was pushed to later in the year, possibly to avoid all the traffic.)
Not all animation is American: “Only Yesterday,” the celebrated Isao Takahata animé film of 1991 and a product of Japan’s revered Studio Ghibli, got its first U.S. release on Jan. 1 via the distributor GKIDS, which will take it wider Feb. 26. (GKIDS has also opened the acclaimed “Boy and the World,” which goes wide in February.)
NOT JUST FOR KIDS
“Animation so often gets sidelined as being just for children or families,” said David Jesteadt, senior vice president for distribution at GKIDS. “We think that both undervalue the intelligence and discerning viewing possibilities of modern kids, and unfortunately may sometimes discourage adult audiences from seeking these unique experiences out.” To combat this, he has almost all their films play in independent and art house theaters. “These are great movies,” he said, “first and foremost.”
The bigger boys (and girls) agree. The emphasis at companies like DreamWorks Animation and Pixar is on movies without a specifically kid demographic. At the same time, anyone with a young family knows there’s also a dearth of appropriate product. So animation is a growth industry. The films draw crowds. There’s almost always the merchandising aspect — nothing to sneeze at, even in winter. And a movie like “Kung Fu Panda 3” is an extreme case of trending Hollywood economics: Of the $665 plus millions made by its predecessors, more than two thirds came from overseas. Ten to 15 years ago, it would have been the reverse.
It’s a truism that U.S. films are a sound export (the exceptions being sports movies and “urban” comedies). But the “Kung Fu Panda” movies are particular good travelers, particularly to China. And that’s no accident: The filmmakers have taken great pains to make any ethnic content culturally authentic.
“We’ve always been very conscious about treating them respectfully,” director Jennifer Yuh said of the Chinese elements in “Kung Fu Panda,” which include 1) the panda and 2) kung fu. “We don’t necessarily think of global appeal when we set out to make these films. We’re trying to make something that appeals to all ages and groups. We want kids. But parents, too.”
ACTORS’ PARENTAL FACTOR
Being a parent isn’t an insignificant factor, especially among the people who make the movies. “The fact that we have such great actors and the fact that they want to do animated films is pretty amazing,” Yuh said. “I mean, Dustin Hoffman? He’s doing his third ‘Kung Fu Panda,’ and he doesn’t have to do this.” She laughed. “He does because he has something to share with his grandkids.”
Schneider, who’s done at least a dozen voice roles in animated films — and, sometimes, multiple voices — said there are a bunch of reasons animated films are appealing. “There’s no makeup trailer, you can wear sweats and you can get fat,” he said. “No one knows the difference.”
He is hoping that “Norm” will be his breakthrough film — with his 3-year-old daughter. “I’ve shown her some of the other stuff I’ve done. The most honest critic is the one who walks out of the room. Maybe with ‘Norm’ she’ll stay put. Or I’ll have a better grip.”
While 2015 was a hot year for animated films, many of these features also were quality productions, films that showcased the breadth and depth of what the form can offer — and the broad audience to whom it can appeal. When the Oscar nominations for best animated feature are announced Jan. 14, the following have a good chance of being in the mix, in a category that’s among the more crazily diverse that academy voters have to consider.
INSIDE OUT Another Pixar masterpiece, about the conflicting emotions operating within the brain of a young girl who has moved to an inhospitable new city, and is in danger of leaving all her memories behind. The voice cast is first-rate — Amy Poehler (Joy), Phyllis Smith (Sadness), Mindy Kaling (Disgust), Bill Hader (Fear) and Lewis Black (Anger). The visuals are pretty astounding, too
ANOMOLISA One of the more adult releases of the year (on the legitimate movie-theater circuit anyway) was this stop-motion tour de force from directors Charlie Kaufman (who wrote “Being John Malkovich”) and Duke Johnson, about sex, fate and emotional catharsis. The vocal performances — by David Thewlis and Jennifer Jason Leigh as the leads and Tom Noonan as everyone else — are amazing.
SHAUN THE SHEEP MOVIE The woolly character first introduced in Nick Park’s “A Close Shave” has his own starring role, in a film that’s true to the traditions of Aardman Animation (“Wallace & Gromit”) and a delight, regardless of your age.
MOOMINS ON THE RIVIERA The Finnish cartoon dynasty vacations in France and the results are droll, understated and elegant. A kids’ movie? Certainly not, but they seem to like it, too.
MINIONS In terms of sheer idiot lunacy, this would be a shoo-in, as Stuart, Bob and Kevin go off in search of a new despicable leader for their ageless cohort of banana-colored, caplet-shaped creators of chaos. Sandra Bullock voices villainess Scarlett Overkill and Jon Hamm is her husband, Herb. But it’s the Spanish-and-Mandarin-inflected gibberish spouted by co-director Pierre Coffin that seals the deal.