From Into the Spider-Verse to Mutant Mayhem, are 3D animated films in danger of getting old again?

By Mason Berlinka

Updated Mar 28, 2023 at 04:35 PM

Reading time: 4 minutes

When the trailer for the Seth Rogen-produced Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem dropped in early March 2023, I was excited to say the least. A childhood favourite of gen Z, the TMNT have finally been wrestled back from the hands of the king of Hollywood schlock, Michael Bay, and have been given the full CGI animation treatment in what looks to be a very promising outing. We’re far away from the post-lockdown memefest that got us all back into movie theatres.

But, plot twist, despite my initial positive reaction, I just can’t help but worry this may be the first of a long-winded trend in films that turn what was once innovative and exciting in 3D animation, into something boring and generic.

Let’s be real, we are absolutely spoiled for 3D films right now. From the surprise hit that was 2023’s Puss in Boots: The Last Wish to Disney’s Turning Red, animated films have never looked this good. The days of the uncanny (and quite frankly terrifying) humans of Pixar’s 1996 game changer, Toy Story, are long gone.

The last ten years really have been a golden age of 3D, from Ratatouille to Toy Story 4, it feels like it can’t get any better than this—unless, of course, you opt to make your film ooze with a stylish touch. When we’re at the peak of what the medium can show, it takes a lot of work to push it even one bit further.

This is exactly the approach that Sony Pictures Animation’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse opted for. The 2018 film written by Phil Lord, which follows the internet’s favourite Spider-Man, Miles Morales joining other Spider-people in a multiverse adventure, is widely considered to be the new benchmark for modern animated films. It was the first of its kind in bringing a new wave of innovation and creativity back to the big screen, after a DreamWorks decline and a Disney drought.

Ere Santos, lead character animator on the film, talked to The Direct about the techniques pushed forward in the seminal movie, most notably including to opt for a lower framerate for character movement, rather than using cinema’s usual 24 frames. The standard for pictures was dropped to 12 frames a second for the characters, to give them a more “crisp, pop art” animation feel, much more akin to an old cartoon, or the imagined motion of a comic book.

Essentially, the effect subverted cinema norms, while also bringing a fresh edge to the style of the film. Keen-eyed netizens have since pointed out that, as Morales learns the great responsibility that his power endebts him with, his movements become more fluid—they go up in frame rate.

The film also uses less thick, messier lines, directly trying to mimic the comic books that spawned it. There’s dots and bubbles in the background, as well as colours shift at key moments. Something else in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse that I love is its use of “pop frames.” These hand-drawn frames appear every once in a while during Spidey action, to really help embed viewers into the comic world.

And of course, what animated comic film would be complete without an onomatopoeia sound effect bubble popping up as a taxi cab screeches to a halt? The film is inventive and does its best to push the medium forward wherever it can.

Sony Pictures Animation had set itself as a powerhouse, and followed up with Netflix’s The Mitchells vs. The Machines, a film that was praised again for its animation and engaging style. Naturally, other studios were taking note of just what could be done in an industry that had begun to feel like it was beginning to plateau because of tried-and-tested methods of giants like Pixar.

Puss in Boots: The Last Wish, which debuted in UK cinemas on 3 February, was DreamWorks’ latest attempt at breathing new life into its work, and it succeeded tremendously. We have Into the Spider-Verse to thank for that.

Puss’ second stand-alone outing sees him battling a mythical giant at the start of the movie—a giant whose movements are all on 2s, animated at a lower frame rate. While a lovely effect, it harkens me back to Sony’s own game changer.

The film has a delightfully messy, painterly style throughout too, while also making use of its predecessor’s “pop frames,” really adding to the charm of the fairytale world that DreamWorks had created with Shrek. It’s a visual delight, and it’s got a great, mature but accessible story to boot. Just like, you guessed it, Spider-Verse.

Even James Cameron got in a little bit on the rule-breaking, with varying frame rates throughout the latest Avatar film, to help sell the world his animators and effects artists had so painstakingly created. Higher frame rates during wide shots of the environment make you feel like you’re in a nature documentary. Pandora comes to life thanks to this—you forget briefly that you’re at the cinema.

And this brings us back to Nickelodeon Movies’ TMNT: Mutant Mayhem. The trailer looked fantastic, and felt like a comic book come to life. I’m so pleased to see so many animated films pushing themselves to be more than just something you begrudgingly sit through during a family outing.

The film boasts an immensely promising voice cast too, with Jackie Chan taking the mantle of the gang’s famous ratty sensei Splinter, and Seth Rogen taking on the role of the iconic TMNT villain Bebop.

For our teenage heroes, they’ve gone with a younger voice bracket, which feels very fresh for the turtles. This looks to be more wholesome and exciting family fun, rather than a film filled with gritty teenage angst. If you’re after Megan Fox playing a sexy April O’Neil, then you’re in the wrong screening.

My fear is that this sort of stylish comic book-inspired edge may start to become dull as every studio tries their hand at it. I’m sure the TMNT flick will be a blast, I just see a trend beginning to form, one that I worry may start to get old quite quickly.

Studios are desperate to keep the medium fresh and exciting, but this unfortunately means dogpiling on whatever seems to be working at the time. We saw the same thing happen with big-eyed Disney animations, stop motion adventures from Aardman Animations and LAIKA Studios, as well as increasingly tired outings from Pixar and DreamWorks who seemed to be running on broken records throughout the 00s.

At least these first few copycats are proving to be heaps of fun so far. I just hope that it doesn’t kill diverse and innovative approaches in the next decade.

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