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

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.

Oscars who? Memeable movies like Cocaine Bear and M3GAN bring uncomplicated fun back to the big screen

You know what’s coming this Sunday. The most important night on the film calendar arrives, the Academy Awards. Ahead of the glittery Oscars 2023 ceremony, I expected my social media feed to be full of tweets and predictions over which films will take home awards. Perhaps even speculation over who or what the stars of the silver screen will be wearing on the red carpet.

But that’s not totally been the case. In fact, the film taking up the most space on my timeline right now is Cocaine Bear, a movie about—you’ve guessed it—a bear who stumbles across cocaine in the woods and goes on a murderous rampage. Directed by Elizabeth Banks, the much-memed film is actually based on a true story. And even more surprisingly, it has a favourable score of 73 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes.

Mainstream film is embracing a sense of novelty right now. January saw the release of M3GAN, a dark comedy-meets-horror film about a murderous robot who could sing, dance and kill. M3GAN came to slay, both literally and figuratively, and the film’s commercial and critical success has already sparked plans for a sequel.

A film like Avatar: The Way of Water (which has been nominated for four Academy Awards this year) also feels connected to this. Before any of its cinematic achievements, the film felt like a huge spectacle that couldn’t be missed.

As I sat with 3D glasses on and watched a bunch of weirdly sexualised blue aliens shoot guns at each other and call each other “bro” in American accents, I felt like I was having an out-of-body experience. I knew what I was watching was completely ridiculous and silly at times: with billions of dollars and a decade to make the sequel, the villain James Cameron settled on was a clone of the villain from the first film. Was that really the best he could do? But, against all my instincts, I found myself being drawn in by it and thoroughly entertained from start to finish.

When it comes to Cocaine Bear and M3GAN, it feels like two important shifts are happening. First, is that studios and audiences are gravitating back towards concepts which, on the face of things, seem bizarre—remember Snakes on a Plane or The Human Centipede? But also, more importantly, when these films impress audiences and critics, they subvert our expectations of seriousness and its relationship with quality.

I wonder if, with the economy struggling, the planet burning, and good news headlines constantly getting buried under a never-ending avalanche of negativity, the film industry’s relationship with spectacle might be a form of escapism. This might also be part of the reason why we’re seeing a resurgence of rom-coms—a genre which tends to be uplifting and doesn’t adhere to traditional expectations of realism.

Clarisse Loughrey, film critic at The Independent, thinks there could “definitely” be an economic connection between now and the Reagan era in the 1980s, where an emphasis on profit coincided with challenging economic times for ordinary people. “The Reagan era was so profit-orientated,” she told SCREENSHOT. “If you look back to the early days of the blockbuster, you will see a lot of these novelty-style movies.”

Loughrey also thinks these films are courting social media reactions, which can now be the most effective way to promote a movie. Some fans are more likely to go and see a picture that everyone is posting about, even if it’s not bound to be Oscar-nominated. “Social media is a major factor in creating buzz for these movies,” she explained.

“The audience makes memes and it basically does the promotional work for the studios,” Loughrey continued. This is further evidenced by the incessant memeing of Morbius, a satirical approach that had such a chokehold on the internet that Sony Pictures got tricked into giving the film a second run in theatres.

There could be even more time-sensitive factors at play. The dominance of Marvel films in the blockbuster space is starting to fade, with fan enthusiasm waning and the plots becoming more entangled and complicated (does anyone truly understand the multiverse?). “The apparent drop in Marvel’s box office receipts could suggest that people are losing enthusiasm for the superhero model and are starting to look elsewhere,” Loughrey said.

“A-list stars don’t really have the box office pull they used to, so what is now going to get butts on seats? Horror has always been pretty reliable—but I think you could argue that the concepts behind Cocaine Bear and M3GAN are strong enough to work as a draw in themselves.”

The time of year that films like Cocaine Bear and M3GAN are catching our attention also feels notable here. 2023’s awards season felt fairly lacklustre until Ariana DeBose’s viral performance at the BAFTA Film Awards injected some much-needed fun.

“Angela Bassett did the thing” traded on a similar sense of novelty and spectacle, which was a marked contrast to the stiff awards ceremony where it was performed. It’s probably the only thing people will remember from the BAFTAs this year—but isn’t that rather telling? Against the serious backdrop of awards season, audiences are craving uncomplicated fun.

It’s difficult to know where film’s embrace of novelty will go next. Right now, there is clearly a space for simple, in-your-face concepts which are well-executed and don’t demand too much from the viewer. Brash films like Cocaine Bear don’t claim to be changing the face of cinema. But they are still defying expectations, both critically and commercially. So, in their own purposefully ridiculous way, they actually might be.