A Golden Age of Digital Animation Slides Into Happy Mediocrity

It's been almost 20 years since Pixar revolutionized and revitalized feature animation with Toy Story, unleashing disruptive change throughout the entertainment industry. So what's the state of the art these days? Well, based on this summer's slate of big-name sequels and would-be commercial juggernauts, Hollywood's output of digital animated features has settled into a sort of agreeable mediocrity. While the late '90s and early '00s saw a stream of (Pixar) highs and (Dreamworks) lows, we are now well into an age of creative parity among the big studios—no more surprises, but no more complete disasters either.

Let's take a look at two prominent sequels, usually the litmus test for how creatively parched or hydrated an animation studio might be. (Remember Toy Story 2? It's the Godfather Part II of animated sequels—one that revisits well-loved characters but places them in such a captivating scenario that the end result rivals the original. Now contrast that with Toy Story 3. Or Cars 2. Ech.) Monsters University vs. Despicable Me 2 is pretty much a no-brainer, right? In a cartoon showdown between Pixar and Universal Pictures, Pixar's gotta be the quicker draw. Not so anymore. Here we have two sequels with pretty much equal entertainment values: nicely rendered graphics, fun characters undergoing enjoyable hijinks, tidy scripts with uncomplicated morals. What's not to love?

MU takes us back to the characters of 2001's Monsters, Inc., a classic Pixar blend of lovable characters, an original scenario, and an emotionally resonant storyline—it's a prequel that at least makes more sense than Pixar's recent numeric efforts. We get to see monocular Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) and hairy James P. Sullivan (John Goodman) meet and eventually form their friendship in college, long before they become the top kid-scaring duo at the local power company. So here's what we learn: They were two very different kinds of guys who didn't get along. Mike was book-smart and eager, while Sully was naturally gifted and lazy. However, they are able to overcome their differences to complement each other's talents, and find strength and friendship in unity. Good deal.

Meanwhile, DM2 brings back Gru, the would-be supervillain hatched by Illumination Entertainment in the surprisingly entertaining original movie from 2010—but is there enough material there for a whole other movie? Sure, why not! This time, Gru (Steve Carell) is enlisted by the Anti-Villain League to investigate a new, mysterious super-villain who has acquired a dangerous mutation serum, no doubt to be used in a plot to take over the world. He is aided by AVL agent Lucy (Kristen Wiig), not to mention his adorable trio of adopted daughters. So here's what happens: Gru manages to resist his previous urges to commit evil and saves the world. And his minions are super-cute, too. Great.

Yes, I just threw in two big spoilers in those plot synopses—or did I? Maybe I just stated what you already knew, whether you've seen the movies or not. And that's the only issue that rises up in my curmudgeonly heart when watching these movies with my elated 7-year-old son: No one is going to be surprised by these movies, not even small children. That's the big difference between "golden era" Pixar movies and the somewhat more tarnished age we're in now—less imagination.

Technically, however, the execution on each is wonderful. As eye candy, and as a diversion on a hot summer day, both DM2 and MU are fine pieces of entertainment. Hollywood's other major studios have come a long way to matching Pixar's digital sheen, if not its inventiveness—which even Pixar can't seem to relocate. (Yes, I know—Brave was a fine movie, too, with a vital new character in Merida and a mother-daughter conflict that explored new ground for an animated feature... but its wacky bear-spell storyline never quite rose to its high intentions, possibly the result of its fractious production.) I did indeed enjoy both movies, and will probably add them to our kid-collection of Blu-rays. But compared to the highs of those first Pixar features and shorts, these new efforts are oddly unfulfilling.

But here's one alternative. If you want to find truly creative animation that consistently blows your mind, then you have to go old-school: two dimensions, hand-drawn, on TV. With each 12-minute episode of Adventure Time on Cartoon Network, creator Pendleton Ward is able to explore whole new worlds undreamed of by today's big-budget digital maestros. It works on so many levels, it's nearly mind-boggling: art, story, characters. But most importantly, it takes us to places we haven't been to before, tapping directly into Ward's (and his writers') child-like imaginations and expressing stories that could only be told through animation. You truly can't predict what will happen in each show—and that's a gift to be treasured as long as it lasts.