The record breaking success of “Despicable Me 2″ over the Fourth of July holiday weekend is just the latest sign that sequels are the hottest thing in animation today. But is that a good thing or a bad thing for audiences?
Once upon a time, Disney ruled the animated kingdom and the Mouse House strictly avoided wading into the sequel waters. Remember 1990’s “The Rescuers Down Under”? It’s a rare exception.
At least until the home video explosion made direct-to-video sequels all the rage — whether they were endless “Land Before Time” movies or Disney’s suddenly booming quickie sequel business. “The Lion King II,” “The Hunchback of Notre Dame II” and “Bambi II” didn’t have splashy theatrical releases but they all exist, seriously.
Still, it wasn’t until Pixar’s “Toy Story 2″ — one of the best sequels ever made — was released in 1999 that the animation industry realized sequels could be valuable theatrical commodities of their own. The genie was out of the bottle and over the last decade we’ve had three “Shrek” sequels, three “Ice Age” follow-ups and two additional “Madagascar” adventures — almost all of them significant box office hits.
“Shrek 2″ remains the highest grossing animated movie of all time in the US (kind of sad, isn’t it?), while the third movies in the “Ice Age,” “Madagascar” and “Toy Story” series all stand as the highest grossers in their franchises. (And once again, we’ve got to give it up for Pixar’s “Toy Story”: which gave us two of the best sequels ever made.)
It probably won’t take long for “Despicable Me 2″ to become the highest grossing animated movie of 2013 to date, topping another follow-up, the Pixar prequel “Monsters University.”
Not every animated sequel is a hit — “Cars 2″ and “Kung Fu Panda 2″ were notable disappointments, while “Happy Feet Two” was an outright flop — but they’re mostly safe bets for studios to sell to parents looking for a surefire way to entertain their kids. Unfortunately, it’s usually that very same comfortable feeling that conflicts with what’s so great about the best animated movies: their creativity.
Even when sequels are fine entertainment, they rarely reach — or exceed — the inspired heights of the movies that bore them. When it comes to quality, the “Toy Story” sequels are the exception, not the rule.
Later this year we’ll see the release of Disney’s “Cars” spinoff “Planes” and Sony’s “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2.” Next year brings Fox’s “Rio 2,” DreamWorks’ “How to Train Your Dragon 2″ and Disney’s “Planes” sequel (that was fast!) “Planes: Fire and Rescue.”
The “Despicable” minions have their own untitled movie slated for release in time for Christmas 2014 and the “Madagascar” penguins follow in 2015. Threequels for “Panda” and “Dragon” are also on the way, plus “Finding Nemo” sequel “Finding Dory.” And apparently someone asked for “Hotel Transylvania 2.”
Some of these may be good, most of them are more likely to be bad, average or just forgettable. There’s still a lot of originality in animation (last year’s “ParaNorman,” “Wreck-It Ralph” and “Frankenweenie” and all the work coming out of Japan’s Studio Ghibli reminds us of that), it’s just getting harder to find between all the familiarity.