Hollywood is vexed by the lack of home runs at the box office this summer. But there is a bright spot amidst countless forecasts of trouble for the film industry. Two of the biggest smashes of the season so far, Disney’s “Finding Dory” and Universal Studios’ “The Secret Life of Pets,” are a reminder that animation is the one genre that seems to be unstoppable at the movies.
Beyond their reliance on pixilated performances, “Dory” and “Pets” share another similarity. They are both stories centered on animals that yammer about their personal lives, bicker and act like human beings. Against a questionable year of ticket sales, where even movie stars like Johnny Depp and George Clooney have come up short, audiences seem to prefer their personalities with tails.
These cuddly creatures are serving as an antidote to dark times in the world. Some executives in Hollywood are starting to wonder if audiences are growing weary of bullets and apocalyptical imagery on the big screen, because of all the real-life tragedies from mass shootings and terrorism attacks. Experts say that audiences are drawn to these stories because they offer an escape. “It’s a concept that people understand, get and really like,” says Jeff Bock, an analyst at Exhibitor Relations. “We love these creatures. Put in a human persona, and people go gaga.”
Of the top 12 biggest films of 2016 so far at the domestic box office, half of them — a staggering six titles — featured talking animals. That list includes Disney’s “The Jungle Book” ($360 million) and “Zootopia” ($341 million), as well as Fox’s “Kung Fu Panda 3” ($144 million) and Sony’s “The Angry Birds Movie” ($106 million).
“Finding Dory,” which has grossed $434 million so far, is set to eclipse “Shrek 2” over the weekend as the most successful animated movie ever at the domestic box office. Ellen DeGeneres received stellar reviews for her vocal performance as the title character, a forgetful Pacific blue tang fish on a mission to find her parents. Meanwhile, “The Secret Life of Pets” has accumulated a whopping $153 million domestically in its first week of release, already passing big-budgeted tentpoles such as “Independence Day: Resurgence” and “The Legend of Tarzan.”
“Obviously, it’s extremely satisfying and gratifying,” says Chris Renaud, the co-director of “Pets,” an animated comedy about a group of lovable dogs and cats who reside in the same Manhattan apartment building. “For our movie, we really tried to celebrate our relationship with pets and that unconditional love that it seems like they express toward us.”
The concept of anthropomorphism — where animals have human-like qualities — isn’t by any stretch of the imagination new. It was an idea originated in Ancient Greece with Aesop’s Fables. Starting in the late 1920s, the entertainment industry got into the talking animal business with Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse competing with Warner Bros.’s Bugs Bunny. Then there were the beloved classics on the big screen (such as 1941’s “Bambi”) and on TV (don’t forget “Mr. Ed,” everybody’s favorite horse from 1960).
Not all movies about talking animals have been a hit. In 1993, the John Travolta family comedy “Look Who’s Talking Now!,” flopped badly with just $10 million at the box office. But chalk that up to the lackluster pooch characters voiced by Danny DeVito and Diane Keaton, who seemed to communicate without even moving their snouts. And the less said about 2004’s “Home on the Range,” the better.
The current set of talking animal movies are much more sophisticated. “The Jungle Book,” a retelling of the Rudyard Kipling book, carried a budget of $175 million. It was the rare action movie that wasn’t driven by extreme violence or guns.
It also helps that consumers are infatuated with animals — pets occupy some 80 million homes in the United States. Americans are expected to splurge an estimated $62.75 billion on their Fidos in 2016, according to the American Pet Products Association. Public attitudes about animal rights are evolving, as evidenced by the success of the 2013 documentary “Blackfish” about the reported mistreatment of killer whales at SeaWorld, as well as larger debates about the ethics of keeping animals in captivity.
So for now, Hollywood will continue to chase after dogs and cats on the big screen. Next week, Fox releases “Ice Age: Collision Course” — the fifth in the franchise of a series about a wooly mammoth and his pals that has so far grossed $2.8 billion worldwide. In August, Disney will unspool a remake of “Pete’s Dragon,” starring Bryce Dallas Howard. Then in December, Universal is expected to score big with “Sing,” about a posse of animals — voiced by Scarlett Johansson and Matthew McConaughey — that host their own “American Idol”-like crooning contest.
As for “The Secret Life of Pets,” its wildly successful opening weekend has already sparked chatter about a sequel. “It’s certainly something we’ve been talking about,” Renaud says. “We’re all pet owners and pet lovers.”
Brent Lang contributed to this report.