With ‘Inside Out 2’ and ‘Despicable Me 4’ Propping Up the Summer Box Office, Could 2024 Be the Year of Animation?

“First time in a long time I didn’t hear any buzz at all about a July 4th blockbuster movie,” a friend texted me last week. His message struck me as odd, since I can’t turn a corner without being bombarded by mutant Minions: The yellow pranksters keep showing up on billboards, product tie-ins, pop-up ads. My friend is engaged to be married, with a baby on the way, but he’s not a parent yet, and he’s clearly not thinking like one.

The reality is this: The weekend that once belonged to Will Smith — and which hosted a geriatric Indiana Jones’ return last year — has long been the domain of “Despicable Me” movies. For seven of the last 14 years, Illumination Entertainment has planted one of its toon tentpoles (which also include “The Secret Life of Pets”) on or immediately after Independence Day weekend. Their latest behemoth, the more-amusing-than-artful “Despicable Me 4,” earned an impressive $122.6 million over its opening frame.

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Pixar typically swoops in a few weeks beforehand with a mid-June animated offering of its own, cleaning up with family audiences (although the company’s sterling track record wobbled post-pandemic, as “Luca” went straight to streaming and family audiences waited to catch “Elemental” and “Lightyear” on Disney+). This year, Pixar got its mojo back, as the feel-good, audience-friendly sequel “Inside Out 2” passed the billion-dollar mark — joining 10 other toons at that platinum rung — to become the studio’s top-grossing film of all time. I can’t understate what a high-wire accomplishment I consider the film to be, giving audiences of all ages a fresh way of comprehending their emotions (and anxiety in particular).

Less than a year after dual writers’ and actors’ strikes shut down Hollywood, kid-friendly cartoons are propping up the theatrical box office in a big way. Now, my friend (and many like him) may look right past these movies, preferring ambitious grown-up sagas like “Furiosa” and “Horizon.” But in a summer without a “Barbenheimer” — which, let’s face it, is every summer except 2023 — these animated movies are keeping the popcorn flowing … and helping to justify the megaplexes’ outrageous AC bills.

Dating back at least as far as “Toy Story” and “Shrek” (if not the Disney Renaissance of the 1990s), animation has been a big moneymaker for studios. But something remarkable happened with the “Spider-Verse” movies, which innovated expressionistic new possibilities for the medium and liberated an entire sector of artists to make their movies look like the eye-popping concept art they came up with in pre-production. If you’ve ever flipped through the “art of” book for an animated feature, you’ve seen just how much gets lost in conforming those visionary designs into standardized CG features.

And yet, despite all of the recent stylistic and narrative innovation (consider everything from “Flee” to “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem”), plenty of audiences still pass over the medium altogether. Not me. The past three years, I’ve made an unusual pilgrimage — one that puts animation on par with auteur cinema — flying to France for the Cannes Film Festival in May, then staying on to attend the Annecy Animation Festival in early June.

Located half an hour from Geneva in eastern France, Annecy hosts the world’s leading showcase for all things animation each year: short films, television and dozens of features. I’ve been going since 2010, the year the festival landed the world premiere of “Despicable Me.” Every film in the series (and their “Minions” spin-offs) has subsequently premiered there — it probably helps that Illumination-owned animation company Mac Guff is based in Paris.

But Annecy has become so important to the animation industry in recent years — and animation so central to the major studios’ bottom line — that the festival now serves as an ideal platform to survey a calendar year’s worth of upcoming toons. Some screen in their entirety, others unfurl as “work in progress” sneaks (like Paramount’s September release “Transformers One,” which sparked ecstatic reactions from fans), while still more are touted in flashy Comic-Con-style panels.

Netflix — which singlehandedly releases more animated features per year than all the major studios combined — has embraced Annecy in a big way. The streamer sees the festival as a chance to give their animated standouts a glorious big-screen premiere, while stirring up excitement from the nearly 200 Academy members in attendance — a strategy that netted the company an Oscar nomination for “Nimona” in 2023. (In my experience, Annecy attracts more Oscar voters and a greater turnout from American studios than Cannes, which just goes to show how important animation is to Hollywood.)

This year, Netflix debuted “Ultraman: Rising” and “The Imaginary” (the latest from Studio Ponoc, an anime company formed in the wake of Hayao Miyazaki’s false-alarm “retirement” in 2013), as well as compelling presentations for Aardman sequel “Wallace & Gromit: Vengeance Most Fowl” (featuring the return of “The Wrong Trousers” mastermind Feathers McGraw) and the Richard Curtis-scripted CG feature “That Christmas.” Both movies should be done in time for the holidays, though Netflix is only planning the minimal run needed to Oscar-qualify them — so no box office boost there.

On the theatrical front, Skydance (the David Ellison-owned, John Lasseter-operated studio behind “Luck”) touted their upcoming “Spellbound,” an old-school princess movie from “Shrek” co-director Vicky Jenson (featuring original songs by “Beauty and the Beast” composer Alan Menken) that looks charming, but also a decade or so behind the curve. The fledgling studio has a lot riding on the movie, which centers on the idea that the king and queen of a fantasy land have been turned into monsters, leaving their daughter (voiced by Rachel Zegler) to find a solution.

Among the other American studios in attendance, Disney teased footage from “Moana 2,” which should infuse still more life into the box office this Thanksgiving, while Andy Serkis appeared in-person to tout anime spin-off “The Lord of the Rings: The War of the Rohirrim,” a decidedly adult-looking battle epic (with a red-haired heroine to mix things up on typically male-dominated Middle Earth). New Line intends to release the film in December.

Riding high on the half-billion-dollar box office of Q1 hit “Kung Fu Panda 4,” DreamWorks Animation delivered a compelling presentation for “How to Train Your Dragon” co-director Chris Sanders’ September-set “The Wild Robot.” While I love the “Dragon” movies (and loved the look of “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish”), I’ve had my doubts about DWA since Jeffrey Katzenberg’s departure. The studio’s strategy has seemed hazy (privileging cash-grab sequels over higher-risk one-offs) ever since DWA fell under Universal’s stewardship.

But “The Wild Robot” feels like something special. Attending Annecy for the first time, Sanders personally introduced nearly 20 minutes of footage, which looked strikingly different from previous DWA features: After crash-landing in a forest, the title character (a helper droid voiced by Lupita Nyong’o) tries to make herself useful to an orphaned duckling. Instead of striving to make everything photorealistic, Sanders and his team set out to create painterly backdrops that would complement the film’s emotional core. DreamWorks has high hopes for the film, anticipating strong box office and a possible best picture campaign.

That would put the movie head-to-head with “Inside Out 2,” which could well compete in multiple categories. Although the original “Inside Out” kicked off its own Oscar run with a Cannes premiere in 2015, Pixar employees have blamed the theatrical underperformance of last year’s “Elemental” on the decision to play the festival’s closing night slot (apparently, the film received much harsher reviews in Cannes than Pixar films typically do from U.S.-based critics).

Even without a big-studio toon (both “The Garfield Movie” and half-animated “IF” did decent business in the U.S. while Cannes was underway), Cannes’ 2024 lineup proved unusually animation friendly — complete with an honorary Palme d’Or for Studio Ghibli. The festival rarely selects more than one or two toons in its official selection (and even then, it often relegates them to overlooked beachfront premieres). This year, however, Cannes offered a competition slot to “The Artist” director Michel Hazanavicius’ solid, holocaust-themed fable “The Most Precious of Cargoes.” I liked the film more than most critics, prematurely (and somewhat cynically) betting a friend that it would win the animated feature Oscar. After all, “The Zone of Interest” had just won the international feature Oscar, and the Academy’s embrace of WW2-themed films is well-established.

But judging by the reception at Annecy (where “Cargoes” got the opening night spotlight), animators aren’t nearly as impressed with the film as I was. It probably didn’t help that Hazanavicius insulted the industry crowd by claiming that working in the medium was long and boring. The movie still hasn’t found U.S. distribution, but when it does, I maintain that it’s a serious contender.

While dozens more animated features screened in their entirety at Annecy, it’s worth singling out two more to watch for in 2024. The first was actually last year’s Cristal winner: married couple Chiara Malta and Sébastien Laudenbach’s French-language “Chicken for Linda!,” the moving, musical portrait of a mother-daughter relationship, which I included on my top 10 list last year — and which GKIDS waited to Oscar-qualify in 2024. A hit in its home country, the film earned a paltry $21,500 in the U.S., although that shouldn’t matter to Oscar voters, who may well respond to the film’s colorful hand-crafted style and unconventional treatment of grief.

And then there’s this year’s Cristal winner, “Memoir of a Snail,” from Oscar-winning stop-motion director Adam Elliot (“Harvie Krumpet”), whose “Mary and Max” opened Sundance in 2009. Though the Tim Burton-adjacent dark comedy focuses on two siblings separated after their father’s death, Elliot’s eloquent and irreverent sensibility is not at all targeted at kids. IFC scooped up the movie shortly before Annecy and hopes to have a modest indie phenomenon on its hands (à la “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On” two years ago).

While movies like “Memoir of a Snail” and “Chicken for Linda!” won’t move the box office needle the way four-quadrant sequels to hit toon franchises can, they demonstrate how animators are using the medium to accomplish what old-school techniques can’t — namely, to hit emotional notes that live-action is sometimes inadequate to convey. That’s a big part of the appeal for a computer-animated blockbuster like “Inside Out 2,” which currently stands as the highest-grossing film of 2024. Last year, “Barbie” barely managed to wrench that title from Illumination’s animated “The Super Mario Bros. Movie.” Looks like it’s a toon’s turn to come out on top, with plenty more where that came from.

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