While 2019 isn’t quite over, it’s far along enough for us to draw some preliminary conclusions. The year delivered mixed news for major producers of animated features. In simple terms: good if you’re Disney, bad if you’re most other people.
At the time of writing, the two top-grossing features of the year are Disney’s The Lion King ($1.65 billion global) and Disney-Pixar’s Toy Story 4 ($1.07 billion). In third place, remarkably, comes Beijing Enlight’s Ne Zha ($729 million), an unprecedented hit in China; but it’s likely to be edged out by another Disney film, Frozen 2, when that opens in November. The House of Mouse’s unapologetic commitment to franchises is certainly paying off.
The same can’t be said of other studios. With exceptions — like Dreamworks’s How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World — non-Disney sequels and spin-offs disappointed in 2019. Warner Bros.’s The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part, Sony’s The Angry Birds Movie 2, and Illumination’s The Secret Life of Pets 2 all failed to gross even half as much globally as their predecessors.
Nor was it a vintage year for other mainstream features. Paramount’s Wonder Park, STX’s Uglydolls, and Laika’s Missing Link disappointed at the box office. The jury is still out on the performance of Dreamworks/Pearl Studio’s Abominable, but it hasn’t been a blockbuster. It’s worth noting that the last two — Missing Link and Abominable — follow 2018’s Smallfoot in focusing on folkloric Yeti-like creatures, while Uglydolls is yet another animated film based on an existing toyline (and so is the upcoming Playmobil: The Movie, which has already tanked internationally). Audiences may simply be tiring of half-baked ideas and formulaic storytelling.
If so, 2020 offers grounds for optimism. Cartoon Brew has collated the latest on next year’s major U.S. feature animation releases. The list reveals some interesting trends.
Disney and Pixar will change tack and produce three original films between them, and Sony Pictures Animation also has three originals of its own. More will come from the streamers — namely Netflix, which will release its second and third self-produced animated features (both original ideas), and Apple, which will serve up its first (also an original). Then there’s the growing influence of China, which is partnering with North American companies to produce three of the following films.
Dive into the list below. And remember: release dates and other facts are liable to change.
Director: Dan Scanlon Production studio: Disney-Pixar (U.S.) U.S. distributor: Walt Disney Studios Release date: March 6, 2020
When Pete Docter replaced John Lasseter as Pixar’s chief creative officer last year, it was reported that he’d shift the studio’s focus to original works. Onward is the first film to make good on that commitment. The fantastic tale follows the adventures of two elf brothers whose father died when they were too young to remember him. It’s a very personal project for Scanlon, who lost his own father at a young age. The director is reuniting with producer Kori Rae, with whom he worked on Monsters University.
Director: David Silverman, Raymond S. Persi Production studio: HB Wink Animation (China), Cinesite (Canada) U.S. distributor: Unannounced Release date: First quarter 2020
Since moving into feature animation production in 2016, vfx shop Cinesite (The Addams Family) has kept busy. Extinct, for which its providing animation, is financed by Chinese producers China Lion Film and Wink Animation. Cinesite’s Montreal studio is handling the production. The film has strong Simpsons credentials, both in the form of its directors — Silverman and Persi — and its writers Joel H. Cohen, John Frink, and Rob LaZebnik. It tells the story of furry donut-shaped animals called Flummels, who travel back in time to save their species from extinction.
Trolls World Tour
Directors: Walt Dohrn, David P. Smith Production studio: Dreamworks Animation (U.S.) U.S. distributor: Universal Pictures Release date: April 17, 2020
While its rivals Pixar and Disney Animation return to original stories, Dreamworks is playing 2020 safe with a couple of sequels. The first is a follow-up to 2016’s musical comedy Trolls, which was based in turn on the Troll doll toyline. The film expands the original’s universe by introducing new Troll tribes, each devoted to a particular musical genre. The voice cast is a who’s who of musical talent: Mary J. Blige, George Clinton, Anderson Paak, Kelly Clarkson, J Balvin, Ester Dean, Anthony Ramos, Kenan Thompson, Jamie Dornan, Gustavo Dudamel… The list goes on.
Director: Tony Cervone Production studio: Warner Animation Group (U.S.), Reel FX (U.S./Canada) U.S. distributor: Warner Bros. Release date: May 15, 2020
Many years in the making, this reboot of the Scooby-Doo franchise is the latest film to give a beloved IP a shiny cg update — a risky move, as reactions to the Sonic the Hedgehog trailer reminded us. Thankfully, the director is Tony Cervone, a veteran of Warner Bros. Animation who’s steering this update in a visually contemporary but faithful direction. The film creates an origin story for the Great Dane, while doubling up as an epic adventure that “takes audiences to the four corners of the globe.”
The Spongebob Movie: It’s a Wonderful Sponge
Director: Tim Hill Production studio: Paramount Animation (U.S.), Mikros Animation (Canada) U.S. distributor: Paramount Pictures Release date: May 22, 2020
Putting this year’s underwhelming Wonder Park behind it, Paramount Animation has announced a new mascot and a bold plan to release two features per year, starting in 2020. First up is this, the third Spongebob feature to date, and the character’s first fully-cg outing. Like Scoob! (see above), it will be an origin tale for the goofy title character, while also paying homage to Frank Capra’s classic It’s a Wonderful Life. The film will feature hybrid scenes in which the characters enter live-action worlds.
Directors: Kris Pearn Production studio: Bron Animation (Canada) U.S. distributor: Netflix Release date: Spring 2020
Adapted from Lois Lowry’s novel of the same name, this family comedy centers on the four mischievous Willoughby children, who decide to orphan themselves by dispatching their parents on a dangerous journey. The film is written and directed by Pearn (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2), who’s aiming to create a stylized cg look for the production. It features the voices of Maya Rudolph and Ricky Gervais (who is also executive-producing).
Director: Pete Docter Production studio: Disney-Pixar (U.S.) U.S. distributor: Walt Disney Studios Release date: June 19, 2020
Pixar’s second original feature of 2020 (after Onward — see above) is directed by the studio’s new creative chief himself. Details are scarce for now: the logline describes the story as “a journey from the streets of New York City to the cosmic realms to discover the answers to life’s most important questions.” Docter has been at Pixar since before the release of the first Toy Story, and he’s been involved with many of its key features since then. Soul will be his fourth as director, following Monsters, Inc., Up, and Inside Out.
Minions: The Rise of Gru
Directors: Kyle Balda, Brad Ableson Production studio: Illumination Entertainment (U.S.), Illumination Mac Guff (France) U.S. distributor: Universal Pictures Release date: July 3, 2020
A follow-up to 2015’s Minions, which was spun off in turn from the Despicable Me films, Minions: The Rise of Gru is hardly original. But then that’s to be expected when a franchise grosses $1 billion per release. Little is known about this sequel, although the title hints at an origin story for Gru, the villain (voiced by Steve Carell) who serves as the leader of the babbling yellow Minions.
Bob’s Burgers: The Movie
Director: Unannounced Production studio: Fox Animation Studios (U.S.), Bento Box Entertainment (U.S.) U.S. distributor: Walt Disney Studios Release date: July 17, 2020
The Belcher family is headed to the bigscreen. Currently in its tenth season on television, and having developed a relatively small but dedicated cult following, the characters from the Loren Bouchard series will attempt to entertain moviegoing audiences. Next to nothing has been revealed about the film, but Bouchard has said that the film will “scratch every itch the fans of the show have ever had, but it also has to work for all the good people who’ve never seen the show.”
Director: Hamish Grieve Production studio: Paramount Animation (U.S.), Reel FX (U.S./Canada) U.S. distributor: Paramount Pictures Release date: July 31, 2020 Jan 29, 2021
In a world where monsters are tame and humans make them wrestle, Winnie decides to follow in her father’s footsteps and become a trainer. The trouble: her monster isn’t a natural fighter. Based on Rob Harrell’s graphic novel Monster on the Hill, the film will feature the vocal talents of WWE stars Becky Lynch and Roman Reigns; the pro wrestling company has teamed up with Paramount to produce the film.
The Mitchells Vs. The Machines
Director: Mike Rianda Production studio: Sony Pictures Animation (U.S.), Sony Pictures Imageworks (U.S./Canada) U.S. distributor: Columbia Pictures Release date: September 18, 2020
Fast-tracked to a January release, this is the first of two Sony Pictures Animation films based on original stories slated for next year. The sci-fi comedy envisions a world in which technology suddenly turns on humanity, interrupting a dysfunctional family’s road trip. Rianda, creative director on Gravity Falls, is directing for the first time. Chris Miller and Phil Lord (The Lego Movie, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse) are producing.
Director: Kirk DeMicco Production studio: Sony Pictures Animation (U.S.), Sony Pictures Imageworks (U.S./Canada) U.S. distributor: Sony Pictures Releasing Release date: November 6, 2020 April 16, 2021
SPA’s second original feature of the year is also its first musical. The film tells the story of a capuchin monkey who travels from Cuba to Miami to become a star of the stage. The ace up its sleeve: 11 new songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who’s been developing the project since before he found fame with Hamilton. DeMicco, who helmed The Croods, is directing.
Raya and the Last Dragon
Directors: Paul Briggs, Dean Wellins Production studio: Walt Disney Animation Studios (U.S.) U.S. distributor: Walt Disney Studios Release date: November 25, 2020
Much like its sister studio Pixar, Disney Animation has lined up an original film for 2020 following back-to-back sequels. Raya and the Last Dragon is a fantasy epic set in the magical realm of Lumandra, a land inhabited by an ancient civilization — and dragons — which draws on the cultures of Southeast Asia. The film is written by Adele Lim, one of the scribes behind smash comedy Crazy Rich Asians. Cassie Steele and Awkwafina star.
Directors: Tomm Moore, Ross Stewart Production studios: Cartoon Saloon (Ireland), Melusine Productions (Luxembourg) U.S. distributor: Apple Release date: Fall 2020
Apple is announcing its entry into animated features with this, the latest work from respected studio Cartoon Saloon (Song of the Sea, The Breadwinner). The tech giant picked up the rights to the film last year, ahead of the launch of its streaming service Apple TV+ this November. The film tells the story a young apprentice hunter who comes to Ireland with her father to wipe out the last pack of wolves. Moore and Stewart, who worked together on the Oscar-nominated The Secret of Kells, have developed a striking 2d style that switches between a woodblock aesthetic and looser, more expressive linework.
Over the Moon
Director: Glen Keane Production studio: Pearl Studio (China), Sony Pictures Imageworks (Canada) U.S. distributor: Netflix Release date: Fall 2020
In this cg family musical, young Fei Fei builds a rocket, determined to head to the moon and find the legendary Moon Goddess. Netflix’s third original animated feature — after Sergio Pablos’s Klaus and The Willoughbys (see above) — is also the feature directorial debut of animation titan Glen Keane. It is being produced by Shanghai’s Pearl Studio (formerly Oriental Dreamworks), which has reverse-outsourced the cg animation to Sony Pictures Imageworks.
The Croods 2
Director: Joel Crawford Production studio: Dreamworks Animation (U.S.) U.S. distributor: Universal Pictures Release date: December 23, 2020
This much-delayed sequel, Dreamworks’s second of the year (following Trolls World Tour — see above), brings back the caveman clan that populated the 2013 original. The logline is simple: “The Croods face their biggest threat since leaving the cave: another family.” Nicolas Cage, Emma Stone, and Ryan Reynolds return alongside new stars Leslie Mann and Peter Dinklage.
Director: Chris Appelhans Production studio: Sony Pictures Animation (U.S.), Base Animation (China) U.S. distributor: Columbia Pictures Release date: 2020
Experienced visual development artist Appelhans writes and directs this original story, set in contemporary China, about a boy and a dragon who can make wishes come true. The voice cast stars Constance Wu and Jackie Chan, who is co-producing through his company Sparkle Roll Media. The film is the first product of Sony Pictures Animation’s new international initiative.