In the Fall of 2006, a new competitor entered the animation market. In a time when the industry was already head over heels with recent Pixar successes, and even the transitionary work of auteurs such as George Miller moving to an animation-medium platform — the mid-2000’s offered a new escape and vision of the future for contemporary animation. The competitor in question was Sony Pictures Animation; a studio that opened its doors with the juvenile comedy Open Season. By no means is the film a cinematic masterpiece, but for a slapstick comedy about a delinquent deer and a stern bear named Boog — the end payoff for Open Season resulted in a flood of commercial and artistic opportunities. The studio would later release Surf’s Up and Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs; two feature endeavours that many including myself consider to be some of the studio’s most profound and articulated efforts to date.
Although, this wave of new projects have ultimately resulted in a great toll for Sony. Just like in the same footsteps as other animation powerhouses such as Illumination; the power of public demand ultimately drives the market for film sequels, reboots, spinoffs, and other franchise fare. Since its inception, the majority of Sony Pictures Animation’s feature catalogue have predominantly been adaptations of pre-established works — either pre-existing intellectual property or even feature continuations of prior original films. The majority of these films, whilst beautifully crafted by a dedicated team of visual artists, often find themselves in their own malaise of bored tropes and pitiful Déjàvu.
I get it. Every company has to make a profit somehow. Even major-award contending studios like Pixar had to sacrifice some of its own property for the sake of revenue and further job consideration. But in the case of Sony Pictures Animation, there’s a solid time span in the mid-2010’s that resulted in a bit of public distrust for the studio. After their imaginative collaboration with UK animation house Aardman, Sony Pictures Animation fell into a bit of a strut. While some of their recent sequels are certainly enjoyable as passable entertainment — some of their more egregious productions such as the infamous The Emoji Movie was originally labeled as a laughing stock amongst industry elites in its opening release. The critical reception at the time even concerned appreciators of the studio, including myself — worried for the prospects of the talented designers, animators, and supporting artists that formed such gratifying visual flare so many years prior.
But then something shifted — a new era for the renowned animation house. In December of 2018, Sony Pictures Animation released Spider-man: Into The Spider-Verse. A vibrant super-hero escapade that took direct influence from its original literary source, Spider-Verse boosts impeccable motion coordination and efficient storytelling to great effect. The film brought back the same energy in which Sony Pictures Animation was lacking for so many years. But even more importantly, the film revolutionised the game on a technical scale. Open-source software and newly refined animation techniques were implemented, proving Sony’s innovative ingenuity as something worthwhile and paying attention towards.
So what can we expect from this new era? The sequels aren’t going to stop. That’s already a given. The Angry Birds Movie 2 has since been released, with even more separate franchise sequels being slated for future release dates. But the difference here is all in the intention and care that is brought centerstage from the talented crew of animators and storytellers. There will always be a plethora of sequels. But what ultimately gives me faith for the once bedridden studio is a film like The Mitchells Vs The Machines. Stylistic comparison between Spider-Verse and the recent debut feature from Michael Rianda are inevitable. But what separates The Mitchells with Sony’s other works is its narrative crux. The film — with all of its imperfections and occasional cringe-worthy & generation-Z pandering gags — is a pure-hearted science-fiction romp riddled with purpose and catharsis.
It’s a film that discusses generational anxieties; a delicate comedy that comments on the shared fears of failure amongst the populated art scene. See the connection here? Within a studio that has faced numerous critical flops, the story at the core of The Mitchells Vs The Machines reflects a general communal experience from the film’s crew of talented artists. Even as a film student myself, I found myself emotionally gravitating to the father-daughter dynamic throughout their apocalyptic journey. It’s a difficult subject to discuss on screen, but Rianda manages to balance the profound and juvenile to great effect. Sure, it may be occasionally sappy with some of its more potent emotional beats being slightly rushed. But the end product is more than just satisfactory — an exciting original blockbuster riddled with imaginative set pieces and some of the most confounding needle-drops in recent memory.
The future of Sony Pictures Animation is ultimately up in the air. But as long as its recent slew of sequels is matched with a film of great emotional poignancy and talent like The Mitchells Vs The Machines, I have no doubt that the studio will continue to find success within all of its feature projects — regardless of their demographic or subject material.
Netflix will release The Mitchells Vs The Machines on April 30th