Animated Films Are Hardly Child's Play

While it would be nice to find Hollywood's next "Million Dollar Baby," the real money is in green-skinned ogres and comically out-of-shape superheroes. In the age of animation, "A Fish Called Wanda" is far less valuable than one named "Nemo."

Consider this: Each of the three films nominated in this year's Oscar race for best animated films grossed far more than the five nominated for best picture. "Shrek 2," "The Incredibles" and "Shark Tale" finished 2004 ranked Nos. 1, 4 and 9, respectively, at the North American box office, and took in a combined $855 million.

Clint Eastwood may have beaten out Martin Scorsese as best director, but as the voice of an animated blowfish in "Shark Tale," Scorsese could take some consolation in knowing that the fish story has grossed more than $160 million domestically, more than twice as much as Eastwood's "Million Dollar Baby."

Unsurprisingly, a parade of animated features is coming your way. Next up is "Robots," opening today, the tale of kid robot Rodney Copperbottom, voiced by Ewan McGregor.

A laundry list of headliners providing the voices is now the norm if you want to make an animated feature, and "Robots" does not disappoint. Robin Williams plays Rodney's dilapidated sidekick, a broken-down bucket of bolts named Fender. Halle Berry, Stanley Tucci, Mel Brooks, Amanda Bynes and Greg Kinnear are also voices in the robo-cast.

But if Rodney doesn't bust his little Copperbottom at the box office quickly, he's in for a lot of competition this year. At least 10 big-budget animated features are in the works, each hoping to attract family audiences.

For the past few years, Disney and Dreamworks have been the principle players in the digital cartoon business, but that's all changing. Twentieth Century Fox jumped into the fray in 2002 with "Ice Age," and "Robots" -- made by the same production team -- is a statement that they're not just dabbling.

Disney (the parent company of ABC News) enjoyed its largest success over the past few years through its association with Pixar -- a partnership that's produced a string of blockbusters including "Toy Story," "Monsters, Inc.," "The Incredibles" and "Finding Nemo." That partnership is slated to end later this year when "Cars" -- voiced by the likes of Bonnie Hunt, Cheech Marin, Paul Newman and Richard Petty -- rolls into theaters. But Disney already has a contingency plan.

Later this year, the company famously built on the popularity of a cartoon mouse will release "Chicken Little," a $100 million attempt to reclaim the glory of its past success with hand-drawn animation. Its last such film to score big was 2002's "Lilo & Stitch," which grossed $263 million worldwide and spawned a successful TV show and several straight-to-DVD sequels.

Sony Pictures, meanwhile, is making headway with a process of capturing the performance of actors on tape and then translating it into CGI animation. The first effort with this technique, "The Polar Express" from Time Warner, starred Tom Hanks as a variety of characters. It was critically acclaimed for its visuals and was the 10th most successful film at the box office last year.

Sony is using that technique for the upcoming "Monster House," due next summer, in which teenagers are caught in a haunted house that comes to life.

Dreamworks is already working on the next installment in its "Shrek" franchise. But that won't hit theaters until 2007. In the meantime, it will release "Madagascar," an animated story about zoo animals on the run, in which we'll meet a menagerie of critters, including Ben Stiller as Alex the Lion, Chris Rock as Marty the Zebra, David Schwimmer as Melman the Giraffe and Jada Pinkett Smith as Gloria the Hippo.

Dreamworks also has plans for "Over the Hedge," another animal adventure, featuring Jim Carrey, Bruce Willis and Garry Shandling.

No matter how "Robots" fares, Fox is already pushing forward with a sequel to "Ice Age," which is being teased in previews for the new film.

It's easy to see why an animated film can score so big at the box office. Most of the films are G- or PG-rated. That makes them family-friendly, and kids are apt to see a movie multiple times if it catches on. With the DVD and home-theater rental markets becoming a larger source of revenue, studios are even more enthusiastic about cartoons.

Of course, there have to be limits to how much animation moviegoers really want, and computer-generated animation doesn't come cheap. But the studios are likely to keep churning out the product as long as audiences are filling the seats.