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When did animation lose its soul?

This summer, big animated movies from Pixar and Disney look increasingly soulless. Berlin's Freiluftkinos offer a great alternative.

Open air cinemas like at Lakeside Film Festival offer a great alternative to the mainstream. Photo: Lakeside Film Festival

As summertime rolls around again, so do two of the ‘big three’ international film festivals – Cannes and Venice (the first being our own Berlinale). The closing film from Cannes, Disney and Pixar’s Elemental (D. Peter Sohn), underscores just how much animated film dominate the summer releases this year. But as the film industry continues to honour and praise animation, I’m growing tired of banking on the same emotional tropes the genre so often utilises – even though I loved them when they were still fresh.

Since Disney released the very first computer-animated feature film, Toy Story, in 1995, digital animation has been a major sector of the mainstream film industry, and its mechanisms (famous voice actors, beloved songs, the most unrivalled merchandise opportunities since the Star Wars franchise) and cross-generational emotional resonance have altered cinematic perception. This filmic machine is now so foolproof and influential, it’s hard to believe that a lesser-known Steve Jobs was once executive producer on the very first feature. Not long after Toy Story, Dreamworks Pictures cashed in on the same formula with Ants, which Pixar in turn followed with A Bug’s Life.

Disney is living in a hauntological nightmare of themselves, chewing up and spitting back out the 1990s classics

My own fondness for Pixar comes from its originality in aesthetics and writing. One of my earliest memories is watching Pixar’s early shorts, such as Geri’s Game (which I eagerly awaited at the end of each rewatch of Toy Story, fastforwarding past its credits on the VHS tape to play the bonus feature).

📽️ Open air cinemas: Where to watch this summer

When executed well, like the Toy Story series, animation can be filmmaking at its most poignant and unforgettable, but their once truly original emotional tropes seem to lessen in impression as the years pass. This summer Pixar’s Elemental continues to draw on its themes of emotions as personalities, as previously seen in Pete Docter’s 2015 Inside Out and 2020 Soul. Dreamworks is also around this summer with Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken. Lessons in identity and moral values seem to be on the cards, alongside stepping outside the norm and being who you want – classic western morale-boosting. I can’t help but feel the days of inventiveness are waning for these types of films as the plots and intricacies repeat themselves in ever-cleverer guises.

As always, Berlin’s classics lineup is on fire

Next to animation sits live action – Disney is living in a hauntological nightmare of themselves, chewing up and spitting back out the 1990s classics (many of which were themselves remakes of classics from bygone eras). These films form a part of our cultural psyche. Disney’s latest Peter Pan and Wendy with Jude Law is but one example of the remake vortex; another is The Little Mermaid, which was only an interesting concept when Sofia Coppola was attached to it in 2014, a pairing which never happened.

Despite this blurring regurgitation, live action prevails, like Marvel, as a way to pad the industry’s wallet so that interesting stuff can still get made – a concept that does calm my nerves. One film this summer that I’m actually looking forward to: Mattel is getting meta with Greta Gerwig’s live action Barbie. I can’t think of anyone more exciting than the mumblecore darling to flirt with Hollywood and the western merchandising industry.

Luckily, the summer lineup in Berlin is giving us more than just animation and live action. As always, summer here means outdoor Kinos: don’t miss your chance to catch one of our Berlinale 2023 favourites Seneca, a seriously tripped-out John Malkovich joyride set in the Roman empire (with a twist), alongside family dramas like The Fabelmans (featuring Michelle Williams, who will also be starring in Kelly Reichard’s much anticipated Venice exclusive, Showing Up, due to hit Berlin Kinos later this year).

And as always, Berlin’s classics lineup is on fire – quite literally, with David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me alongside the OG that started all romcoms, When Harry Met Sally. How fun it will be to experience that diner scene with fellow cinephiles. So if the poor lineup of big-studio films hitting screens hasn’t already deterred you, there’s yet another reason to skip sitting in a stuffy cinema this summer.