The summer movie season has officially wrapped and this year’s crop of animated and VFX-driven films was bountiful. There were some standouts, some historically bad flops and a wide variety of films in between. As we enter the Fall season (a.k.a the doldrums), we investigate what worked, what didn’t and what it means.

THE GOOD

Inside Out (Metacritic: 94, Worldwide Box Office: $735 million)

Director Pete Docter’s animated masterpiece proved to be both a critical and commercial success. Dispelling any doubts that Pixar Animation Studios had lost their storytelling mojo, this film is as high concept as they come and is a lock for the Best Animated Feature Academy Award. Highlight: The “skins” of five emotions in Riley’s head are composed of glimmering particles. Combine phenomenal particle work with a Tex Avery animation style and Inside Out stands out as one of the most visually distinct animated features this year.

Mad Max: Fury Road (Metacritic: 89, Worldwide Box Office: $374 million)

Essentially a two hour long car chase, the titular Mad Max was beautifully overshadowed by the iconic Furiosa in the best (non-animated) film of the summer. Pure adrenaline and gorgeous visuals make this post-apocalyptic nightmare one to remember. Highlight: Many of the spectacular crashes may have been accomplished using practical means, but nearly every shot has some sort of VFX touch to it. Every thing from the color grading to the compositing is running on all cylinders.

Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (Metacritic: 75, Worldwide Box Office: $511 million)

Here’s a fun fact – Tom Cruise is 53. How many middle aged men are willing to strap themselves to the side of an airplane for the sake of a stunt? None. And that’s why Cruise continues to be a box office giant. It probably didn’t hurt that the Mission Impossible franchise continues to reinvent itself with each new installment, bringing fresh intrigue and action – despite an (almost) geriatric leading man. Highlight: Tom Cruise nearly died in the underwater sequence with reports stating that he had to hold his breath up to 6 minutes.

Furious 7 (Metacritic: 67, Worldwide Box Office: $1.51 billion)

Take a look at that worldwide box-office tally. Either Paul Walker had a huge following with a morbid fascination with the deceased actor, or the underground car race film turned spy action adventure film really found the right mixture of car chases and absurd set pieces. Highlight: Dropping cars out of a plane may not seem like the most sane thing to do, but it certainly is visually exciting.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (Metacritic: 66,Worldwide Box Office: $1.4 billion)

Most people wouldn’t say a $1.4 billion dollar box office total is a disappointment, but the sequel to the largest superhero film ever fell somewhat short of expectations, leading some experts to believe that the movie-going audience is starting to tire of the genre. Let’s hope not because the next five years have 27(!) superhero movies in the pipeline. Highlight: Lola VFX dipped into the Uncanny Valley with their CG modification of Vision, creating a eerie synthetic superhero in the process. Also ILM’s refinement of the Hulk has led to the definitive interpretation of the green goliath.

Ant-Man (Metacritic: 64, Worldwide Box Office: $384 million)

Like Guardians of the Galaxy before it, Ant-Man was deemed likely to fail. While it certainly couldn’t compete with the scale of the Avengers sequel that bowed earlier in the summer, Marvel’s smallest superhero carved out it’s own unique niche by adopting the tropes of a heist film. Highlight: The macro level perspective of the shower sequence did a stunning job of selling the changes in scale while the clever solution of creating a trail of “shadowy” versions of Ant-Man when he’s shrinking prevented the viewer from losing him when he activates his suit’s power.

 

THE BAD

Fantastic Four (Metacritic: 27, Worldwide Box Office: $156 million)

The troubled production has reached legendary status as director Josh Trank and the studio clashed over the interpretation over Marvel’s first family. Supposedly, things devolved to the point where the young director was pulled from his gig directing one of the Star Wars spinoffs – at an entirely different studio. Whatever the case, the hodgepodge of visions created a muddled, plodding film with glimmers of good ideas struggling to get through. Lowlight: The highly advertised sequence of the Thing being launched from a plane and causing all sorts of VFX heavy destruction was conspicuously absent from the final film.

Pixels (Metacritic: 27, Worldwide Box Office: $195 million)

On paper, the idea of 8-bit videogames coming to Earth to destroy all humans seems like a recipe for fun. Despite some impressive character and FX work by Sony Imageworks and Digital Domain, this dud was doomed by a flimsy, predictable and unfunny script starring Adam Sandler. Lowlight: A character literally receives a woman as a trophy at the end of the film. Sigh.

Hitman: Agent 47 (Metacritic: 28,Worldwide Box Office: $63 million)

A forgettable sequel to a forgettable original film based off a series of video games. Lowlight: See previous sentence.

Terminator: Genisys (Metacritic: 38 ,Worldwide Box Office: $436 million)

Because the Terminator franchise hit some speed bumps with Terminator 3 and Terminator: Salvation, the fourth film was meant to serve as a timeline reboot. Unfortunately, an overly convoluted plot and a tepid response stateside led to a disappointing showing at the box office. Fortunately for the time traveling reboot robot, the Chinese box office proved particularly lucrative for Arnold’s return and has all but guaranteed that he’ll be back. Highlight: Plot issues aside, the digital double of Schwarzenegger as he appeared in the 1984 original is one of the most fully realized CG humans ever made.

 

THE MEH

Tomorrowland (Metacritic: 60, Worldwide Box Office: $208 million)

We had high hopes for Brad Bird’s second live-action film. So did Disney. Unfortunately, they could potentially lose up to $140million when all is said and done. While a lot of the ideas and adventure were fantastic, once the mystery was out of the box, the final package fell somewhat short of expectations.

Jurassic World (Metacritic: 59, Worldwide Box Office: $1.65 billion)

Currently the third highest grossing film of all time behind James Cameron’s last two indie flicks Avatar and Titanic, the fourth installment in the Jurassic Park franchise focused primarily on the dino action and the ineffable charm of Chris Pratt. While the plot holes were so big you could drive a T-Rex through them, the creature animation on a wide variety of dinosaurs (done by ILM) were top notch.

Minions (Metacritic: 56, Worldwide Box Office: $1 billion)

Joining the small group of animated films to have surpassed $1 billion (including “Frozen” and “Toy Story 3”), the Illumination produced spinoff of the “Despicable Me” franchise banked hard on the unintelligible jibberish of the tic-tac shaped characters. More silly than meaningful, Minions proved that wacky kid-centered fun has universal appeal.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (Metacritic: 55,Worldwide Box Office: $88 million)

Slick and stylish, director Guy Ritchie’s turtlenecked spies based on the 1960s TV series of the same name failed to light up the box office. Whether that’s due to it’s esoteric time period, Armie Hammer’s inexplicable continued career as a leading man or a half hearted marketing effort is unclear. Could this mean that interest in the decade that brought us Mad Men is finally waning?

Ted 2 (Metacritic: 48, Worldwide Box Office: $202 million)

The first film about the raunchy teddy bear raked in a surprising $549 million dollars when it was released in 2012. The surprise of seeing a sweet childhood toy spouting foul language seems to have lost its shock value as the sequel struggled to reach such lofty box office (or critical) heights. Despite this, the work done by Tippett Studios on Ted himself proved that a fully CG character can be both believable and hilarious.

San Andreas (Metacritic: 43, Worldwide Box Office: $469 million)

Dear Houdini – thanks for making this film possible. Destruction porn at its finest, this was yet another attempt by Hollywood to convince us that California is doomed. While the massive earthquake, giant fissures cracking through the ground and towering tsunami waves pushed the limits of particle simulations, it was only internationally that the film founds its legs.

 

Key facts about Summer 2015 worth nothing

  • Three of the top 10 highest grossing films of all time were released in the summer of 2015.
  • To date, ticket sales are up by 5.4% over last year.
  • In the US, 9 out of 10 of highest grossing films of the year were either animated or VFX-driven.
  • Flagging franchises can become flagship franchises if they’re done correctly. Jurassic World proved that the familiar can be reinvented and Terminator: Genysis proved that the Chinese market is a great place to resurrect an established franchise (despite a weak domestic showing in the U.S.).
  • The appetite for films in China is growing at a staggering pace. The Chinese market is on track to grow ~40% over last year for a total of approx $7 billion. We will undoubtedly see more films catering to this bourgeoning market as well as an increase in co productions like DreamWorks Animation’s Kung Fu Panda 3 which is being produced in conjunction with a local Chinese production facility.
  • The superhero genre is starting to show fatigue – yet studios are doubling down on their production. There are currently 27 films slated from a variety of studios and while that’s good news for VFX artists, at what point will it be a law of diminishing returns? What will keep the films fresh?
  • Animation is still a driving force behind the global marketplace. Adding the returns of the animated features released earlier in the year (DreamWorks’ Home and Paramount’s The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water) and you’ve got a total of approx. $2.8billion worldwide.
  • Want a guaranteed blockbuster? Hire Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson or Chris Pratt. Better yet, put them in a movie together with Channing Tatum and you’ll hit every demographic and quadrant possible.