The synergy between technology and art has paved the way for film directors and animators to tell compelling stories and breathe life into their creative work. Animation tools and film technology have evolved and reached new milestones over the course of the years, and thanks to these technological advancements, we get to enjoy Pixar, Disney, and Dreamworks animation masterpieces.
Digital filmmaking is at its peak, and the creative freedom that storytellers have nowadays when it comes to animated movies is astonishing. Studios are now using cutting-edge software to create feature-length animations, and tech-savvy filmmakers are still discovering new ways to improve upon this technology. “The art challenges the technology, and the technology inspires the art”—these are the famous words of John Lasseter, former CCO of Pixar and Disney, and we couldn’t agree more with this statement.
Fascinated by the evolution of technology and the success of animated movies, here at Cutting Room Music, we did a little digging to see how the popularity and worldwide box office success of feature-length animations have changed over the decades. We stumbled upon some pretty interesting results on BoxOfficeMojo.com, and decided to share our findings with you. We also wrote a story on how movie genre popularity and worldwide box office revenue changed through 1980 and 2020, if you want to check that out.
For this study, we looked at the same time period (1980 through 2020), but we focused exclusively on the evolution of animated movies. Read on to see what we’ve found and make sure to check out the chart below.
Animated movies gain popularity in the ‘80s, scoring a total of $3 billion at the box office
Cinemas weren’t always filled with impeccable, 3D computer-generated animations. Filmmakers and animators in the 80s were still using classical methods like hand-drawn animations or 2D animations. Still, animated movies managed to earn up to $3 billion at the worldwide box office in the span of 10 years.
During the 1980s, animated movies were still only popular among children, and adults usually watched these movies when accompanying their kids to the cinema. It took almost one-and-a-half decades for the industry to consider creating animated movies for a broader audience. Nevertheless, movies such as The Little Mermaid, An American Tail, and The Secret of Nimh were huge successes.
Released in 1989, The Little Mermaid grossed $84 million at the worldwide box office. This movie was the starting point for Disney’s streak of animations that were soon to follow throughout the next decade. The Little Mermaid was the first time Disney introduced the Computer Animation Production Systems (CAPS), a tool they fully integrated in the 1990s in their feature-length animations.
This was also the decade when a live action actor and an animated character would share the screen throughout an entire film, in the iconic Who Framed Roger Rabbit? animation. The movie earned $238 million at the worldwide box office in 1988.
The 1990s: The Disney renaissance and the rise of computer animated movies
Following the success of The Little Mermaid, Disney went on to release multiple animated movies that are considered classics to this day, including Beauty and the Beast, which grossed $249 million in 1991, and Aladdin in 1992, which earned $346 million at the worldwide box office. The Lion King, released in 1994, became a huge hit, peaking at #1 and earning just over $859 million. Pocahontas, Tarzan, and Hercules also came out during the 1990s. Most of these movies were done with CAPS, allowing animators to color sequences that featured hand-drawn characters in digital spaces.
This decade, more specifically 1995, also marked a new beginning for animated movies with the release of Pixar’s Toy Story, the first feature-length computer-generated 3D animation movie. When it came out, it was unlike anything else in terms of quality and animation, and soon other studios would follow suit, including Dreamworks. Toy Story earned $245 million at the worldwide box office, peaking at #3 in 1995, while Dreamworks’ Antz grossed $172 million. Following the success of Toy Story, Pixar Animations and Walt Disney Pictures released Toy Story 2 in 1999, which earned $487 million at the worldwide box office.
Space Jam, starring Michael Jordan and the entire Looney Toons gang, was another iconic live-action animation movie released in the 90s that scored big-time at the box office. Furthermore, in 1993 Tim Burton released the iconic stop-motion animation The Nightmare Before Christmas.
Disney and Pixar dominated the 1990s, and as a result of their critically-acclaimed and fan-favorite movies, the animation genre grossed a total of $7 billion during this decade. With computer animation catching steam towards the end of the decade, the 2000s saw a plethora of incredible releases thanks to the evolution of technology.
In the 2000s, animated movies earned more at the box office than the previous two decades, combined
Advancement and innovation in technology opened new doors for movie producers during the 1980s and 1990s. It wasn’t long until other major or independent studios started making top-notch animated movies by leveraging state-of-the-art animation software. However, this was a rough period for classical animators, with most of them being afraid of losing their jobs due to rapid technological advancements. With many professionals being used to the classical form of animation, the transition period wasn’t smooth for everybody.
As far as movies go, animations managed to rack up a total of $24 billion at the box office, thanks to popular releases such as the Shrek franchise, Ice Age, Shark Tale, The Incredibles, Finding Nemo, Ratatouille, WALL-E, Up, 9, and many, many others. During the 2000s, more and more adults were also taking an interest in animated movies, as many of the titles had incredible stories and breathtaking visuals.
Wes Anderson released arguably one of the most iconic stop-motion and clay animations during this decade: his 2009 classic Fantastic Mr. Fox. In 2010 alone, animated movies earned $5.2 billion at the box office, just $1.8 billion short of what they earned during the entire previous decade.
Animation movies break new records in the 2010s, earning over $50 billion at the box office
As computers and technology continued to evolve at a rapid pace, so did the software products professionals used. During the 2010s, animators and filmmakers were able to create even more spectacular animations, as a result of fewer and fewer technological limitations. 3D and CG animations reached their peak, and the animation genre became more and more popular among movie lovers.
During the span of 10 years, from 2010 to 2019, animation movies grossed an astonishing $51 billion at the worldwide box office. During this period, 10 animated movies earned over $1 billion each, including the Lion King Remake ($1.6 billion in 2019), Frozen ($1.3 billion in 2013), and Toy Story 3 ($1 billion in 2010).
With technology continuing to advance at a rapid pace, we’re positive we’ll get to see a few breakthroughs in animation throughout this decade. And hopefully, we’ll witness some interesting box office records, too. As for the immediate future, we’re curious what the next Space Jam movie has to offer, which is hitting theaters in July 2021. Hotel Transylvania: Transformania, The Addams Family 2, The Bad Guys and Rumble are also highly anticipated titles we look forward to in 2021 and 2022.
For this story, we used public data from BoxOfficeMojo. We completed our data sets with proprietary research and used Flourish to create the charts and visuals.