2011 Preview: Animation Streak Rolls On
While overall box office remained relatively stagnant from 2009 to 2010, animated movies hit record levels. Thanks primarily to Toy Story 3 and Shrek Forever After and surprise smashes Despicable Me, How to Train Your Dragon and Tangled, animation accounted for nearly $1.5 billion of 2010's business, up a massive 16 percent from 2009. With three major sequels, a prequel and a handful of other nicely-timed releases, 2011 animation has the potential for similar growth.

Disney-Pixar's Cars 2 is well positioned to make truckloads of money. The first Cars grossed $244.1 million in 2006, which translates to nearly $300 million today adjusted for ticket price inflation. While it's definitely not Pixar's most beloved movie (it's B grade from Box Office Mojo readers puts it in a tie for last place with A Bug's Life), characters like Mater and Lightning McQueen have remained staples in toy stores (the first movie's merchandising might is allegedly one of the key drivers of the sequel) and on the Disney Channel. Cars 2 will ramp up the action quotient by getting the cars mixed up in the world of international espionage. Add in increased prices from 3D and IMAX theaters, and Cars 2 will aim to top the first movie's gross when it opens on June 24.

It may not be as safe a bet as Cars 2, but Kung Fu Panda 2 (May 27) is also poised to cash in. The original Kung Fu Panda opened around the same time in 2008 and earned $215.4 million. Besides being one of DreamWorks Animation's highest-grossing movies ever, it was also one of the most well-regarded: Box Office Mojo users gave it a B+. This is DreamWork's third attempt at starting a franchise, after Shrek 2 and Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa. Shrek 2 saw huge gains over its predecessor, while Madagascar 2 lost some audience. Kung Fu Panda 2 will also boast the higher ticket prices of 3D and IMAX.

The other two series continuations, Puss in Boots and Happy Feet 2, are more up in the air. Puss in Boots, which opens Nov. 4, is an origin story of sorts for the titular character, who made his first on-screen appearance in Shrek 2. This will be the first movie in the Shrek canon to be released outside of summer, and it's also coming on the heels of the least popular entry Shrek Forever After ($238.4 million). While Puss in Boots is a popular character, it's hard to imagine this movie resurrecting the series former glory without the help of Shrek, Donkey or Fiona.

Happy Feet 2 opens two weeks after Puss in Boots and aims to build on the $198-million-grossing first Happy Feet. While the original movie had plenty of fans back in November 2006, Warner Bros. hasn't done much in the way of tie-ins to keep people interested. Also, Happy Feet came out at a time when penguins were all the rage, as evidenced by March of the Penguins and Madagascar. Since then, though, Surf's Up made a soft $58.9 million, and the Madagascar penguins have been oppressively omnipresent. Add in the fact that this is the second of three major computer animated movies in November, and it may be a challenge for Happy Feet 2 to succeed.

Besides the sequels (and prequel), there are a few other major animated releases set for 2011. Directed by Gore Verbinski and featuring the voice of his Pirates of the Caribbean star Johnny Depp, Rango is currently scheduled for March 4. The movie has a unique look and A-list talent, but its Western theme may not be a draw and, for better or worse, it won't be in 3D.

Rio, which opens April 15, is the sixth movie from Blue Sky Animation, the studio behind the Ice Age series. Similar to Ice Age, Rio features an assortment of talking animals on an adventure of sorts. The blue macaws of Rio are arguably even more appealing than the prehistoric beasts that populate Ice Age, though Rio thus far lacks a character as relentlessly marketable as Ice Age's Scrat. Regardless, Rio could leverage higher ticket prices to be in the same gross league as the original Ice Age's $176.4 million.

In one of the more unique projects this year, Steven Spielberg is behind the camera, so-to-speak, for The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn. Currently set to open Dec. 23, Tintin employs WETA's motion capture technology (the same used for Gollum in Lord of the Rings and the ape in King Kong), and image so far recall Robert Zemeckis's The Polar Express ($181.8 million) and A Christmas Carol ($137.9 million). While Tintin is not as well-regarded a brand as those two movies, it should benefit from Spielberg's mostly reliable blockbuster vision and a prime spot on the Christmas calendar.

Speaking of Christmas, Arthur Christmas gets a jump on the holiday with a Thanksgiving weekend opening. This is Aardman Animation's fourth movie, though it's the first without DreamWorks. While Chicken Run was successful, Flushed Away or Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were Rabbit were more modest. Fortunately, Christmas movies can be easy sells, especially those including Santa as a character.

The rest of 2011's animated offerings are wild cards. With Miramax's sale complete, Gnomeo and Juliet will keep its Feb. 11 date. It looks like an inexpensive cross between Toy Story and Over the Hedge with British accents, Elton John songs and liberal Shakespeare references. That sounds like a limited draw, especially on a crowded weekend in February.

Mars Needs Moms is currently set to blast off a week after Rango in March, which will be a major obstacle if Rango turns out to be a hit. Also, sci-fi animated movies are notoriously unsuccessful, with WALL-E and Monsters Vs. Aliens being notable exceptions.

Winnie the Pooh, the year's only hand-drawn animated offering, is in an unenviable position, as it's slated to open July 15 against Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (there's still plenty of time for that to change, though). The classic Winnie the Pooh characters have made a handful of big-screen appearances dating back to 1977, though none were box office sensations. Disney has done a nice job so far pushing the movie's nostalgic elements, though, and a more suitable date could help Winnie the Pooh yield reasonable returns.

Finally, Hoodwinked Too! Hood vs. Evil was originally slated for Fall 2010 before being pushed back to April 29, 2011. The first Hoodwinked earned a surprisingly high $51.4 million, though it seems like a stretch to expect the sequel to do similar business.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that The Adventures of Tintin utilized Robert Zemeckis's motion capture technology, and that he is a producer on the project. In fact, it is WETA's motion capture technology, and Mr. Zemeckis is not officially involved.

2011 Preview Continued:


Sequels: Now, More Than Ever.

Comic Book Cacophony.

Comedy: Too Fuzzy to Be Buzzy.

Ten Miscellaneous Contenders