As 2012 draws to an end, things are finally looking up for the movie industry. Back-to-back hits in November, “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn — Part 2” and “Skyfall,” together with some of the biggest movies of the season arriving in theaters during December, all but guarantee 2012 will set a new high for cumulative box office, beating out 2009’s $10.595 billion record.
But this has been nothing if not a mixed year for studios and audiences alike. Families, in particular, have had a hit-or-miss time at the movies.
So here’s a look back at 2012 and some of the movies and trends that affected families, as well as what they could mean for the near future of cinema.
Ups and downs
This year was one punctuated by huge box-office hits and some even bigger misses, particularly during the crucial summer movie months.
After starting off the season as a Hulk-sized smash, Disney’s “The Avengers” went on to become the highest grossing film of the year by a substantial margin, earning more than $1.5 billion worldwide ($623 million in the U.S. alone).
Even the long-awaited conclusion to Christopher Nolan’s massively successful Dark Knight trilogy couldn’t overcome the combined box office prowess of Earth’s mightiest heroes. “The Dark Knight Rises” eventually settled into the year’s No. 2 spot with $1.08 billion ($448 million domestic).
But for every major studio success, there has been a box office dud to counter it.
Before Disney’s large-scale experiment in superhero franchise filmmaking became the third highest-grossing film of all time, the House of Mouse gambled big and lost on Andrew Stanton’s sci-fi adventure film “John Carter.”
Although an entertaining flick that could have become the next Star Wars given the right audience, Stanton’s costly adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ 1917 sci-fi classic “A Princess of Mars” wound up losing the studio an estimated $200 million.
Likewise, the box-office success of Sony’s “The Amazing Spider-Man” ($262 million domestic and $752 million worldwide) was undercut by the company’s late-summer flop “Total Recall,” which earned just $58 million in the U.S.
Critics vs. audiences
Even family-targeted animated movies, which are often safer bets for studios, have been met with extremely mixed results this year, and in many instances, critics and audiences found themselves at odds with one another, as in the case of Genndy Tartakovsky’s “Hotel Transylvania.”
After being trounced by the press with a weak 43 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, the Adam Sandler-led monster mash-up became one of the big audience draws of the Halloween season, setting a new record for September opening weekends and eventually pulling in $308 million worldwide. The film drew an 81 percent Worth Your Time rating at OK.com.
Naturally, with such huge numbers, a “Hotel Transylvania” sequel is already in the works.
What’s more, fans of Tartakovsky could be that much closer to seeing a movie based on the animator’s now-defunct Cartoon Network series “Samurai Jack.”
By contrast, though, moviegoers didn’t seem to share critics’ love of stop-motion features like Tim Burton’s “Frankenweenie” (89 percent on Rotten Tomatoes) or Aardman Animations’ “The Pirates! Band of Misfits” (86 percent). Despite overwhelmingly positive reviews, both films finished their theatrical runs with less than $35 million in the U.S.
Meanwhile, a third stop-motion feature, Laika Inc.’s “ParaNorman,” fared only slightly better, earning around $56 million domestically.
With such tepid responses to all three stop-motion features, what should have been a breakout year for the medium could instead result in studios being unwilling to back future stop-motion projects, leaving the world of animation to less-ambitious CGI films instead.
Additionally, the underperformance of “Frankenweenie” mere months after another Tim Burton disaster, the vampire soap opera comedy “Dark Shadows,” could seriously damage the Burton brand after a box office peak with 2010’s “Alice in Wonderland.”
There were, however, plenty of films that both critics and moviegoers could get behind this year, including many aimed at family audiences.
For parents looking for alternatives to violent action movies like “The Dark Knight Rises” or gross-out comedies like “Ted,” this year offered a number of options, including Pixar’s extremely Disney-esque “Brave” and Disney’s extremely Pixar-esque “Wreck-It Ralph."
The two family-friendly animated features are currently ranked at No. 7 and 12, respectively, on Box Office Mojo's list of the year’s top-grossing movies, and “Wreck-It Ralph,” in particular, has been called by many a return to form for Disney Animation.
Families also turned out in droves to support sequels to established franchises like “Madagascar” and “Ice Age,” as well as “Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax,” which all ranked in the year’s top 20.
Although far less successful financially, Ang Lee’s meditation on religion and spirituality, “Life of Pi,” is another standout film from this year that’s suitable for a broad audience. An adaptation of the best-selling book by Yann Martel, "Pi" has also been tossed around as a probable contender at this year’s Academy Awards.
What happened to the G rating?
While 2012 saw quite a few movies aimed specifically at families with older kids as well as teenagers, moviegoing experiences for families with younger children have been almost non-existent this year.
With the exception of a handful of 3-D re-releases of Disney and Pixar classics, including “Finding Nemo” and “Monsters, Inc.,” G-rated films have mostly dried up in theaters as kids’ movies skew progressively older in terms of content.
Even “Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax” received a PG for brief mild language.
During the entire summer movie season, the only G-rated film that was released — a misguided attempt at an interactive experience for toddlers titled “The Oogieloves in the Big Balloon Adventure” — has gone down as one of the biggest box office failures in history, earning just more than $1 million after costing somewhere in the vicinity of $55 million to produce and market.
That isn’t to say that 2012 has been completely without worthwhile films aimed at all ages. February saw the release of a new movie from Studio Ghibli, the Japanese animators behind films like “Spirited Away” and “My Neighbor Totoro,” titled “The Secret World of Arrietty.”
In spite of extremely positive reaction from critics, though, it made a paltry $19 million in the U.S. (compared with its $126 million overseas).
Young adult novels
In many ways, perhaps the year’s big success was the Lionsgate adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ young adult series “The Hunger Games.” Praised by critics for its depiction of a strong female protagonist — Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen — “The Hunger Games” pulled in an impressive $408 million domestically ($686.5 million worldwide), making it the third highest-grossing U.S. release of 2012 behind “The Avengers” and “The Dark Knight Rises.”
It also successfully positioned itself to become a major franchise down the line — something more than a few films, including “John Carter” and “Battleship,” tried but failed to do at other points in the year.
comments on this story
Of course, now that the “Twilight” series has come to an end with the November release of “Breaking Dawn — Part 2,” which has already earned nearly $800 million worldwide, adaptations of other young adult novels are queuing up to take the place of Stephenie Meyer’s vampire romance series next year. Given the critical and commercial success of the first installment in "The Hunger Games" movies, though, Katniss should have no problem defending her box-office position against newcomers.
A native of Utah Valley and a devoted cinephile, Jeff Peterson is currently studying humanities and history at Brigham Young University.