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2013: A pretty decent year for families at the movies

By Jeff Peterson

For the Deseret News

Published: Thursday, Dec. 26 2013 3:10 p.m. MST

Gru and his minions in "Despicable Me 2."

Universal

For the movie industry, 2013 was a year of huge ups and downs.

On one hand, some entertainment writers are calling it one of the greatest years for film lovers in recent memory. Bruce Handy of Vanity Fair, in fact, goes so far as to argue that 2013 could be on par with Hollywood’s first golden age, the era that produced classics like “Gone with the Wind,” “The Wizard of Oz” and “Citizen Kane.”

At the same time, though, it’s tough to forget some of the year’s bigger misses, including pretty much the entire overcrowded summer movie season that seemed bent on making Steven Spielberg’s predictions about an industry-wide implosion come true.

For every calculated success like “Iron Man 3” or example of genuine innovation like “Gravity” this year, there has been a “Lone Ranger” or “R.I.P.D.” to even things out and remind people why they have Netflix accounts.

In the end, the only clear winners seem to have been horror movie fans, for whom 2013 turned out to be a banner year.

But surprisingly enough, it was also a pretty decent one for family audiences.

Here’s a look back at why:

Disney

If any studio can stake a claim to 2013, it’s Disney. Despite the seemingly cataclysmic performance of “The Lone Ranger,” which earned just $89 million in the U.S. on a reported $215 million budget, the House of Mouse actually managed to set a new record for cumulative box office, according to deadline.com, beating its previous high of $3.791 billion from 2010.

Even more impressive is that it accomplished that back in the second week of November before some of its biggest releases of the year had even hit theaters.

While a sizable chunk of Disney’s box office came from one film, “Iron Man 3," which also ended up as the year’s top grosser, the rest mostly came from a number of smaller, family-oriented hits that showed off a welcome amount of variety.

Sam Raimi’s “Oz the Great and Powerful” tapped into classic Hollywood in its update of the L. Frank Baum stories. Meanwhile, Pixar’s “Monsters University” proved that not all prequels are bad.

But the high point for traditional Disney fans came last month with “Frozen,” a 3-D animated fairy tale inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Ice Queen” that has been called by some the best animated musical since “Beauty and the Beast.”

Ultimately, as easy as it is to take a cynical view of the Walt Disney Co. and the unstoppable marketing and merchandising engines that power it, the fact is no other studio has the means to swallow a $200 million dud and not skip a beat.

In terms of film output, what that translates to is movies that repeatedly swing for the fences, and only on rare occasion does that turn out to be two-and-a-half hours of Johnny Depp with a crow on his head.

Non-Disney animation

As studios like DreamWorks and Fox have gotten into the animation business over the last decade or so, it’s become one of the most competitive and rewarding categories in film.

This year was no exception. Although “Monsters University” and “Frozen” have both performed well with box office takes of $743 million and $344 million, respectively, they were both trounced by Universal’s “Despicable Me 2” ($918 million worldwide).

But if babbling, banana-obsessed minions aren’t your thing, the year in animation also featured movies about racing snails (“Turbo”), a family of Neanderthals (“The Croods”), insect-sized tree warriors (“Epic”), time-traveling turkeys (“Free Birds”) dangerous food-animal hybrids (“Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2”) and the latest offering from Studio Ghibli (“From Up on Poppy Hill”). In other words, there was something for every taste.

That’s a far cry from the relative dearth of options just 15 years ago when Disney was pretty much the only game in town.

YA adaptations

For every young adult adaptation that wasn’t based on a book by Suzanne Collins, 2013 was a pretty dismal year. The two biggest newcomers, “Beautiful Creatures” and “Mortal Instruments: City of Bones,” both tanked at the box office (although, somehow, a sequel is still in the works for the latter).

But true to the spirit of its protagonist, “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” not only dominated its competition for the November box office ($765 million and counting), but it also managed to win over critics, earning an impressive 90 percent Fresh rating on review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes and a 93 percent Worth Your Time rating on OK.com.

All of that is good news for fans of YA fiction. With “Catching Fire,” the sub-genre has effectively graduated to the big leagues, tackling moral themes and existential questions with a maturity heretofore unseen in any YA movie.

With any luck, just like superhero films after “The Dark Knight,” upcoming YA adaptations will be pressured to compete at a higher level, meaning better movies for teens and parents alike.

Until then, there’s always “Mockingjay” parts 1 and 2.

Oscars

One of the biggest reasons this year has been a standout for families, though, is the sheer number of Oscar-caliber films aimed at broader audiences.

Although PG-13 and under may still be in the minority come Oscar night, films like “Captain Phillips,” “Gravity,” “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” “All is Lost” and “Saving Mr. Banks” have all generated a lot of early awards season chatter.

In smaller categories like music and visual effects, expect “Catching Fire,” “The Great Gatsby,” “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” and any and all of the above-mentioned animated films to be up for nominations.

Does this mean Hollywood will start making more serious movies for broad audiences? Probably not. So relish the opportunity to see as many of them as you can this year.

A native of Utah Valley and a devoted cinephile, Jeff Peterson is currently studying humanities and history at Brigham Young University.

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