The Incoming Rise of Nickelodeon Movies (and Disney’s Inevitable Fall)

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Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem image with "Disney down, Nickolodeon up" edit

Credit: Paramount

Move over, Disney — we might have new industry leaders in the house.

NICKELODEON UNIVERSE AMERICAN DREAM
Credit: American Dream

It truly feels like the second Disney Renaissance — often termed the Disney Revival era — is probably over, and Paramount’s Nickelodeon Movies are set to rise. It’s clear that parent company Paramount is setting out to try a few daring endeavors with both new and existing properties, and audiences are likely in for a Disney dethronement with all the new competition on the market as new players with real innovations rise to contest Disney’s power and media dominance.

Let’s take a look at why the film and animation industry is on the precipice of a big shake-up, if current trends continue.

Peg Leg Pete and Mickey Mouse in Steamboat Willie 1928
Credit: Disney

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The Disney Revival era, and why it’s likely over

The Walt Disney Company’s first full-length animated feature film, Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs (1937) by Walt Disney Pictures changed the animation industry with its ground-breaking animation, giving the company its iconic association with high levels of storytelling and quality. Ever since Walt Disney’s first foray into that world of animation a hundred years ago now, Disney has grown exponentially — encompassing everything from superhero cinematic universes in the Marvel Studios’ Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), sci-fi space opera in Star Wars and Lucasfilm, and James Cameron’s Avatar film franchise, and even pioneering 3D animation with Pixar Animation Studios. Disney even dominates with their world-leading international theme parks around the world — from the original Disneyland Park in Anaheim, California, to Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, to Disneyland Paris, the Tokyo Disney Resort, the Shanghai Disney Resort, and Hong Kong Disneyland.

Snow White at the Well - 'Snow White' (1937)
Credit: Disney

The Disney Renaissance lasted from 1989 to 1999, and is marked by the time when Walt Disney Feature Animation made a significant return to commercial and critical success, heralded by 1989’s The Little Mermaid which gave Disney two Academy Awards. Since that comeback in the 90s under then-CEO Michael Eisner, the Disney machine has kept churning — in arguably an ever-more commercial way. After the 2000-2009 period saw a bit of a drop in form with Disney’s Post-Renaissance era, the company only saw another rise when 2010 came around — with the Second Disney Renaissance AKA the Disney Revival.

Tom Hanks interacting with Pinocchio
Credit: Disney

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After 2009’s Princess and the Frog, and 2010’s Tangled, The Walt Disney Company regained its footing putting out hit after hit — from critical darling Winnie the Pooh and Wreck-It-Ralph in 2011, to box office smash Frozen (2012) — it truly seemed as if Disney could do no wrong. But as of late, with The Walt Disney Company straying away from their prior bread-and-butter of original animated films, it seems as if every other film released under the Disney umbrella (save perhaps those of Marvel Studios and Star Wars, and typically, Pixar), have been “live-action remakes” or reboots of classic movies and nostalgic franchises. Clearly this is a move towards milking their existing properties for all they’re worth, capitalizing on the fact that younger audiences may not have seen these concepts yet, and likely an easy/guaranteed baseline success no matter what. But all of this is too safe — after more than a decade of repeating formulas — some of them are getting stale.

Why Nickelodeon is on the rise, and Disney‘s inevitable fall

(left to right) Katara, Aang, Sokka from Avatar the Last Airbender
Credit: Nickelodeon

Why Nickelodeon, of all companies and animation studios? Simply because they are severely underrated, planning big things, and the real black horse in the animation industry. Sure, DreamWorks Animation has always been a threat, seeing as they were explicitly created by ex-Disney employees specifically out of spite to rival the animation giant. But their track record has been admittedly spotty, and it’s only now with releases like Oscar-nominated Puss in Boots: The Last Wish (2022) that a true return to form has genuinely been glimpsed. They’re a formidable opponent, but they’re a familiar one.

With Nickelodeon and Paramount’s Nickelodeon Movies are the next to watch out for. They’ve taken some serious notes from Disney’s other premier rival, Sony Pictures Animation, who spearheaded the industry-reshaping bomb that was Oscar-winning Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018), which used the iconic 2D-3D animation hybrid style to fantastic critical and money-making success. No longer content to merely remain in the realm of cable television with Nicktoons icons like SpongeBob SquarePants, Rugrats, Monster High, Blues Clues, and PAW Patrol, or even live action tween-and-teen-oriented fare like All That, Drake & Josh, Victorious, and iCarly, Nick are ready to take on the big time with risky explorations using both previously acquired IP and ambitious expansions of popular cult favorite franchises.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem edited with Peter B. Parker from Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Credit: Sony Pictures Animation, Paramount Pictures

Predominantly, we’re looking at the upcoming Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem (2023) for the first hint at something more from Paramount. The utilization of the same 2D-3D hybrid techniques from Spider-Verse coupled with their own unique, punchy, style is an eye-catching reminder that fun and innovation is alive and well in animation. Clearly a passion project by producer Seth Rogen, the new TMNT film marks a collaboration between Nickelodeon Movies and Point Grey Pictures, and all but set the internet on fire when the (actually promising!) trailer dropped a little while back. If the film delivers, we could be looking at another surprise commercial success (and Oscar steal) not unlike The LEGO Movie (2014). But TMNT isn’t the only thing Nick has up its sleeve.

Team Avatar, Avatar the Last Airbender sepia banner
Credit: Paramount

In fact, Paramount has also recently formed the ambitious animation studio Avatar Studios — specifically created to capitalize off of the beloved Avatar franchise. No, this isn’t about James Cameron’s blue aliens, but about an entire world of people who can Bend the elements to their will. Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, created Avatar: The Last Airbender (also known as The Legend of Aang in some areas) while at Nickelodeon Animation. The series’ ran from 2005 to 2008 and exploded in popularity even back then, gaining serious critical acclaim. Over the years, the franchise has steadily and organically grown its base of kid and adult fans alike, even enjoying its own renaissance during the years of the COVID-19 pandemic when people finally had time to sit down and watch the original three seasons (of stellar storytelling) they’d been hearing so much about. Expanding with Avatar: The Legend of Korra in 2012, the series’ creators have not created much else outside of world-expanding comic books. But now, all of that is set to change with a slew of at least three upcoming movies (all set in different time periods within the Avatar world’s timeline), and another mainline series set to take place after the death (and reincarnation) of Avatar Korra.

The interesting thing about all this? Avatar Studios are planning to use the same hybrid 2D-3D approach with their full-fledged films, which marks a departure form the mainline TV series’ securely 2D style. It’s a bold move that will bring the franchise into the contemporary age, while allowing that same flexibility of style and approach that the fluidity of 2D typically affords animators. It’s some scary stuff if you’re at all aware of Avatar Studios’ depth of talent and the devotion of its fanbase.

What can Disney do to combat new competition?

Elsa (Idina Menzel) and Honeymaren (Rachel Matthews) in 'Frozen II'
Credit: Disney

Well, move full tilt into solidifying their presence as innovators of the animation industry, for one. That means cutting back significantly on “soulless” remakes utilizing the same (overworked) VFX companies to churn out their ever-growing line of “realistic” and “live-action” remakes. It also includes moving away from their “tried-and-true” 3D animation a la Pixar and Frozen, and experimenting a little with new hybrid forms like those “2.5D” forms. Granted, upcoming Wish looks set to give that a shot, but something genuinely groundbreaking just like Sony’s Spider-Verse is needed to signify Disney’s return as leader of the pack.

Sure, perhaps the new Little Mermaid (2023) looks a tad bit more promising than other entries — see: Tom Hanks’ Pinocchio (2022) retread. But Disney frankly shines when they innovate — as it’s truly in the lifeblood of the company from the days of Walt Disney himself and his weird little mouse cartoon and full-bodied enthusiasm for technology, and experimentation (and trains). In other words — take some real risks — not just business decisions. Of all companies, Disney can afford it.

What do you think about Disney’s place in the industry? Do you think competition like Nickelodeon is a threat? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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