While teaching Ancient Japan to my students, I became interested in Japanese customs and entertainment. Naturally, I immediately gravitated to legendary anime film maker Hayao Miyazaki and his work with Studio Ghibli. The vast color and creativity of his movies were not only entertaining, but also made me want to dive into the creative well and write my own stories. However, as I watched more and more of Miyazaki’s films from My Neighbor Totoro to The Wind Rises, one thing became very apparent: Studio Ghibli, and especially Hayao Miyazaki, was not in the habit of making sequels.
This is in harsh contrast to most animation studios that are headquartered in America. Dreamworks Animation has made two sequels to Madagascar, as well as a spin-off movie about those zangy penguins. Pixar has made two sequels to Toy Story with a third in development. Then there’s Blue Sky studios, which has made a remarkable three sequels to their Ice Age moves with a fourth slated for release in 2016. And yet, since its establishment in 1985, Studio Ghibli has not produced one sequel. So the question is why do American studios insist on making so many sequels instead of creating original animated films?
To help us answer these questions, let’s look at the man behind most of Studio Ghibli’s films, Hayao Miyazaki. In 2010, Miyazaki was talking about creating a sequel to Porco Rosso, a 1992 film about a 1920s pilot cursed with the face of a pig. However, Miyazaki recently “claimed” he was retiring from film making after finishing The Wind Rises (I say “claimed” because the director has claimed his retirement and then come back many times). So a Porco Rosso sequel is unlikely to happen. But this was in 2010. Why did he move on to other projects? Well, the answer is probably fairly simple. In my opinion, Hayao Miyazaki is someone who is not interested in exploring what has already been explored. He would rather chart new territory. That is why we only see original movies from him rather than a plethora of sequels.
With that knowledge, we can truly address the question of why American animation studios create sequels. It’s actually quite simple: they are safe. As with any capitalist society, money is at the core. Why try to create something new when you can take something people already love and make more of it? It’s always a risk to make an original movie. What if people don’t go to see it? What if it doesn’t make enough money to make up for the investment? Studios as a whole want to curb this by just making sequels. Sequels are familiar, safe, and generally easy money.
Now this philosophy was not always the case in the genesis of animation. Take Walt Disney Animation studios. It was not until 1990’s The Rescuers Down Under that Disney created a sequel to one of their previous movies. Later on, Disney started cranking out home video releases of all manner of sequels to many of their classics. But why did Disney take so long to start making sequels? This goes back to a quote from the founder, Walt Disney, “I’ve never believed in doing sequels. I didn’t want to waste the time I have doing a sequel. I’d rather be using that time doing something new and different…” So, put simply, Walt Disney was much like Hayao Miyazaki in that he would rather work on “something new and different” than slashing out the old hat.
I am most certainly not saying that all animated sequels are bad. There are many that sometimes even surpass the originals. However, one has to wonder how many good and exciting original movies we are missing as a the direct or indirect result of a sequel. In the future, perhaps visionaries like Hayao Miyazaki and Walt Disney will once again find the advantage of creating new animated films for audiences. Until then, the theaters shall ever be populated by the descendants of the original film. This is the Age of the Sequel.