First the good news: It's now possible to make an animated feature film by yourself without losing your shirt. In fact it has been for some time now, as Bill Plympton could tell you.
Bill has been joined by Nina Paley and Paul and Sandra Fierlinger. Each artist works in a different medium; Plympton draws on paper, the Fierlingers draw on the computer, and Paley is a master of Flash animation.
The films are doing well. Bill Plympton's IDIOTS AND ANGELS, which I feel is the best of his features, is playing in roadshow engagements. Nina Paley's SITA SINGS THE BLUES is getting rave reviews and is doing well in theatrical and digital distribution. The Fierlinger's MY DOG TULIP, though only in 'platform' release, is also getting good press.
The big-budget-by-European-standards THE ILLUSIONIST by Sylvain Chomet is nearly certain to have an Oscar nomination this year, as Tomm Moore's THE SECRET OF KELLS did last year.
All in all, this is a good thing, and I hope that more artists join the ranks of independent feature/featurette producers in the coming year.
Of the big budget films out this year, I rate DreamWorks' HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON highest. I enjoyed it immensely, it was beautifully directed and designed, the dragons were fantastic, and if the world was just, it would be nominated for best cinematography along with the live action pictures. I haven't seen chiaroscuro like that since PINOCCHIO. It's also the only 3D film I've seen that really used that medium well.
Will the modestly budgeted indie features indicate a new direction to the big producers? A film's quality doesn't necessarily correspond to its cost. Animated features with overblown budgets fail at the boxoffice not because they aren't popular, but because they don't make enough to cover their negative cost (which if you don't know, is double the production cost.) Some are grotesquely overproduced. Lower budgeted productions with good stories and interesting design would entertain audiences and make a good profit--IF the right people were in charge. The example of the independent animators can help the lions of animation as well as the mice.