Animated features have often been based on pre-existing stories, whether fairy tales like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs or books like Pinocchio. In recent years, there's been a trend to create animated features from picture books. I recently watched Meet the Robinsons and was curious to see how the film compared to the book. I was quite surprised to see that the book had little narrative or conflict and next to no characterization. Its appeal comes from William Joyce's illustrations of a parade of eccentric characters and environments.
It's not hard to see why the book was attractive to Disney, but in many ways the book was a trap. The structural and dramatic requirements for a feature film are completely missing from the book. In fact, I found the weakest part of the film to be the second act, and that was the part of the film most closely based on the book.
The problem isn't limited to Meet the Robinsons. I've also recently looked at the book and film versions of The Polar Express. Chris Van Allsburg's art is impressive, but the pictures are almost entirely long shots. That's great for portraying evocative environments, but like A Day With Wilbur Robinson, The Polar Express is almost entirely lacking in characterization or dramatic tension. The film version relies heavily on spectacle and on sequences -- like the boy attempting to recover the girl's ticket -- that really serve no dramatic purpose within the larger narrative except to provide false suspense and fill screen time.
We're Back by Hudson Talbot contains the strong image of real dinosaurs getting mixed up with the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade and taking refuge in The Museum of Natural History. The film version (which I haven't seen in years) was forced (like Meet the Robinsons) to invent a villain in order to create stronger dramatic tension.
All of the above books are too thin to support feature films without being augmented by new material that pulls the stories away from their origins.
Shrek is another book that doesn't really lend itself to a feature. Within William Steig's book, there is no suspense. Shrek meets a witch on page 5 who tells his fortune. The rest of the book works out exactly as she foretells with few surprises. The appeal comes from Steig's language, drawings and the upside-down notion of a character who is gross and ugly and loves it. At least the character of Shrek is a strong one, which gave DreamWorks something to start with. Shrek, as a character, is far stronger than any character in other books I've discussed.
In choosing projects, animation studios have to be careful not to be seduced by nice illustrations or novel environments. Shrek shows that it's good to have a strong character to start with, but it's even better to have a well structured dramatic conflict.