Brad Bird says that animation is a medium, not a genre. He's right in principle, but the animated family film is most definitely a genre the same way that teen comedies and thrillers are. Here's just a few elements that are common to just about every animated feature released in North America:
1. Fantasy elements.
2. Children as prominent characters.
3. Songs (either sung by characters or on the soundtrack).
4. Celebrity voices.
5. Villains or their sidekicks played for comedy.
6. Burp and/or fart gags.
7. Feel-good themes.
8. Happy endings.
Feel free to add to the list.
There's a new trailer for The Ant Bully online. I'm not going to comment on the trailer one way or the other, but I am going to point out the presence of an exterminator as a villain. I just saw an exterminator as a villain in Over the Hedge.
The films are starting to blend together. Two recent features both used the hoary old gag of a character being mistaken for a god. Was it The Wild and Ice Age 2? I swear I can't remember.
We had A Bug's Life and Antz and now The Ant Bully. We had Finding Nemo and Shark Tale. We had Madagascar and The Wild. And we're due for a plague of rats. There's Ratatouille, Flushed Away, Rats Amore and One Rat Short.
When you take the genre conventions and add settings or subject matter that have already been done, you're in danger of boring the audience.
Something very interesting happened in the comics field that may relate to what's going on in animation. From the 1960's onwards, comics fans argued for longer, more serious works. While Marvel and DC, the two main companies, did adapt to a degree, they stuck with superheroes and continued to market to their established fan base.
Cartoonists finally took matters into their own hands and started doing personal work that broke out of genre conventions. Between the importation of Manga and mainstream publisher interest in the graphic novel, Marvel and DC have been reduced to minor players in terms of sales and artistic importance.
There are big economic differences between the comics and animation fields, but with the increase in distribution outlets available, there's a chance that the studios producing animated features might find themselves in the same situation as Marvel and DC. They'll continue to be profitable, but the real action will be elsewhere. If the animation industry continues to make cookie cutter movies, they're just inviting it to happen.