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by Ken Pellman (archives)
February 12, 2001
Ken concludes his look at the animation industry.

Awkward Years and Academy Awards®
Feature Animation Isn't Dead

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In the last column, I asked rhetorically if the days of the animated feature were over, and replied that no, feature animation isn't dying - it is just changing, or "morphing", if you will.

Traditional Feature Animation Declines
Things were looking up in 1994, but now things aren't as clear cut. "The Lion King" came out in 1994 and became one of the top box office smashes ever, capping off several years of increasingly successful animated features (except for the early anomaly of "The Rescuers Down Under"). Animated features were getting lots of hype and lots of attention. The hype and marketing machine kept going for several years more, but no subsequent animated feature has come close to matching the success of "The Lion King".

Disney's latest, "The Emperor's New Groove", wasn't pushed or cross-promoted heavily, and didn't get much notice at the box office. Dreamworks had lots of buzz going with their premiere animated feature, "The Prince of Egypt", but the follow up, "The Road to El Dorado", didn't stir things up much. Last year, 20th Century Fox gave up on Don Bluth's animation operation, which looked so promising with "Anastasia", after "Titan A.E." took a dive at the box office.

"Titan A.E." deserved a bigger audience, but another animated feature in style of Disney / Bluth / Dreamworks style that was even more deserving was the delightful and imaginative "Iron Giant". The disappointing box office for "Iron Giant" is another example of people calling for decent family-friendly films not following through by supporting them at the theater.

"The Lion King" showed everyone that animated features can generate a lot of revenue. Most of the animated features since have demonstrated that it isn't an easy thing to do. As with any film released in theaters, only some of the box office take goes to the studio. Animation has the added difficulties of having a significant portion of the audience paying lower ticket prices (children), and a labor & time intensive production process.

Oscar Finally Shows Up
Shirley Temple presented Walt Disney with a special Academy Award for "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs", the first animated feature of note. Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" was the first animated feature to be nominated for Best Picture, raising a lot of questions about whether animation could or should compete with live action, especially when it didn't win.

Nearly ten years later, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has finally announced a new category for its annual awards: Best Animated Feature. Why now? It has been over sixty years since animated features first hit the screen, and it appears that traditional animated features are in another decline. A case could be made that the Academy is very, very late, maybe even too late. I believe, however, that the Academy is on to something…

Not All Profitable or Good Animation Looks Alike
While traditional animated features are having a rough time of it right now, we're seeing more and more animation everywhere, including the cinema.

Parents have found animated videos to be handy babysitters, and so quite a few animated features are being made strictly for video and are generally less costly (partially due to less expensive artists and lower quality) than works that will run in the theaters first. Disney has been making tidy profits for quite some time with video productions that feed off of the popularity of such theatrical animated features like "Aladdin", "The Lion King", "The Little Mermaid", "Pocahontas", "Beauty and the Beast", and now "Lady and the Tramp". This source of revenue hasn't bee lost on other companies, either. Witness Universal's endless number of sequels to one of Don Bluth's more successful films, "The Land Before Time".

Animation is now everywhere in our lives - web pages, home and arcade interactive games, CD-ROMs, television advertisements, and so forth, though is most cases such animation is "computer" animation.

That takes me back to feature-length theatrical animated films, which are the ones eligible for the new category for the Oscars.

One of the reasons traditional "cel" style of animation is experiencing uncertainty of direction at the moment is because other kinds of animated features are making impressive showings - most notably PIXAR's "Toy Story" movies and "A Bug's Life", and PDI's "Antz", which were digital animation. Most recently, Disney's "Dinosaur" showcased the state of the art, though it had little hope of recovering the costs of production for a while.

"Chicken Run", which was done with stop-motion manipulated miniatures, did well last year, receiving the kind of attention not given to a film created in that fashion since "The Nightmare Before Christmas". There's also the very different tone of "Beavis and Butthead to America", which was created via the cel approach, and "South Park -The Movie", which used manipulation of flat paper. There have also been some successful cel animation features from Asia.

Feature films must be "primarily animated" to be considered for the Best Animated Feature Oscar, and any of the techniques mentioned above are considered animation. Whether the animator uses a mouse, a pencil, clay, or whatever - if he or she is giving movement and creating the "illusion of life", it is animation. Of course, this make me wonder if anyone would dare try making a feature where all of the characters were animatronic…

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