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by Ken Pellman (archives)
November 25, 2003
Ken takes another look at the state of animation.

Wither Feature Animation?

It's been a while since I've devoted an entire column to Hollywood animation. It's time to take another look at the state of Disney's establishing industry.

Everywhere you turn these days, "hand-drawn" animation is being eulogized. The success of "3-D computer generated imagery" (CGI) films like "Finding Nemo", "Shrek", "Ice Age", and "Monsters, Inc." and the disappointing performances of "traditional hand-drawn" films like "Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas", "Treasure Planet", "Atlantis: The Lose Empire", "Titan A.E.", and "The Road to El Dorado" have led to simplistic conclusion that:

CGI = good
Traditional = bad.

Furthermore, earlier this month, Walt Disney Feature Animation shut down production in Florida of "A Few Good Ghosts", which has been described as half traditional. Even before that, dozens of animators in the Orlando operation had been laid off, the outposts in Paris and Tokyo had been closed, and hundreds of jobs at the home base in Burbank had been eliminated.

"Home on the Range", planned for a June 2004 release, is the only traditional animated feature left in production at Disney. Since it takes years to develop, finish, and release animated features, there's at least going to be a long gap between “Home on the Range? and whatever film besides “A Few Good Ghosts? that Disney will do in-house, if any.

Animators unable to adapt what they’ve learned to do all of their lives on sheets of paper to electronic devices are finding themselves squeezed out of the industry. Not counting the foreign produced “television? animation Disney’s been releasing on the big screen more often lately, Disney’s animation hopes seem to rest squarely on their deal with Pixar, just as other studios are relying on CGI animation houses like PDI.

How did things get this way?

The Dark Ages Give Way to the Second Golden Age of Animation
“Sleeping Beauty?, from early 1959, was the last great animated musical fairy tale under Walt Disney. Disney animation languished after 1967’s “The Jungle Book?. Rankin-Bass and Bakshi both turned out some projects, and Disney released some less-celebrated films. The first serious modern challenge to Disney in their own style came from one of their own who had jumped ship, and those who left with Don Bluth, with 1982’s “The Secret of NIMH? from United Artists. It would be three more years before Disney would release “The Black Cauldron?, which was in production when Bluth was still around.

Disney’s John Musker and Ron Clements got in gear with “The Great Mouse Detective? in 1986, and on the heels of 1988’s “Who Framed Roger Rabbit??, they hit paydirt with the return of the musical fairy tale, “The Little Mermaid?, released in late 1989 two days before Don Bluth’s “All Dogs Go to Heaven? (United Artists) in an effort to squash Bluth’s rising animation success. Bluth’s “An American Tail? had done well for Universal in 1986, and in 1988 he had followed up for Universal with “the Land Before Time?, which Disney had also tried to squash by releasing “Oliver & Company? on the same day.

With “Roger Rabbit?, Disney had a partner - Steven Spielberg, who was actually preparing to join the race Bluth and Disney were in.

In 1990, Disney released “The Rescuers Down Under?, but the excitement at Disney was around the resurgence of the fairy-tale musical. Everyone was looking towards 1991’s Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise-led “Beauty and the Beast?, released a week before Universal released Spielberg’s (replacing Bluth) sequel, “An American Tale: Fieval Goes West?

20th Century Fox raised their flag in the game in 1992 with “Ferngully: The Last Rainforest? while Don Bluth stumbled with “Rock-A-Doodle? for Samuel Goldwyn. Later in 1992, Disney topped itself again with “Aladdin?, helmed by John Musker and Ron Clements.

In late 1993, Universal/Spielberg released “We’re Back! A Dinosaurs Story? and Don Bluth and Gary Goldman released “Thumbelina? through Warner Brothers several months later. In June of 1994, however, it was Disney’s “The Lion King? that signaled to the entertainment world the Hollywood animation game was indeed back in a way it hadn’t been since Walt Disney had taken up interest in resorts and urban planning.

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