Legacy Content

Jim On Film
Page 1 of 4

by Jim Miles (archives)
December 26, 2002
Jim talks about what went wrong with Disney's animation division and how to get it back on track.

Pink Elephants on Parade:
Intoxicating Analysis and Quality Traditional Animation

When Disney started running Who Wants to Be a Millionaire on ABC, it was a runaway success. More so than Friends or ER, here was a show people were talking about--discussing the winners and what questions they had won answering. Disney immediately capitalized on the show, running it many times a week, sometimes several times a day. Before long, as many in the industry have noted, Disney had run the show into the ground. What should have been a long-running, steady ratings-winner for the company, quickly ran out of steam, and to top it off, Disney had nothing good to replace it in its schedule, leaving ABC low on the ladder rung of television ratings.

Similarly, in the late 1980s, after Disney had a taste of animated success with such films as Oliver & Company and The Little Mermaid, it increased its animated output. They released a steady flow of traditionally animated musicals, stop-motion animation, television-based animation, computer-generated animation, and television-based animated sequels of classic traditional animated titles.

Now, with the recent lack of instant success for Treasure Planet, the Disney Feature Animation division (the department that creates the quality traditionally animated features such as Mulan and Lilo and Stitch) is at a crossroads like no other time in history. The department which has always been the heart and soul of the company is drawing painful questions from executives within the studio, industry analysts, and market-watchers.

In just a few short years, Disney may eliminate quality traditional hand-drawn animation. This means that, after rash analysis, foresightless decision-making, and concern from uninformed stock-owners, Disney could be on the verge of making some of the worst decisions in the company’s long history.

The History of the Issue.
In many ways, the problems that plague Walt Disney Feature Animation today--the division of the company that has created traditionally animated features from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to Treasure Planet--began when Michael Eisner came on board in 1984 with Frank Wells and Jeffery Katzenberg. Jeffery Katzenberg took over control of the animation department and implemented many new and important changes in how the system functioned.

One such change was the move to create one animated feature a year, which was a goal Walt Disney himself had never been able to reach. In hindsight, there were several problems with this goal as implemented in the last decade. First of all, other studios attempted to get in on the trend, causing some additional competition in the marketplace. Of course, the only real competition for Disney was Disney itself. When Disney released The Lion King, its gross soared over $300 million, an amazing box office feat for any film. But industry analysts then proceeded to proclaim every single animated feature released after that film to be box office failures. Despite the fact that Pocahontas earned more money than Beauty and the Beast just four years earlier, it was dubbed a failure by analysts. As evidence of how fickle such analysts can be, when it was released in 1999, Tarzan was dubbed a failure by many analysts because it had not met the unreachable standard set by The Lion King. Now, in 2002, they now hold Tarzan as the tentpole success for the newest animated features.

During this time, Disney learned the financial gold of cheap, direct-to-video sequels of its classic films. These films could be made cheaply and released to video where parents, despite loathing reviews, would pick them up for their kids. For many years, Disney would market these videos in a way as to draw a clear line between Beauty and the Beast and Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas.

When Disney began creating films with Pixar, beginning with Toy Story in 1995, audiences ate up these films which were quite different from other Disney films. Their computer advancements were highly touted; however, they were a smash because of the same things that have always made great Disney films--strong characters and great stories.

Soon other studios would jump into animation. Fox, Warner Brothers, DreamWorks, and Nickelodeon would all begin creating and releasing a variety of animated films. With increased competition (both from itself and from other studios), Disney would face problems marketing its traditionally animated films with the same success it had had a decade earlier.


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