[Opinon] - Why Disney, And Everyone Else, Are Being Fools

At Walt Disney Company shareholder’s meeting on Wednesday, CEO Bob Iger announced that for the next production slate (roughly 5 years or so), none of Disney’s various companies, including Disney Animation (Wreck-It Ralph), Pixar (really?) and Disney Toons (direct-to-market and secondary features), have plans to develop any hand drawn animation for the big screen, and will limit such work to half hour animation on television.

From a business perspective, this is understandable. As a fan of animation, I feel that this is a bad move.

This isn't surprising, or unexpected. But with Iger announcing it so publicly, it draws attention to the fact that hand-drawn animation has become an endangered species of film. And it is all the more stark and shocking when the announcement comes from the company that invented feature length animation, and pioneered the art of animated film. It is however, a move consistent with all of the other animation studios, none of which have felt the need to just come out and say it because the legacy and the expectation isn't on them in the way it is on Disney.

Hit the jump for my thoughts on the possible down-fall of hand drawn animation.

I've written about this before, when Warner Bros announced that they were moving forward on a new Looney Tunes film, done in 3D CGI. I wrote then that the major studios currently view hand drawn animation as the "cinematic equivalent of VD," which Disney has all but confirmed with this announcement. That the House of Mouse, presumably the world leader in the animation department, has simply given up on the art form is a staggering blow, and one I feel is wrong.

However, the basis of this argument comes down to our old friends, business vs. art. Disney is a company, and wants to make money. That is all they want. They can claim to be interested in imaginative stories and interesting characters, but when the CEO stands in front of the share holders, it is dollar signs he's seeing, not artistic integrity. And that sort of corporate culture finds its way into the final product.

The last two hand drawn animated film put out by Disney were 2009′s The Princess and the Frog and 2011′s Winnie the Pooh. Frog made $267 million worldwide, while Pooh made "only" $33 million. And in both of these films, you can see the struggle between making a good film, and making a successful one. Winnie the Pooh was a love story to the oldest traditions of Disney animation, bringing back a long held property which had fallen into disuse (not unlike Disney's also owned Muppets). It was beautifully crafted and a wonderful film that was critically adored but was all but forgotten in the US when it was released up against Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, pretty much guaranteeing that no one would get a chance to see Pooh. Indeed, it found greater success in Europe (where Pooh is more adored anyway), where its release date was months earlier.

Frog was a project overseen by Pixar's John Lasseter after Disney's acquisition of that company and Lasseter found himself head of Disney Animation. He scrapped the project and started it from scratch, as he also did with Bolt and the eventual Tangled. It too was seen to be a return to the oldest traditions of the company, if by old they meant the early nineties. An attempt to replicate the success of Beauty and the Beast and Little Mermaid, it was a musical fairy tale that fit comfortably into the "Disney Princess" marketing niche. It was released up up against Invictus, and at the tail end of one of the Twilight film's runs, so it was no surprise when it made money. Disney dumped the older Pooh, but put Frog where they could generate residual merchandising.

Disney's logic is simple math. Hand drawn efforts have made considerably less money then the CG film in the past decade. The aforementioned Bolt grossed $310 million while Tangled, made $590 million, and most recently Wreck-It Ralph made $435 million (all totals world wide). These numbers are more appealing, obviously. Disney's logic is that audiences today expect a certain aesthetic, and are resistant to something they perceive to be older, more pedestrian, or less pretty to look at. This is, and excuse my bluntness, stupid. It is flawed on a number of levels. First of all, if the marketing focus of animated films must still concentrate (wrongly, by the way) on young children, these kids will see whatever film it is their parents take them to. Parents will take their children to whichever movie will a) shut the kids up for 90 minutes, and 2) they'll be willing to sit through themselves. So don't blame the kids, blame the parents, increasingly those in their early to mid twenties, an insufferably unappreciative group (and statistically, my core readership) who complain because the effects in the original Star Wars films look "cheesy" (again, quite wrongly).

Second, this isn't about hand drawn and CG, this is about Pixar and everyone else. This is about every other animation studio competing directly with Pixar, including Disney animation, who owns Pixar. After the success of the Toy Story films, Disney immediately started work on Dinosaur, they're first venture into computer generated animation. The results were what you'd expect from Disney at the time, who would shortly put out such offerings such as Brother Bear, Home on the Range, and Treasure Planet. They were in a creative deficit, one that instead of working themselves out of, they simply began to rely on (and continue to emulate) Pixar. Something that the other studios, desperate for that level of cash, started to break into. Hand drawn animation required highly trained, highly talented individuals, and entire departments to be assembled. Computer animation was seen as a cheaper alternative, cheap enough at least so that companies like Dreamworks and Sony started getting into the game, creating the market we currently have.

The major difference between Pixar and the other firms (including Disney) was that Pixar, as independents, didn't care about success. They cared about story. They wouldn't allow a movie to make it to market if it wasn't the best possible movie they could have made. And for the first decade of their movie making career, their films are heads and tails above the others. Most are better then most live action films. Pixar concerned themselves with good films, the other guys concerned themselves with making marketable films (see four Ice Ages, four Shreks, etc). I had hoped when Pixar was bought by Disney, and Lasseter took charge, that there would be a division of labour. Pixar would continue to excel in their arena, and Disney would return to the ways they had changed the world. Instead, they continue to compete with each other. And that corporate culture I mentioned before, is starting to effect Pixar. Of Pixar's first ten films, one was a sequel. Of Pixar's next ten films, four will be sequels.

And then there is Brave. Before it even existed, Disney was promoting it as an addition to the Disney Princess brand. And the final product was not a Pixar film, it was a Disney film. It showed none of the quality or philosophy of a Pixar made movie. Not surprising when you learn that the creative forces behind it, rather then being the Pixar establishment, were Disney natives, who had worked in the animation departments during the height of Disney's mid-nineties rush (Lion King through to Mulan). Brave was more a Disney film, made to Disney specifications, then any movie they had made themselves in years. It was during the build up to Brave that Disney also announced their long dormant Snow Queen would be retitled Frozen (following Tangled's example), and that instead of being a hand drawn feature, it would be CG.

This isn't the evolution of the medium (animation isn't a genre), this is a forced abandonment of a perfectly acceptable and adaptable method in favour of something more financially successful. It is pushing the method to the fringes, to the independents, where it will continue, but without the support that it once had. Until, of course, someone at Disney decides to go retro and produce a hand drawn feature in a hipster ironic sort of way. I won't say hand drawn is dead, because it isn't. Look at DiviantArt, or any other art sharing sites. Look at Paperman, the hand-drawn/CG combination short Disney themselves made, which won the Academy Award just a couple weeks ago. Hand drawn is still the norm. There are as many people as there ever was drawn more to the intimacy of ink and pen then are being displaced by the cold efficiency of the mouse and keyboard. Look at work being done by fans that prove for many, this is still the way animation is best allowed to showcase the humanity of the creative forces behind it.

And I hope that, considering that companies like LAIKA and Aardmen are keeping "archaic" forms of animation like stop-motion alive, that a company will step up and fill the void left by the short sighted, money obsessed big boys, and show them exactly what it is that they are missing out on.
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.


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