Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Future of Walt Disney Animation Studios (Part 1)

With the studio's 52nd animated film, Wreck-It Ralph, hitting theaters this autumn (if you go by the official so-called "canon"), what future does Walt Disney Animation Studios have? It's hard to say at the moment, considering that their upcoming slate only includes that film and Frozen. Nothing is scheduled for 2014, and we don't even know what else is really in development. We've heard about the Mickey Mouse film project and King of the Elves, but that's it... Walt Disney Animation Studios' upcoming slate is shockingly underwhelming. It shows that Disney isn't fully confident in their recent animated output, which is a shame, because their post-Eisner films lack the big issues seen in most of the films produced from 1995-2005. In fact, they rival the Renaissance films and are somewhat superior to some of them. (A radical viewpoint, but I digress)

I was hoping that the success of Tangled would lead to them announcing more future projects. Disney's upcoming slate usually changes in some way or another, and sometimes promising projects (Wild Life, A Few Good Ghosts, Fraidy Cat) would be scrapped. Others would be re-tooled, such as American Dog and Rapunzel Unbraided. Apparently Mort, the planned adaptation of the Discworld novel by Terry Pratchett, is dead as well. We heard about that when Tangled was coming out in November 2010, and we heard that no one other than Ron Clements and John Musker were supposed to direct it, but nothing much since. What happened? Back in November 2010, it seemed like the line-up would be: Tangled, Winnie the Pooh, The Snow Queen, Reboot Ralph, Mort and Jack and the Beanstalk. This line-up is no more, only two projects have survived: Reboot Ralph and The Snow Queen, but with different titles.

I'm currently on the fence about Frozen. Personally, I'm glad that The Snow Queen project is finally back in the works, and the fact that a release date is set shows that Disney definitely green-lit it or had confidence in it. The project has been on and off for years, and it's good to see the folks at Disney bringing it back. Chris Buck is directing the film, as he co-directed Tarzan (which I believe is one of the best Disney animated features of the 1990s, not The Lion King) and co-directed Sony Pictures Animation's unfairly overlooked 2007 film Surf's Up. Kristen Bell will provide the voice of the protagonist, Gerda. Judging by her Broadway background, this might be a musical.

What I'm not crazy about is the fact that the film is going to be a computer animated film. Listen, I love computer animation and I think it's equal to hand-drawn animation and stop-motion animation. To reject computer animation while praising hand-drawn animation is ignorant in my book. I don't consider it to be any lesser than hand-drawn animation, nor do I consider it to be better. That said, I was hoping that this project would be the next hand-drawn film, but something tells me that the box office performances of The Princess and the Frog, Tangled and Winnie the Pooh convinced the executives at Disney to re-think reviving hand-drawn animation. If that's true, then this is 2003 all over again: The films failed because they were hand-drawn! Nobody likes hand-drawn animation anymore! It's outdated!

This is not true, of course, but this mindset seems to be persisting at Disney. Had those two films been marketed better and given a better release date, I think the folks at Disney would've been singing a different tune. We' probably hear about several hand-drawn projects. I have nothing against Disney doing computer animated films. Meet the Robinsons, Bolt and Tangled look great and I'm hoping Ralph will have some stunning animation as well, but this studio has a legacy of hand-drawn animation. They might not have invented the medium, but they sure revolutionized it! Pixar did the same for computer animation, but if Disney tries to move away from hand-drawn animation again like they almost did when Eisner was still CEO, then I won't be happy. A lot of folks won't be.

Then you might ask, "But doesn't the story matter most?" It does, but poor storytelling was what killed films like Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Treasure Planet, Brother Bear and Home on the Range. The Pixar films made so much money because they were good. Shrek did well because it was good. Ice Age did well because it was good. Shrek 2 did well because it was a hotly anticipated sequel to a good film that happened to come out at the time I like to refer to as the "CGI Fad". That "fad" would ware off in 2005 and 2006 when audiences weren't too thrilled with the likes of Valiant, Hoodwinked!, Doogal, The Wild, Barnyard and several others. The damage was already done by then, the fact that the final hand-drawn films from Disney and DreamWorks underwhelmed plus the fact that CGI ran over the art form was what put hand-drawn animation in the coma it's trying to get out of. Executives felt that computer animation was the new frontier (not artistically, of course), and to see hand-drawn animation possibly go through this again is heartbreaking. These executives felt that audiences rejected the aforementioned films was because they were hand-drawn, not because of how disappointing they were.

Aside from the fact that Frozen won't be hand-drawn, I'm also a bit worried that Disney will approach the story the same way they did with Tangled. While I really enjoyed Tangled, I wouldn't call it one of Disney's better efforts. Sure, it beats most of the 2000-2005 films, but I personally felt that Bolt, Frog and Winnie the Pooh were superior. Tangled was somewhat irreverent and it didn't take itself too seriously sometimes, while at other times, it was right in line Frog and the Pixar films. It was a bit inconsistent, but it was certainly entertaining and heartfelt. The characters were great too, but hopefully Disney doesn't do this with Frozen, because they would be repeating themselves.

I'd like see a more Grimm fairy tale-like approach. Remember Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs? There were some pretty dark scenes in that film, and Walt Disney wasn't afraid of putting them in there. While there wasn't any graphic violence, the scenes still scared the living daylights out of young children. While parents complained that it was too frightening for their children, Walt Disney simply thought, "It's not a children's film." Something like The Little Mermaid is more child-friendly. After Walt passed away, animation was viewed as kiddie stuff, and Mermaid is usually one of the films that critics of Disney point to when the subject of "Disneyification" comes up. The film has dark scenes, but it has a kiddie side to it. Snow White is loaded with darkness, but the cuteness and comic relief isn't in your face, and it can appeal to adults much like a Pixar film. The dwarfs weren't meant to just entertain kids, they were meant to entertain everyone in the audience. The film carefully balances these things, which is probably why it's rightly considered one of Disney's finest achievements. Walt didn't make films for children, Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg felt that Disney films had to be for kids. Those films pandered to kids, the Walt films did not.

My only problem with most of the Disney Renaissance films based on fairy tales is that they are essentially remakes of The Little Mermaid: Epic good vs. evil story, annoying cute sidekicks for the kids to laugh at, big musical numbers and an epic showdown with the villain at the end. Frog and Tangled had shades of that, but I'd like to see Disney deviate from that completely. Frog might've had the musical numbers and the good vs. evil story, but it had dark moments and not much cutesy stuff. While Frog did feel like a Renaissance film, it also felt like a Walt film. Tangled was more cutesy, and felt more like a 90s Disney film. There wasn't any kind of formula when Walt was around. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is not the same as Cinderella. Frozen should not be another 90s Renaissance-style fairy tale adaptation. I don't care if the executives want Gerda to appeal to young girls and have billions of dolls sold, I want something different and bold. Walt didn't have to worry about that, since there was no big Disney Princesses brand back then. That was all a product of the Michael Eisner regime.

That said, we don't know what direction Disney is taking this film in. I don't want a 90s Renaissance revival with too much cutesy stuff, I want something similar to Snow White or Pinocchio, or maybe something completely different. Something even darker than the Walt films, which were pretty dark as far as family films go. Most animation studios play it safe with cuddly comedies and romps, except Pixar, but we need other studios doing this too. Disney should try it with this film.

Remember this?

Finally, the title. I wish it was The Snow Queen. The title change is just proof that Disney totally buys into the "young boys won't see a girly movie" belief. Forget young boys, who cares what they want to see? You should care what everyone wants to see, and the kids will see it regardless. If it's a movie with a princess or queen, then market it properly and make it appeal to everyone. Tangled's marketing campaign, cynical and DreamWorks-y as it was, should tell them. I mean, The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast were extremely successful. I guess back in 1989 and 1991, young boys weren't afraid of seeing "girly princess movies". No, those films were marketed correctly. The Princess and the Frog wasn't.

That's all I have to say about Frozen. When will we get a trailer? Who knows. With Rich Ross and MT Carney out, Disney's marketing department might kick things off early on instead of waiting to unveil something in early spring. Who knows, maybe they'll attach a trailer of it to Brave. If not, then Wreck-It Ralph. The teaser for Frog was out before Bolt hit theaters, so who knows? Am I excited for it? Like I said, I'm currently on the fence, but I would like to see what direction they're going with the project. What do you think? Are you excited for Frozen? What do you think of the title? Sound off!

In part two, I'll go over King of the Elves, the untitled Mickey Mouse film and more...

1 comment:

  1. That's one of the many reasons I love Pixar! They don't make cutsie wutsie films. Look at Brave, for example. From the trailers, it looks as dark as a Walt Disney film, if not, darker. I showed my friend the newest trailer and it scared him! And he's 15!!!!! It doesn't look like a 90s renaissance fairy tale, it looks like a true, gritty, creepy fairy tale that looks like it'll be dark along the lines of Brothers Grimm. And there aren't any characters in Brave just meant for the kids. *sighs* I love Pixar.