Monday, August 20, 2012

Parallels


Disney animation is currently about to enter a new Renaissance, or in many ways, has already entered it. When? Why have they entered a new Renaissance, though? Why isn’t there much hubbub over this?

The last few Disney films, despite any box office performance, are critically successful. In fact, Disney’s slow rebirth is no different from their rise to glory in the late 1980s...

Before The Renaissance


Years before the Disney Renaissance began, Disney’s animated output was problematic to say the least. As I had explained in my three-part series “The Dark Ages?”, it wasn’t necessarily absolutely terrible times for the studio, but tough nonetheless. There was only one flop, The Black Cauldron, which wasn’t as a big as a bomb as Disney and others made it out to be. The Rescuers and The Great Mouse Detective were certainly good, while not great by any means due to other problems. Oliver & Company is dated, relying on what was big in the 80s that made it the box office success it was. The Fox and the Hound has a great central theme, but it’s plagued with sloppy storytelling and a lack of a consistent tone. The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh is merely a compilation feature more than anything, though the individual short subjects are great. The only true post-Walt/pre-Renaissance clunkers are The Aristocats and Robin Hood, films with lazy storytelling and equally unimpressive animation, yet those two films were highly successful.


Likewise, before this new era of Disney (the Lasseter era), the Disney output was flawed. After the Renaissance, there were three real gems: Fantasia 2000, The Emperor's New Groove and Lilo & Stitch. The rest of the films were all messy or lacking in something some way or another, and this is all thanks to the executives, who stuck their spoons into the broth and found a way to ruin each big budget project. Treasure Planet was screwed by its attempts to be teen-friendly, despite already having a good heartfelt story and a lot of ambition. Atlantis: The Lost Empire suffers from a story that immediately loses direction after its first act, being more of a visual showcase than a story-driven experience. Brother Bear has excellent animation, but the film is too talky and riddled with 2003 talk and "hip" dialogue. Dinosaur was planned as a silent film, but again, the executives had the characters talk, and in awful modern dialect. Home on the Range was bland and badly written, and on top of that, offered nothing new. Chicken Little? That was a product of Michael Eisner’s rush to compete with DreamWorks’ pop culture joke-laden schlockfests.

Then we look at the few films that came before the Disney Renaissance, namely The Great Mouse Detective, and we see a small path to improvement. Oliver & Company on the other hand was a step backwards in terms of storytelling, but was a big hit nonetheless since it was hip and cool with the 80s audience. It was nothing more than a test, to see if Disney could re-enter the animated feature business and compete with Don Bluth.


However, the two films released between Chicken Little and The Princess and the Frog show a striking amount of improvement. Meet the Robinsons was half late Eisner-era caffeinated flick, half Lasseter Pixar-esque story that was heartwarming and touching. While not a big success, it wasn’t a flop by any means. Critics were generally positive in their reviews as well. At least it didn’t get the mixed to negative reviews that Brother Bear, Home on the Range and Chicken Little received. This was followed by Bolt, which boasted very good storytelling though it was a bit too familiar. Despite some safer elements, it was a deserved critical success and was a slow burner at the box office, but not a big blockbuster.

The New Renaissance

This is where your mileage may vary. When do you think the new Renaissance started? Did it start with Tangled? The Princess and the Frog? Bolt? Or do you think it hasn’t started yet? Be sure to tell me what you think, by voting in the poll.

Remember not to confuse this with a Golden Age, I separate the two. For me, a Golden Age equals the amount of films being produced and the fact that they’re all successful and high quality. Renaissance, to me, means an era films that are advancements of the art form regardless of how they do at the box office. The Little Mermaid and The Rescuers Down Under certainly live up to that title, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King are good works of storytelling though they have their shortcomings.


Personally, I believe the second Disney Renaissance has already started. It started with a fairy tale adaptation, The Princess and the Frog. There’s a pattern with Disney. Disney’s feature animation legacy started with a fairy tale adaptation. After World War II cut off profits from the following films (with the exception of Dumbo), Walt Disney turned to cheaper endeavors in the package “anthology” features. While they were successful for the most part, what got the Disney studios out of that temporary slump? A fairy tale adaptation. None other than Cinderella. No more cost-cutting anthology films came after that, all original single-story films like Peter Pan and Lady and the Tramp.

Then it gets tricky when you say The Little Mermaid saved Disney from a slump. It didn’t, The Great Mouse Detective and Oliver & Company already did, plus Who Framed Roger Rabbit really did a lot too. But... The Little Mermaid was the first “great” Disney animated film in a long while. The Princess and the Frog is also the first “great” Disney animated film in nearly a decade, and one that arguably gets right what many of the butchered post-Lion King films got wrong.

Why is this? During the start of the Renaissance, Disney was run by Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg, plus a barrage of executives who felt that animation was only a way to make more money and create more franchises. The films would be altered, and many times, watered down for the sake of entertaining everyone in the audience. Something Walt Disney would’ve NEVER done...

With that, the Second Golden Age and Renaissance quickly deflated after the runaway success of The Lion King when films like Pocahontas displayed Disney’s biggest weaknesses. The whole idea of when this Renaissance ended can be a bit contradictory. Pocahontas was a bump in the road, but The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules, Mulan and Tarzan were above average. People usually say the Renaissance ended with Tarzan, box office wise. But what about Fantasia 2000? Like The Rescuers Down Under, that was a good, above average film. After Fantasia 2000, we had Dinosaur, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Brother Bear, Home on the Range and Chicken Little going against The Emperor's New Groove, Lilo & Stitch and Treasure Planet. When did the Renaissance end? That's up in the air, for me, I'd say it fell apart starting with Pocahontas and ended with Fantasia 2000. Disney entered the "inconsistent era", where it wasn't a string of critical successes.

We all know what ended it. Executives had their way with each of the films, even with something very risky like The Hunchback of Notre Dame, with its unneeded comic relief. Audiences got tired of the same old routine too, as every Disney seemed to repeating itself over and over: Big musicals, big bad villains, annoying sidekicks and sassy dialogue. It frustrated audiences, who began turning to alternatives. This is why Pixar took off early on, because their films avoided this. Toy Story, A Bug's Life and Toy Story 2 were all fantastic films that weren’t products of executive meddling. No reliances on what focus groups said, or what marketing research firms showed. Pixar’s crew wisely ignored that and just gave audiences what they needed, not what they exactly “wanted”. Good films...

The Princess and the Frog is free from all that executive meddling and focus group nonsense, and on top of that, it was a great film. It returned to an art form that ignorant executives singlehandedly pushed to the wayside, while also trying new things with the art form. Critics praised it, word of mouth got it ahead of that awful opening weekend performance, and it did very well on home video. Bolt was free of these problems, too, but I felt it was a stepping stone to the Renaissance since it wasn’t a spectacular film by any means. It was more like The Rescuers, a film made between Walt’s death and The Little Mermaid that happened to be significantly better than the rest of the Disney output at the time. Bolt is far superior to several of the post-Renaissance films, but did it kick off the Renaissance? You could say it did, given the quality of the film.

I am also tempted to say it did, but The Princess and the Frog really set things in motion like The Little Mermaid did compared to the last couple of films. I could care less how much money The Princess and the Frog made compared to Tangled (though it would've been great to see it perform like gangbusters), to me, this little film was what kicked off this new Renaissance that we are currently going through. Tangled tried new things with computer animation, as we all know, it attempted to look like a traditionally animated film. Oddly enough, I consider Bolt superior to this film, but I still believe it didn't kick off the Renaissance. Despite the fact that is a very good film that also made use of the new painterly look that Disney is currently experimenting with, I still see it as more of a modest effort. One to bring audiences back to "good Disney" after years of hit-or-miss films, just like The Great Mouse Detective did back in 1986. The Princess and the Frog is much more ambitious, and visually, Tangled is too. It's a bit contradictory from here, I'll admit, but I still see Bolt as a sort of Mouse Detective project while Frog and Tangled are more in line with Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. Kind of like fuel to the start of the Renaissance, that and Meet the Robinsons.

After Tangled came Winnie the Pooh, which was gap filler, but very good gap filler! Next comes Wreck-It Ralph. I've raved about it many times, but how does this look innovative? Story-wise, it’s unique. It’s no fairy tale or musical, it’s not a talking animals comedy or anything. It’s an action-comedy about video games. Many will complain about this, but Disney NEEDS to leave the comfort zone. They can’t just make fairy tale after fairy tale. Not every movie they make has to be something familiar. If that were the case, then they'd just be on indefinite loop. People complain that Disney repeats themselves, but then they try something new, people still complain.

Walt Disney made all kinds of films: Fairy tales, adventure stories, mystery stories, experimental epics like Fantasia, films that had contemporary settings, dialogue-driven comedies without much action. He never repeated himself, though he would do more than one fairy tale or fantasy story. But he would also do something like Lady and the Tramp or Fantasia. Post-Renaissance Disney did so as well, with films like Atlantis and Treasure Planet, but those two aren’t given enough attention. Lilo & Stitch luckily did well, and remains one of the most unique post-Walt films. Which is why Wreck-It Ralph will continue this Renaissance. It’s not a repeat of something Disney already did many times before, it’s something completely different!

Then there’s Frozen, which is yet again another fairy tale. That said, The Princess and the Frog and Tangled aren’t the same movie. Tangled is not a rehash of what we saw in Frog. Beauty and the Beast, on the other hand, had no trouble taking cues from The Little Mermaid. Aladdin and The Lion King did so too, then it got to the point where it became stale. Frozen will most likely be something different, and not a rehash of Frog, Tangled or any of the other fairy tales. Well at least I hope it won’t be, but knowing Lasseter and the crew, it should not be.

Big Hero 6 is obviously way out of Disney’s “comfort zone”, which makes it all the more exciting. I’m really anticipating this for several reasons, since it will be a stab at the action film genre and get an even wider audience for Disney animation and rival Pixar and DreamWorks.


After that, we get the untitled Ron Clements and John Musker project, which is confirmed to be a hand-drawn film that might be done in the same style as John Kahrs' short film, Paperman. I’ve raved about that before, and from the stills we’ve gotten over the months, it’s already the signal to the next frontier in animation. There are also rumors floating around about a third Fantasia film, and there are numerous possibilities there. Tons of scrapped projects are laying around too, from King of the Elves to My Peoples to Fraidy Cat to Don Quixote to Antonius.

All of this happening right now is why I believe we are already going through the next Renaissance. Frog and Tangled already tried new things in some way or another while being good films, Ralph, Frozen, Big Hero 6 and the untitled Ron & John film should do the same... As long as they are very good films. Then you have the short films, which are also quietly fueling the Renaissance. How To Hook Up Your Home Theater was a return to the short film format for Disney, and hand-drawn animation. Safer shorts were training vehicles for younger animators, like the successful Prep & Landing shorts and Tangled Ever After. Two shorts remain out of reach, Glago's Guest and Tick Tock Tale, but at least we are getting Paperman before Wreck-It Ralph this autumn.

After that, one can only imagine what we’re going to get. If Disney’s upcoming slate is already loaded, there are so many possibilities on the horizon. Films that can keep the Renaissance going, longer than the first one and perhaps an extremely long time. Walt Disney Animation Studios is bursting like fireworks now since they are free from the clutches that held them back, with Bolt, The Princess and the Frog and Tangled behind them. Fulfilling Uncle Walt’s dreams? It’s going to happen...

6 comments:

  1. EXCELLENT. I think the Renaissance started with Bolt, and has really taken off with Princess and the Frog + Tangled. Very good point about Disney's comfort zone. All in all, I am /very/ excited for Paperman, Wreck-It Ralph, and this new Ron Clements/John Musker film?! Still kind of iffy on Frozen though. This post also reminds me, we gotta talk more about those crazy Disney execs! You've seen Waking Sleeping Beauty, right? Or have you read DisneyWar? That book is a hoot.

    Curious, you didn't mention Tim's Frankenweenie, do you think it could also be part of the Renaissance? Or maybe that will be regarded more as Burton Disney.

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    1. Thanks as always Simoa. I've seen bits and pieces of "Waking Sleeping Beauty", and have read a majority of "DisneyWar". All those exec horror stories are quite something.

      The reason I left "Frankenweenie" out is because it's not a Walt Disney Animation Studios production. Instead, all non-WDAS animated films are part of the Third Golden Age of Animation. I personally believe we have been going through the Third Golden Age since 2007.

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  2. I think Disney is shifting into CG Animation now.
    I like Disney Classic Animation as it was one of the reason l set my study and career on this field of art.
    Well, in my opinion, Princess and Frog just was the test Disney made in order to see if there are still got people watching 2D animation
    Tangled was the big success l think, Disney ( Specially Glen Keane ) combine Disney classic style in CG technology and it got the Disney feeling. I Hope they will develop on that way.
    But after Keane resign from Disney this year seem like harder for them to bring back the "magic" of Disney.
    Let see how Wreck-It-Ralph going. By the way it still good as long as it was true animation and make people happy while watching it.

    Thanks for the post btw :)

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    1. It seems like Disney is shifting to computer animation, but they are actually trying their hardest to bring back hand-drawn animation with films like the Ron & John project and "Paperman". "Tangled", of course, attempted to look like a traditional animation film. "Frozen" should be a continuation of this.

      Though Glen Keane isn't there anymore, I think there's still a lot of magic. A lot of the newer people show a lot of promise, especially with the shorts that they have been working on. We need a new generation of Nine Old Men.

      But do you believe the Renaissance has started?

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    2. I do believe in the Renaissance. Hopefully they could open a new era and bring back hand-drawn animation!

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