Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Dark Age? (Part 3)

Part 1
Part 2

With Disney losing Don Bluth and several young animators during production of The Fox and the Hound in 1979, the studio was beginning to undergo some revisions. The live action output significantly changed. While Disney had delivered great live action films over the years like Treasure Island, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Pollyanna and several others, there were also a lot of goofball comedies that were polluting the 1970s: The BoatniksThe Million Dollar DuckNo Deposit, No ReturnGus, The Cat from Outer SpaceLove Bug sequels and a whole lot more.

Fun, slapstick-riddled comedies weren’t a bad thing. They pleased family audiences, and that was it. Disney was beginning to become labeled as “kids only” fluff by teenagers and young adults. After years of harmless G-rated live action fare, Disney began venturing in to the PG territory (this was before PG-13 existed, so PG was the equivalent to what that rating is today). First they bought the rights to a small film called Take Down, which they distributed in early 1979 without the Disney name on it, but it came and went. Later that year, they released the science fiction film, The Black Hole. Since the release of that film, more and more PG-rated Disney films began appearing: Midnight Madness, The Watcher in the Woods, The Devil and Max Devlin, Condorman and Night Crossing. So what impact did a couple film that got a certain rating have on the animation studio? Well, the next animated feature, which would be The Black Cauldron, would be the first Disney animated feature to garner a PG rating. Disney owned the rights to Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain as far back as 1971, as development on a feature film based on the five-book series began shortly afterwards. Over the course of the mid 1970s, it didn’t take off. It just sat around the studio, while the then-new animators worked on The Rescuers, and the less risky projects like Pete's Dragon and The Small One. With the animators now gone, and Disney’s slow transition to win the teenager and adult audience in the late 1970s and early 1980s, it was time to get started on the project.

While this was going on, Don Bluth was ready to make a splash in the world of feature animation. The late 1970s and early 1980s brought more PG-rated animated endeavors, some of which actually did well at the box office such as Martin Rosen’s Watership Down, Ralph Bakshi’s Wizards and The Lord of the Rings and the Bakshi-esque Heavy Metal. Other films were still unique and game-changing none-the-less: Sanrio’s Metamorphoses, Martin Rosen’s The Plague Dogs, the cut-out animated Twice Upon a Time, and Bruno Bozzetto’s Allegro non Troppo. Other studios played it safe, Hanna Barbera continued to trip up with films like Heidi's Song. Warner Bros. cheated audiences with Looney Tunes “compilation” features like The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Movie and A Looney Looney Looney Bugs Bunny Movie.

Don Bluth first entered the ring when he and his crew finally completed Banjo the Woodpile Cat in 1979, which would get good reception. A two-minute sequence was also created for the 1980 musical Xanadu, being one of the better things about that film. With that behind them, they were ready to tackle a full-length feature film. Bluth joined forces with Aurora Productions to bring forth an animated adaptation of Robert O’Brien’s Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. Bluth’s plan was to make a film that was worthy of the Golden Age Disney animated classics, mainly Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Pinocchio.

The Secret of NIMH was a breath of fresh air for its time, much superior to the highly flawed The Fox and the Hound, which Disney released the year before, along with a good number of the other animated films that were out at the time. The Secret of NIMH displays Bluth’s greatest strengths, but also some of his weaknesses that would come to plague his later films. It seems like most of the enthusiasm and ambition went into the visuals, more so than the writing. The film has beautiful art direction, and a lot of vibrant colors. Special effects are everywhere, with lots of flashes and shines, but it’s to the point where it feels gimmicky. Did Nicodemus’ eyes really have to be so shiny and laser-like? The rose bush scene is loaded with tons of sparkles and flashes. Rotoscoping is used for other special effects, which sometimes don’t look good. The work done on the tractor and plow makes what should be an intense scene less exciting. The character animation is great, very reminiscent of the older Disney animated films.

Its story, however, isn’t all that strong. It presents us with a believable conflict, and the first act is undeniably great, but it begins to plod and plod as it progresses. The story takes a backseat to the visuals, and the third act has the character Jenner revealed to be conspiring against the NIMH rats, despite the fact that we don’t really get to know him that well. Mrs. Brisby receives a magical amulet from Nicodemus that only serves as a cheap deus ex machina during the climax. Jeremy is turned into a clumsy crow who has too many pointless “comic relief” scenes centered around him and Mrs. Brisby’s children. Mrs. Brisby is a likable protagonist, as she is a brave and determined mouse who goes to great lengths to solve her dilemma.

The Secret of NIMH was still a good film, but it wasn’t the masterpiece the critics made it out to be. Most critics gushed over the film, as it did out-Disney many of Disney’s then-recent efforts, and was more like the Golden Age classics rather than something like Robin Hood. Some elements are right up there with classic Disney moments, particularly the sequence where Mrs. Brisby meets the Great Owl. The combination of dark imagery, eerie sound editing and an overall gloomy atmosphere make it a winner. The voice cast certainly does a fine job too, Elizabeth Hartman gives Mrs. Brisby her brave and dedicated qualities while also balancing that out with her innocent and motherly side. Dom DeLuise gives a rightfully obnoxious performance as an obnoxious character. John Carradine steals the show as the Great Owl, with an ominous and booming voice.

Released in the summer of 1982, NIMH’s unanimous critical reception didn’t translate to box office success. Spearheaded by low-key marketing by United Artists and caught in a sea storm with E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial along with other big blockbuster films, NIMH could only cough up not even half of what Disney’s last few animated films took in at the domestic box office. When released on home video in 1983, it began to get the audience it deserved and lived on as an animated classic.

The Secret of NIMH certainly had an impact on the animation industry and the critics, and it would be a signal to the directionless Disney studios. That same summer, Disney released Steven Lisberger’s science fiction adventure Tron. Like the previous PG-rated Disney output, this film was another attempt to reach out the teenage movie-goers. Tron contained groundbreaking use of computer generated imagery to depict the dark and strange world inside the computer. Wendy Carlos’ ominous score certainly fit the setting very well, almost playing out like a gloomy Atari 2600 game. The plot was good, and the action scenes were standout moments. Critics panned the often corny screenplay, and audiences most likely didn’t understand the computer jargon and the film’s themes. Tron wasn’t an outright flop, just a financial disappointment in the eyes of the Disney executives. Nevertheless, it was proof that Disney was willing to step up their game, even if they were going about it the wrong way. Tron certainly would've fared better years later, and the fact that it did so well on home video, spawned successful video games (a first for a Disney film) and even got a sequel many years later (and a subsequent franchise!) goes to show that Tron was ahead of its time.

In 1983, animator Glen Keane and then-newcomer John Lasseter worked on test footage for a planned adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are, one that seamlessly combined computer generated imagery and hand-drawn animation. It was a glimpse into what the future of the medium could be, and ultimately would be...

While this was going on, The Black Cauldron was just getting out of dormancy despite being green lit in 1980. After Tron’s release, production finally moved forward. The suits were hoping for an effects-laden spectacle that could possibly get Disney back on the map and actually compete with the likes of the fantasy films of the era. What they ignored was the story, which would turn out to be a real mess.

The Black Cauldron’s main protagonist, Taran, is a rather bland character that’s almost like the story crew’s attempt at giving audiences a Luke Skywalker-esque lead except he's not as interesting. Taran basically wants to be seen as a hero, being a rather bored young man who doesn’t want to spend his life taking care of the magical pig, Hen Wen. It’s hard to root for him because there’s not much to him to begin with. The Horned King is after the Black Cauldron, a deadly weapon that can resurrect the dead. He wants to turn the dead into an army, the Cauldron-Born, and rule all of Prydain. That’s about it, though. All he wants to do is rule the world, and nothing more. Despite how frightening he looks and sounds (John Hurt provides a great raspy, shadowy voice), he’s cardboard as far as villains go with not much motivation. He learns that the pig knows where the cauldron is, so the enchanter Dallben tells Taran to take Hen Wen to a cottage in the forest. Taran daydreams, and the pig runs off, getting swept away by the Horned King’s gwythaints. The story collapses in the second act when Taran is imprisoned. Taran meets a stolen princess named Eilonwy and a captured bard named Fflewdurr Flem. A cutesy sidekick who shows up early on returns, a dog-like monster named Gurgi, who is doesn’t add much to the story. Most of the film is marred by mediocre dialogue, and it can be a chore to sit through. Our leads aren't very interesting, and the things they encounter only make the story plod until its climax fires up.

Had The Black Cauldron not been in development hell for so long, the film could’ve had a much better story. Too many writers worked on it, trying to make a film based on the first two books, thus creating a convoluted near-catastrophe. Early concept art suggests that The Black Cauldron could’ve been a very engaging epic. It does try some new things. For starters, there are no musical numbers or songs. Lots of creepy visuals and material that could be too frightening for children defined the tone of the film, along with some violence. Elmer Bernstein provides an eerie, spectacular score. But The Black Cauldron wasn’t a dark film, but rather a film that “looked” dark. There was no genuine horror like there was in the Golden Age Disney films, and visuals alone can't generate great creepy moments.

Some sequences are knock-outs, such as the Horned King’s introduction and the chase where the gwythaints capture Hen Wen. Taran fighting his way out of the castle with the magic sword makes for a pretty solid action sequence. Most of the film’s first act is very well handled too, moving at a considerable pace. The use of special effects pays off here and there, but still, with better writing, the film as a whole would’ve been a real thrill. This was also the first Disney animated film to make use of computer generated imagery, for small things from time to time like the boat the trio use to escape the crumbling castle. The animation itself is somewhat bland, feeling as if the artists tried to replicate the look of the previous Disney animated films, but the dark fantasy film look is welcomed. Some character designs are solid, such as Gurgi, Hen Wen, the Horned King and Creeper. Others are just expected and quite frankly, uninteresting, almost coming off like "Disney stock" characters.

The Black Cauldron’s road to release was quite bumpy, as Disney was having several issues. The company was fighting off any possible takeovers while also facing hard times financially. Roy E. Disney ultimately put a stop to this, and a new regime took over after Ron Miller’s resignation in 1984. Coming from Paramount, Michael Eisner became the CEO of the company and Jeffrey Katzenberg became the Chairman of the studio. Roy took a look at The Black Cauldron, which was on its way to completion. He didn’t like what he saw, a cluster of story problems and ill-defined characters.

When Jeffrey Katzenberg saw it, he wanted it to be edited for time constraints. Originally thought to be a roughly 90-minute film (Disney’s longest since Fantasia), Katzenberg wanted ten minutes cut and gave producer Joe Hale hell if ten minutes weren’t cut (“Is that ten minutes?”). The film was delayed from its planned Christmas 1984 release to the summer of 1985. A musical number with the Fair Folk thankfully got the ax, and Taran’s trip through the woods after he loses Hen Wen was significantly shortened. You can see that the animators simply recycled the scene from Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too where Rabbit is lost in the woods, for when Taran searches for the oracular pig. With all of that gone, The Black Cauldron was almost ready. Elmer Bernstein’s score had been completed, and the animation was completed by early 1985.

A screening was held in the studio shortly afterwards with disastrous results, angry parents objected to the film’s third act, where the Horned King uses the cauldron to resurrect the dead soldiers. Scenes where the skeletons slaughter some of the Horned King’s goons caught the attention of Katzenberg, who demanded the fully animated scenes be cut and even asked for “outtakes” to use in their place. Katzenberg didn’t realize at the time that no coverage was done in animation like it was in live action. He took the finished film into an editing room, and cut out two minutes of graphic violence that could’ve gotten the film a PG-13 or R rating. With these scenes missing, Elmer Bernstein’s score skips, and it’s very noticeable.

Jeffrey Katzenberg believed that Disney animation was for young children first and foremost, and this was the first of many atrocities he and Michael Eisner did to Disney animation that would lead to the animation studio’s misfortunes following the Renaissance. The film was finally released to theaters in July of 1985 with barely any marketing behind it. The film garnered mixed reviews and disappeared quickly. The film was a box office dud, being labelled as a massive flop. For years, Disney acted as if the film didn’t exist. It was even recut to be more kid-friendly. This version was released internationally as Taran and the Magic Cauldron in the early 1990s, but Disney finally released the original film on home video years later.

Perhaps the early to mid 1980s could be called the “Dark Age” of Disney, but to call it that is somewhat unfair. It only lasted for a brief period of time, and films like Tron have gone on to become very successful years later. The Black Cauldron sold incredibly well when released on home video stateside in 1998, and let’s not forget that Disney successfully launched The Disney Channel during this “Dark Age” while also releasing their films, little by little, on home video formats. Animation itself on the other hand had its troubles. The early 1980s wasn’t a good time to release a full-length animated feature given how toxic the medium’s reputation was. More and more Saturday morning cartoons dominated the airwaves, most of which being extremely successful toy commercials, only convincing audiences and executives that animation was only for children. Consider this, The Care Bears Movie outgrossed The Black Cauldron and every other animated film released from 1982 to 1985. No new animated film was even released theatrically in the United States in 1984!

The next Disney animated feature would be completed quickly with a much smaller budget, The Great Mouse Detective. Based on Eve Titus’ Basil of Baker Street books, a young mouse named Olivia is alone after her father, a toymaker, is kidnapped. Her and the kind-hearted Dr. David Q. Dawson go to find Basil of Baker Street, a Sherlock Holmes-esque detective. The crafty sleuth finds out that Olivia’s father’s kidnapper is a wily bat named Fidget, who is the lackey of the nefarious Professor Ratigan. Ratigan plans on using Olivia’s father to build a robotic version of Queen Mousetoria and take over England. It’s a simple and coherent plot that is packed with enough sparkle to delight the young and old. It doesn’t aim for the heights that the last three films aimed for, but it knows that.

All told briskly in just 74 minutes, The Great Mouse Detective has the good humor that defined a lot of the earlier Disney films, but at the same time, it never goes beyond what it is. It stays within the confines of a simple narrative, so trying to stack it up next to the Golden Age films or even something like The Rescuers would only make it seem inferior by comparison. As a delightful romp, it succeeds. The characters are likable, and the animators seemed to have a field day with some. Ratigan steals the show, a comic menace voiced by a gleefully evil Vincent Price. The rat may seem sophisticated, but he’s really trying to keep his animal in check much like Shere Khan.

Fun action scenes are sprinkled with good humor and slapstick that works, given the cartoon-like nature of the story. Its animation is a mixed bag, with some neat backgrounds that evoke a foggy, dark atmosphere with nods to Sherlock Holmes films. Most of the film, however, looks more in line with a Saturday morning cartoon. This isn’t the animators’ fault, since they had to work with a smaller budget and meet a deadline, they try to make the most of it. The character animation is loose and impressive, unlike the frustrated and often rote work seen in The Fox and the Hound and The Black Cauldron.

The film’s climax takes place inside of Big Ben, an elaborate chase scene where computer generated imagery was used to create all the gears and mechanisms. The scene is so beautiful and detailed, it clashes with the rest of the visual style of the whole picture. The camera swoops through gears as Ratigan gives chase to Basil, showcasing how the use of computer generated imagery could take the medium to new heights, much like the Wild Things test scene. Basil and Ratigan fight on the clock hands, showcasing some powerful animation that’s nothing short of thrilling.

While not an ambitious film that would be worthy of Disney’s best, The Great Mouse Detective is a satisfying endeavor on its own. Its a lighthearted treat that was a breather from the last two films, films that could’ve been great but spoiled by bad blunders. This certainly paid off, as The Great Mouse Detective hit theaters in the summer of 1986, getting good reviews and making a tidy profit for Disney. This gave the animation world some hope, as it had outgrossed The Black Cauldron by a considerable amount.

Then... In November... The light came at the end of the tunnel...

The record-breaking success of Don Bluth’s An American Tail, produced by Steven Spielberg, was an unexpected smash for the medium. The film might not have gotten great reviews, but its success was what convinced Disney executives that animation wasn’t dead and could in fact be extremely profitable. Eisner and Katzenberg were close to phasing out the feature animation studio, favoring future endeavors like Touchstone Pictures, a brand name for Disney to release adult-oriented films without scaring teenagers and adults away. An American Tail’s success and the record-breaking home video sales of the Disney animated classics were what got Disney to go back to animated films and immediately usher the Second Golden Age of Animation...

The rest, they say, is history...


So were the 1970s and 1980s the "Dark Age" of Disney animation? No.

Sure, it wasn't a Renaissance, but Disney had a lot of financially successful films released at the time. Films like The Rescuers showed that Disney was indeed aiming high at times, and not everything released was truly abysmal. The Aristocats and Robin Hood have their faults, but they are by no means terrible. Tron and a few other live-action films demonstrated the changes Disney was willing to go through in an attempt to catch up with audiences. It was more like a transitional time. Without Walt Disney, the company had to move on but yet they were close to just plugging along...

The changes that took place at Disney and in the world of feature animation shaped the medium. The rise of adults-only animation from filmmakers like Ralph Bakshi were certainly groundbreaking, and stateside releases of foreign animated films certainly grew during this time. Young artists showed that animation was still alive, and these very artists would help take animation to successful heights in the late 1980s and early 1990s. From the Second Golden Age onwards, the idea of the animated feature film has never gone away, and you can say it all started with the talent Disney hired in the 1970s and 1980s...

A "Dark Age"? No. Were there tough times? Certainly. There were tough times during the Renaissance and even the First Golden Age. Instead, the 1970s and 1980s was a phase where animation had to stand on its own despite what was working against it, and it certainly did...


  1. A problem with Cauldron; it was trying to have a serious plot, but the minions were constantly bumping into each other and I could not take them seriously. It was more like an unfunny satire of over darkness in films. The last third was moderately good to mock.

  2. Keep in mind that Disney's Dark Age only regards the WDAS, not the entire company. The Renaissance ended even when Disney and Pixar makes money. Imo, here r reasons why its called dark age:
    1. Several of disneys worst WDAS films were releases here (but not the worst, those titles r awarded to the Chicken and Cow), the quality in everything is sub par and they were losing money
    2. Notice the dark and gloomy settings and tones of most of their films, which can be explained for being 'Dark'

    1. I'm fairly sure I stated that the "dark age" only pertained to WDAS, hence the section on Disney having successes like the launch of The Disney Channel and home media in the 1980s, but they were having some problems outside of animation.