Monday, March 7, 2016

What Does 'Zootopia''s Success Mean For Disney Animation?

Another day, another article focusing on Walt Disney Animation Studios' latest marvel...

Fear not, this one won't pit Pixar against the Burbank studio like some big trade site did earlier this morning. I don't play that way...

We all know what happened this weekend. Zootopia, not only going over so well with critics, has posted the highest unadjusted opening weekend gross for a Walt Disney Animation Studios film... An excellent $75 million. Will this set a new course for the studio?

What course was the studio on beforehand?

Though seemingly little-known, nearly all of Disney Animation's post-Eisner films made up until 2014's Big Hero 6 are leftovers from the Michael Eisner/David Stainton years (2002-2005), the sole exception being 2011's Winnie the Pooh (also directed by Big Hero 6's director Don Hall), which was really a convenient way to keep the rights to the property, and the characters didn't have a feature-length - DTV or not - movie for years.

Meet The Robinsons is obvious, the film was entering production when Eisner was still in charge. Lasseter did some last-minute salvaging, singlehandedly saving what could've been the next Chicken Little. Bolt is a complete re-imagining of Chris Sanders' American Dog, using only a few ideas from Sanders' story. Wreck-It Ralph is no different, the project it came out of being Joe Jump. Rapunzel Unbraided, the Eisner administration's painful answer to Shrek, would be retooled into a classical retelling of the tale that we got with Tangled. A Snow Queen adaptation was in development at the time too, after Lasseter, director Chris Buck turned into it what would later become Frozen. The Frog Prince was on the drawing before the transition, Ron Clements and John Musker returned to the studio and took over the project, thus giving us The Princess and the Frog.

The first trio of films from the fixed studio didn't quite go over well at the box office, leaving a studio whose future might've been uncertain. By early 2010, they had Tangled knee-deep in production (with $260 million already invested in it, thanks to the costs of early iterations of the film) and Wreck-It Ralph advancing, Big Hero 6 was in active development, but little else beyond that. Tangled was essentially the do-or-die movie, because the people running the film division at the time weren't going to let Disney Animation make anymore fairy tale films. Too passe for 2009-2010 times, they thought...

Tangled was not only a success, but a big hit. It singlehandedly turned everything around. Snow Queen immediately went back into development, and was rechristened with the title Frozen. Director Byron Howard pitched what would become Zootopia, Nathan Greno would resurrect the scrapped Jack and the Beanstalk project and it would become 2018's Gigantic, Ron Clements and John Musker - after their Mort adaptation fell through - started work on Moana, Dean Wellins started work on something around this time, and the currently on-and-off King of the Elves crawled back into active development under Chris Williams... And there were probably a few other projects started at this time - early 2011 - that we haven't even heard about yet!

So now there seemed to be a "clear road ahead" (quoting currently defunct blog Blue Sky Disney), unlike the situation in early 2010. Disney was allowed to make icky fairy tale princess movies again, but they could also go ahead with more offbeat ideas like Wreck-It Ralph and Big Hero 6. The suits liked those in particular, because they could use them to cater to the 6-12yo boy audience that they were so paranoid about at the time. The plan: Fairy tales on one side, genre action pictures on the other. (At the time, Zootopia was a James Bond-flavored spy movie.)

Now, the very person who was the source of a lot of Disney Animation's problems at the time - Disney film division Chairman Rich Ross - got the boot in early 2012 after a string of failures that were engineered by him. Seasoned veteran Alan Horn took over, and months later, Wreck-It Ralph did very well at the box office. Frozen was an unexpected juggernaut, Big Hero 6 outdid both Tangled and Wreck-It Ralph. I think with the wrecker and the snow queen stories doing so well, a new plan seemed to be in order.

There is, however, nothing on the current slate (that goes from now until 2018) that's new. Moana and Gigantic date from five years ago, Frozen 2 and Wreck-It Ralph 2 - though currently not dated - are sequels, but was there anything new that was conceptualized after Wreck-It Ralph came out in late 2012? Anything new after Frozen's runaway success? What's the deal with Stephen Anderson's project? What's Chris Williams up to? Is Dean Wellins' project something new and not the space movie he conceived around the beginning of the decade? Now that Zootopia's out, and with Rich Moore presumably now at work on Wreck-It Ralph 2, what will Byron Howard be tackling next? Will he do an original? Or will Disney beg beg beg for a Zootopia follow-up?

I'm sure a boatload of projects are in development right now and many are lined up. What the ratio of originals to sequels is also interesting, because we're not in the Eisner era anymore. Sequels don't go straight to video, when it's time to continue a story, it'll get the big in-house Disney Animation theatrical treatment. Frozen 2 was confirmed, Wreck-It Ralph 2 is definitely real (even if it doesn't end up getting made), and I don't doubt for a second that Big Hero 6 Returns (or whatever the heck they call it) will be on the table. Zootopia, poised to crack $250 million domestically and probably 3x more worldwide, might just get one. Byron Howard envisioned a series of movies when he first conceptualized it, back when it was a spy movie about a James Bondian rabbit, perhaps if a sequel is called for, he can work the unused elements into it. No different from Pixar doing that with their sequels.

As for originals... We can only imagine what will move ahead now that Zootopia moved mountains. Will we see more films that aim for that thematic richness? Or films that aim for the film's world-building? What genres will be explored? Zootopia blended the buddy cop, neo-noir, detective story, and political thriller seamlessly. Big Hero 6 is a superhero action teen drama, Wreck-It Ralph is a big world-building self-realization adventure-comedy. These contrast quite nicely with our current fairy tale/princess musicals. The sky's the limit!

Wherever Disney Animation goes, I'll indeed be keeping watch. I have no doubt that Zootopia is going to have some major influence over the slate in some way, do you think so?


  1. Im happy that WDAS has attention again but I dont want that they start making sequels even for ralph 2 or Zootopia I prefer to hear about originals because to make sequels there is alredy Pixar that has a lot In the work

  2. Zootopia has 99% in RT. I know you will write excellent posts about it. I watched it 3 weeks in advance. Here in my country was released on Feb 19. I also knew you will be praising it. I really loved it. It's good to know that John Lasseter came to fix Disney Amimation. He has won no Oscars but certainly, he has deserves a lot of praise. He's definitely the modern Walt Disney. I also prefer originals over sequels, buuut I need more of The Incredibles (2004) and Big Hero 6 (2014). My favorite films ever!

  3. The actual opening weeking was an awesome $75,1 millions! Woooow!

  4. I don't work in Disney, but i think the critical reception and the opening weekend have been unexpected for them, have been so good and i think they will try to put more originals on the lineup, the house of the mouse is on a roll, i can't wait for Moana, will be the cherry on the cake

  5. Just gonna throw this out of left field. . .
    Now that Disney has effectively proven that they can make animated movies in a variety of genres and are no longer constrained by a formula, I think the time is ripe for them to experiment with not just new genres, but new audiences. Personally, I think they should aim for a PG-13 rating for one of their upcoming animated movies.

    1. I'd really be all for that, so long as it doesn't feel forced. I remember reading reports from years ago that 'Wreck-It Ralph', in its earlier drafts, indeed was edgy enough for a PG-13 rating. I wonder if the success of this trio of films will give the studio and the heads some confidence to try it.

    2. Probably not in the immediate future. But--assuming this Disney Renaissance is more permanent than the last--I could potentially see it in the next decade or so. Here's how I think it could possibly happen:
      Sony's Sausage Party is successful, and it leads to other animation studios (Fox, WB, Paramount, etc.) pitching their own R-rated animated movies. Disney, of course, doesn't do R, but they've done PG-13 in the past with some major success (Pirates of the Carribbean, Star Wars, Marvel). So throw their hat into the ring with a PG-13 animated movie, perhaps an animated Star Wars or Marvel spinoff.

  6. That's wonderful to hear. I can't wait to see this movie. I just wish Disney continue's doing hand drawn animation.