Saturday, October 28, 2017

Editorial: 3 Animation Renaissance Misconceptions


The Renaissance Age of Animation... The legendary 90s...

Apparently the greatest time in the history of the medium...

Not to this guy.

It is true that the late 1980s and early 1990s brought a lot of good to animation as a whole, from memorable features to great TV show to media on other platforms. At the same time, it brought lots of problems that would morph into issues that exist within the industry today. Some high quality works were made during this time, but high quality works had existed in animation long before this period and continue to be made to this day.

As suggested by a reader, I will dive into what I - and others - feel are misconceptions about the "Animation Renaissance"... Or, the Second Golden Age of Animation...

And feel free to disagree on any view I may have on certain films or works. I am not the God of All Things Animation, you know! Just an aspiring New Englander with strong opinions and little fear to express them! What's going to follow are my beliefs and what I gather from all the animation history I've read over the years, though a lot of facts will be present throughout as well.

So how in the world did the "Renaissance" even start?

Well, to those who think it all started with a certain redhead, I think otherwise...


#1: The Little Mermaid did not start the Second Golden Age of animation...

It did not.

We can pinpoint the beginnings of animation's Second Golden Age at 1986.

The early-to-mid 1980s were a rather tough time for animation. Animation as a whole wasn't particularly dead or nearing extinction, but it was seriously in the doldrums. In 1982, there was an animators' strike and MGM/United Artists dumped Don Bluth's promising The Secret of NIMH. Disney's ambitious live-action picture TRON - which made groundbreaking use of CGI - lost money at the box office. At Walt Disney Feature Animation, development on The Black Cauldron and Basil of Baker Street were underway while creative disputes were happening left and right. Just about everything else flopped or had trouble even getting some kind of suitable theatrical release.

It seemed like only new Disney features and re-releases of the classics were guaranteed box office successes, but nothing had really been a blockbuster since the 1960s. Feature animation was in desperate need of one, not a family feature that simply counter programmed the heavies. The Black Cauldron was costly and didn't resonate with the public when released in summer 1985. The Great Mouse Detective's "success" only refers to the fact that it made its money back, the gross on that thing was only a millimeter higher than that of "big flop" The Black Cauldron's gross.

Steven Spielberg noticed Don Bluth sometime after The Secret of NIMH's release, and soon Bluth landed a gig with him. This translated into a lavish feature called An American Tail, released in fall 1986, a few months after Disney released The Great Mouse Detective. An American Tail became the highest-grossing animated feature (we're of course talking initial release numbers, in terms of re-release totals, Snow White was still undisputed queen of the mountain), spawned lots of merchandise and even a Grammy-winning hit single! Spielberg and Universal helped make Bluth's production a smash hit, and really rocketed Bluth himself to the top. Fievel Fever was caught, and lasted well into early 1987. This prompted new Disney executives Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg to rethink their plans to scrap feature animation for good. It gave Roy E. Disney all the ammunition he needed, for sure.


Let's not give all the credit to Don Bluth and Steven Spielberg, though. Disney themselves had also made a big decision around this time as well... Releasing the animated classics on home video. Now by contrast, Roy E. Disney was what was holding the company back from releasing most of those films on video. He was very protective of his Uncle Walt's greatest treasures. Roy wasn't around when previous CEO Ron Miller enacted a long-term plan to release the animated films on video. Disney's executives at the time initially hesitated to release the films on black-shelled cassettes, the "What Would Walt Do?" people who assumed what a dead man had wanted, they assumed he would've approach home video the same way he approached TV.

Walt didn't show his animated classics - sans Dumbo and Alice in Wonderland - on television, he preferred having them be theatrically re-released every few years. Package features were carved up and shown either in theaters or on TV. More money, and also covering the losses of past flops like Pinocchio and Bambi. The Vault, but in the 1950s and 1960s, basically. The executives that assumed power after his death didn't know how to embrace home video, and to be fair, the early 1980s was when the format was in its infancy. Only Dumbo and Alice in Wonderland, alongside some package features, were released on video during this time. 1984 was when Miller, prior to his ousting, laid down a plan to release the rest of the films on video. By the time he was out, the first title was released to test the waters... Robin Hood. Not one of Disney's bigger films, for sure.



The video release of Robin Hood in late 1984 was successful enough, Michael Eisner and the new executives suggested having Pinocchio be released next, as the latest re-release didn't quite pull in amazing numbers. Eisner reportedly stated that the film was making nothing by just sitting in the vault, waiting for a re-release some 5-7 years down the line. Roy conceded, on the grounds that Pinocchio was never really that big of a box office draw over the years - despite being a perennial favorite - compared to films like Cinderella and Snow White. Those were the ones he didn't want on video.

Pinocchio moved half a million units before going on moratorium in spring 1986, Sleeping Beauty was released in the fall, coming off of a successful spring re-release. Sleeping Beauty moved over a million units and was the highest-selling video release of all time back then. Soon, the treasures Roy held near-and-dear were being released on video, one-by-one: Lady and the Tramp (1987, moved 3 million units), Cinderella (1988, moved 7 million units), Bambi (1989, moved 10 million units). Disney dominated every holiday season, Americans made sure to buy these films, knowing they'd be locked away in a Fort Knox-like vault if they didn't act fast. When they missed their chances, people took advantage of that and scalped these VHS tapes, reselling them for insane prices: Up to $300 in some instances!

So by early 1988, there's an upward swing: Bluth scores a hit, wakes Disney right up, Spielberg - one of the biggest filmmakers on the scene - is involved in animation, classic Disney films rake in big bucks on home video. Animation merchandise sees something a resurgence, too, items based on classic characters pop up more and more. Then comes Who Framed Roger Rabbit, a collaboration between Walt Disney Pictures, Spielberg's Amblin, Back to the Future director Robert Zemeckis, and animation savior Richard Williams. A rare cooperation between such heavy forces, the result is an incredible, beloved film that takes the world by storm and grosses over $300 million worldwide. Animation is back in full force!

Disney, Don Bluth, Steven Spielberg, Richard Williams, Robert Zemeckis, several others... All at the forefront.


Further solidifying this was the fall 1988 successes of Don Bluth/Steven Spielberg's The Land Before Time and Disney's Oliver & Company. Then came The Little Mermaid in fall 1989, sleeper hit, wins Oscars, is a smash on video, it ignites Disney's own second coming. Then Beauty and the Beast would become the first all-animated feature to gross over $100 million domestically and even get nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. Something that only happened two times to animated features afterwards...

So the revival was well in place before 1989. TV also played a big part in animation's Second Golden Age, particularly in the late 80s and early 90s... The Simpsons, MTV, Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, new WB cartoon shows (Batman, Animaniacs, Freakazoid!), Disney's TV animation... That made up for the shoddy work coming from the other distributors, which leads us to the next misconception about the Renaissance...

It was a great time for all animation... Not really.

Don Bluth's A Troll in Central Park (1994)

#2. The Second Golden Age Wasn't a Good Time for Other Feature Animation Studios...

Other distributors were looking at the numbers Disney and Don Bluth's movies pulled in from 1986 to 1989, and they wanted in. The problem was, they misunderstood the successes of those movies. Audiences liked An American TailThe Land Before Time, Oliver & Company, and The Little Mermaid. Not for the types of movies they were, but because of what was in the movies themselves. The writing, the characters, the this, the that.

The assumption was that if they could create movies like those, audiences would come, a problem we see today and have seen for years...


By the early 90s, you started seeing the imitators slowly trickle out. Warner Bros. was all about getting an animation slate going, yet their LA head of animation had no clue how the animation process even worked. The Nutcracker Prince was barely marketed and disappeared in fall 1990, Rover Dangerfield - originally conceived as an R-rated animated comedy by creator/comedian Rodney Dangerfield - turned out to be a turkey and was given a limited release in mid-1991, all because WB wanted it to be a generic musical kids' movie and not what Dangerfield wanted.

Then Warner Bros. backed away from Richard Williams' The Thief and the Cobbler, perhaps signing with WB was what partially doomed that outlier project to begin with. Williams' intended magnum opus was taken from him by a completion bond company, they turned what was meant to be something new and different and revolutionary into an Aladdin wannabe with cut-rate songs and inferior animation filling in the gaps. Miramax - under the rule of a certain someone who is thankfully being ousted from the Hollywood system as we speak - further destroyed it, the film in its butchered state ended up getting a limited release and died very quickly.

Another WB muck-up was Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. A PG-rated feature based on the animated series, it was bumped up from direct-to-video title to theatrical release... It sadly went unnoticed due to poor marketing, which would be an ongoing issue for WB. Despite being a Christmas 1993 release, it was no hit. Perhaps a higher-budget, aggressively-marketed PG-rated Batman animated movie could've helped WB and non-Disney animation during this period. Surreal to think that we had to wait another 24 years to see an animated Batman movie be a blockbuster, even if it was of the brick variety.


Don Bluth would face a multitude of problems, and they didn't start with All Dogs Go to Heaven, which is a pretty common belief... Bluth was facing issues as far back as An American Tail. Steven Spielberg reportedly had Bluth cut stuff from An American Tail, because the material was supposedly too scary for young children... It's bizarre, Spielberg ruled the family film with some of his live-action pictures like E.T., which had bite. Why did he dilute Bluth's films? This problem worsened during post-production of The Land Before Time. The executives at Universal Pictures were horrified at Bluth's vision for his dinosaur film, an often-dark story with stretches that would scare kids. You know, like a Walt Disney film!

Universal, with Spielberg taking their orders, had Bluth cut over 10 minutes of completed, "psychologically-scarring" animation from his movie (I saw the storyboards for the supposedly traumatizing extended T-rex chase, it's nothing compared to Pleasure Island), leaving it a rather short endeavor. Bluth left Spielberg and Universal due to these creative differences, but he didn't see sunny fields on the other side... Bluth returned to MGM/United Artists to do All Dogs Go to Heaven. The executives had him cut a lot of stuff that would've gotten the film a PG rating. (Kids, having that rating was a big deal back in the late 80s!) So as early as 1986 or so, animation absolutely "had" to be for kids. The 1960s mindset still prevailed in many ways.

Bluth couldn't escape that. All Dogs Go to Heaven had to be a kids' film, and that was that. All Dogs Go to Heaven got mixed reviews and did so-so business at the box office in fall 1989, it didn't quite resonate with audiences who were getting their fill from the Disney musical about the underwater redhead that was playing in the theater next door. If it had been a Spielberg/Universal co-production, maybe it would've performed better?


After that, Bluth's hit streak was over. His next feature, Rock-a-Doodle, was also focus-grouped into kiddie blandness, losing its rougher elements so that it could get a G rating, but really... That feature needed much more time to stew, for it was much weaker than anything he had put out beforehand. Bluth had that thing belted out in about a year or so, and it shows. External issues held up the American release, which didn't occur until spring 1992, nearly two years after the film was completed! Rock-a-Doodle, released by The Samuel Goldwyn Co with little fanfare, was a critical and commercial dud. Future Bluth features were also meddled with, and they flopped as well: Thumbelina, A Troll in Central Park (both released by WB), and The Pebble and the Penguin (released by MGM). Bluth even Alan Smithee'd on The Pebble and the Penguin, a lot of which ended up being outsourced.

It did not go well for Bluth at all, it did not go well for Warner Bros. Everyone else?

Fox? Once Upon a Forest? FernGully: The Last Rainforest? The Pagemaster? Quite the dent they made with those features. Paramount released the PG-13 feature Bebe's Kids, but it wasn't very good, and it ended up flopping. Paramount has also botched Ralph Bakshi's intended comeback, Cool World. It too failed, and got terrible reception. No boom for adult feature animation came about.


Universal struggled after losing Bluth in the late 1980s. Steven Spielberg had set up Amblimation, but they too tripped out the door. An American Tail: Fievel Goes West - which Bluth was not involved with - didn't add up, audiences didn't return to see the little mouse they liked in 1986. In the theater next door was Beauty and the Beast, making matters much worse. Perhaps if Bluth did An American Tail 2, and had it released earlier, maybe it would've done better. Maybe not. We're Back! A Dinosaur's Story also had its tough stuff censored out, and it limped into and out of theaters. Big flop. Balto, despite its strengths, also flopped. They couldn't crack it, Spielberg hadn't scored an animated hit after the runaway success of Who Framed Roger Rabbit. The features didn't resonate with audiences, they lacked the adult appeal that Disney's films had. (More proof that "children dragging their parents to theaters" aren't what make animated movies big.)

MGM/UA coasted after All Dogs Go To Heaven, okaying a Bluth-less sequel that went belly-up alongside a Bluth film (The Pebble and the Penguin) that also went belly-up.

New Line's Disney carbon copy The Swan Princess also didn't do a thing, Disney also re-released The Lion King the same weekend it opened to knock it down a peg. Turner would later start an animation studio and make Cats Don't Dance, WB dumped it when acquiring Turner. A victim of a transition.

Hemdale botched a then 3-years-old Japanese animated Windsor McCay adaptation Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland (and had about 10 minutes cut from it), and also dumped a then 2-year-old Hungarian feature called The Princess and the Goblin.


20th Century Fox reloaded its animation plan, started a studio, and got Don Bluth into the fold, but their first feature together was just another Disney-like film, Anastasia. It just did okay at the box office, Fox then haphazardly drove Fox Animation into a wall with Titan A.E. in mid-2000. WB scored a big hit with Space Jam, a live-action/animation hybrid featuring the Looney Tunes that has time capsule written all over it. Until now, you never really heard anything positive about this movie, but since 90s nostalgia is in full swing... Yeah, Space Jam is currently iconic and a cinematic treasure. (Blah!) Big when it was released, certainly, most moviegoers who weren't kids back then didn't return to it.

Prior to 1998, the animation scene outside of Disney was mostly shambles... DreamWorks came in and changed things up a bit, Pixar was flying high with the release of their second feature. WB still ate dirt, releasing the pitiful Quest for Camelot. In 1999, they completely mishandled The Iron Giant (perhaps the best animated film of the 90s as a whole) and also released the terrible The King and I.

If you think about it, Warner Bros. were the ones who really messed up the most... The Iron Giant and Batman: Mask of the Phantasm not given the backing they needed, ruining opportunities with Bluth, The Thief and the Cobbler's unfortunate fate... Yeah, they really, really bungled things.

1999 was also Pixar's year. Pixar made everyone bow down when they released Toy Story 2, a great and successful animated movie sequel. Pokemon the First Movie benefitted from the American Pokemon craze of the late 90s. I was there, were you? Most Americans I know (aka non-fans, "normies," people who aren't in on this stuff) have no idea that Pokemon continues to be a successful franchise, and were utterly confused when Pokemon Go! came about last year. None of the movie sequels made anywhere near as much on American soil.

On the bright side, the underground anime movement gained more traction because of home video. We started seeing more releases of Japanese animated features, even if they were limited. More anime came to television, chiefly on Cartoon Network's Toonami block.

So what about Disney... Did they rule the 90s all the way through? Were they unstoppable?

Well...

For the uninitiated, from left to right: Peter Schneider,
Roy E. Disney, and Jeffrey Katzenberg.

#3. Disney Weren't Even At Their Best During This Era...

Disney had problems, too...

It may seem hard to swallow, but even the acclaimed Disney Renaissance films fall short in my opinion. I'm sure somebody is sharpening a pitchfork right now...

I'd actually argue that problems were already in place by the time Beauty and the Beast was deep in production: Around mid-1990. Even beforehand. Then-Chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg infamously saw little value in animation, as he and Michael Eisner at one point intended to scrap feature animation altogether after the flopping of The Black Cauldron. The Great Mouse Detective saw budget cuts and a stupid re-titling. Katzenberg made it clear in interviews that Disney animation was and should only be for children, or at least should be for children first and foremost... Spitting in the face of Walt Disney, negating everything the man fought for. But Katzenberg was a boomer, and like most boomers he probably was conditioned to "outgrow" cartoons when he was a preteen in the early 1960s, so it's no surprise that he saw so little in the medium.

The Little Mermaid's production is infamous. Katzenberg wanted to cut 'Part of Your World' from the film, because all the 8-year-olds at a test screening got bored and walked around the auditorium. Master animator Glen Keane fought Katzenberg, he thankfully won. Katzenberg even warned the studio that The Little Mermaid could've underperformed, because it was about a female character and was "girly." Funny how that attitude came back some 20 years later...

So what happened next?

Katzenberg had left the next feature, The Rescuers Down Under, to die. The Rescuers Down Under was an action-adventure sequel to the studio's 1977 hit The Rescuers. It had no songs, no sweeping romance (sure, Bernard throughout the movie attempts to propose to Bianca, but it's not like Little Mermaid or Beauty and the Beast), it was a fun breezy adventure. Why did Katzenberg kill it? The opening weekend numbers weren't the greatest. He cut the legs right off of it, pulling all the marketing, the film ultimately underperformed and ensured that no features like it would ever be made again at Disney Animation.

Enter Beauty and the Beast...


With Beauty and the Beast, Disney Feature Animation planned on making what was essentially a new version of the 1946 Jean Cocteau Beauty and the Beast film. It wasn't going to be like The Little Mermaid, but then-chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg - in typical fashion - razored right into the story treatment and didn't hesitate to say how much he disliked it. Katzenberg had Beauty and the Beast retooled into a Little Mermaid-esque musical comedy. Howard Ashman and Alan Menken came back to do the songs, the storyline and structure were very similar to the 1989 film... So with that and the abandoning of The Rescuers Down Under, the makings of "the Disney formula" were already planted.

Beauty and the Beast was acclaimed, and truthfully, it was a very strong movie that was relentlessly entertaining. Warts and all, from its rushed animation to its script hiccups, Beauty and the Beast is just a knock-out feel-good picture. It didn't matter that it was essentially The Little Mermaid in 18th century France with some minor differences, people dug it fierce, and still do. Disney aggressively pushed for a Best Picture nomination, by running a work-in-progress version of the movie at the New York Film Festival prior to its release. They really had faith in it! Perhaps a little too much faith...


But really... A lot of those adult audiences who raved about it, all those critics... They were people who knew nothing about animation nor had much respect for early Disney animated features. They were cheering on a feature that was good, certainly better than most of the films made after Walt's passing, but it was not the high mark of excellence. You would've thought that it was the first "great" animated feature, and the Oscar nomination solidified that.

The Little Mermaid, to me, is certainly much better and much more consistent. Beauty and the Beast, good as it is, is a country mile from Walt's early films, which were supposedly simplistic and childish compared to it. Beauty and the Beast was the "prestige picture," Disney Feature Animation was finally making high art as opposed to the baby movies they had made beforehand. Disney executives and pundits encouraged this wrongheaded attitude, an attitude that persists today: "Disney Animation was making simplistic children's movies up until the Renaissance."

Beauty and the Beast is a very good film, but its success inadvertently caused long-term problems.


Jeffrey Katzenberg (who left the company in fall 1994) and the Disney brass swore by the formula. Each new feature had to be a variation on Beauty and the Beast/The Little Mermaid. You can definitely see this in Aladdin and The Lion King, but both of those films are good despite their formulaic elements. The big songs (the love ballad, the showstopper song, the villain/climactic moment song), the comic relief, the love stories... Both of those films have great characters and overall solid storytelling, the former suffering from uneven pacing and jokes that would become dated in a few years, the latter having script issues and tonal problems. When this formula was applied to American history (Pocahontas) and genuinely dark novels (The Hunchback of Notre Dame), that's when the holes burst in the dam.

What could've been? What if Katzenberg didn't carelessly torpedo The Rescuers Down Under? What if pictures like those - that didn't follow the Little Mermaid formula - were made and gave the slate some much-needed storytelling variety? Instead of Pocahontas following The Lion King, imagine Chris Sanders taking the weird alien he sketched in 1985 and made it into a mid-1990s Lilo & Stitch! Imagine if THAT had followed up The Lion King! Or something similar! What if Katzenberg and Eisner didn't get so high on the "prestige picture" fumes following the success of Beauty and the Beast? Ron Clements had griped one time to Tad Stones about the executives pushing Disney Feature Animation into "Miramax" territory...

What Ron said was that the whole line of features that they were talking about like Pocahontas, Hunchback of Notre Dame, Aida (the opera that eventually premiered as a Broadway show instead) were about things that he and John didn’t want to work on. We are not the Miramax of animation. We kind of do what mainstream America would like to see so let’s put that kind of entertainment on the screen. Disney’s done quite well with that. It really did shock Jeffrey into realizing that he was pushing animation to an Art House formula. He started asking, ‘Who is the audience for this?’

Katzenberg, Eisner, and most of the executives saw animation as nothing more than a kids' thing, yet they wanted to ride the wave brought on by Beauty and the Beast. We got films that didn't know whether they wanted to be more adult dramas or films made to sell Happy Meals. Then after that, the focus on kids remained. Even after getting adult audiences into the theaters with movies like Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin (not to mention Who Framed Roger Rabbit), these executives still made sure these movies had to be for kids first and foremost. You know, never mind that Walt Disney fought to get animation to higher places, even putting his financial situation on the line to get things accomplished, never mind that Walt insisted he wasn't making "children's films." That integrity completely died with him in 1966. This meant that shoehorned comic relief, toilet humor, cutesy sidekicks, and the like absolutely had to be in these films. Gotta keep those bored 8-year-olds who got up and walked around during The Little Mermaid's 'Part of Your World' sequence during a test screening interested, ya know?


Pixar, on the other hand, kept Walt's ideals alive, the idea that animation didn't have to be a "kids first!" thing... and that's why they succeeded where Disney failed. It had nothing to do with snazzy computer-generated imagery. Toy Story and its sequel, along with A Bug's Life, made numbers the other studios craved. Their films appealed to both adults and kids without putting one over the other. Disney continued to push this "kids first!" mentality, while Pixar simply worked on making movies they - a studio full of adults - would want to see themselves. DreamWorks - which Katzenberg formed right after leaving Disney - went the other direction, attempting to appeal to adults by making "edgy" films that ultimately didn't quite make much of a stir. Antz and The Prince of Egypt did fine, but they were no Toy Story. The Road to El Dorado flopped, Aardman's Chicken Run - a picture much closer in spirit to Pixar's smart films than DreamWorks' tryhard, edgy films - was something of a hit.

I mean, rewatch the making of Toy Story specials (whether you're watching The Pixar Story or the Blu-ray special features of the first movie)... Notice how John Lasseter and all of them emphasize that they had a special list of don'ts when developing the film? They specifically didn't want a Renaissance Disney movie, and why do you think that is? Toy Story entered development in 1991, when Beauty and the Beast was nearing completion. They knew then. They knew the formula would wear thin, and it did in less than five years. They avoided that altogether and made something that seemed new in 1995: A buddy comedy with no song-and-dance musical numbers (Randy Newman's songs are sung offscreen, not dissimilar to the use of songs in Dumbo and Bambi) or silly annoying sidekicks or even big bad villains. Sid is a kid who mutates toys, he's unaware that they are sentient. It makes him an antagonist, sure, but not a "bad guy" villain in the vein of Scar or Jafar. Perhaps this is partially why some people have problems with the underrated A Bug's Life, the antagonist of that movie is a "bad guy." (Though they are much more nuanced if you ask me.) No Disney animated feature released after The Lion King made Toy Story numbers in North America. ($191 million.) Not until the release of Tangled in 2010! That's telling, no?

It wasn't "Disney wasn't capable," they were... That studio full of extremely talented people was being run by folks who didn't give two craps about animation. This problem persisted, and things got very ugly in the early aughts. A studio like Disney Animation should never turn out something as insulting as Home on the Range. Eisner had to be ousted by that point, no two ways about it. He was finally forced to step down in 2005.

Walt Disney Animation Studios is in a good state right now, some ten years after John Lasseter turned Meet The Robinsons around and made it into a good, if not flawed feature. Lasseter and his posse just want the studio to make movies, not "kiddie things." They leave that to the consumer products people and everyone else, they thankfully have little say in the making of these things. Not every movie is a repeat of Tangled, instead we get experiments like Wreck-It Ralph, Big Hero 6, and Zootopia. I bet Gigantic was halted because it would've been released right after Frozen 2, then you would've had two similar movies back-to-back. I think they're well aware of what the problem was in the late 90s/early aughts. The comfort food-like movies such as Frozen and Moana will come every once in a while, instead of being the studio's only kind of offering. Smart.

In fact, I'd argue they're doing better now than they ever did in a post-Walt world. While the Renaissance had some nice visual variety (not to mention, traditional animation) and some upsides the modern era lacks, I think the current crop of features - for the most part - respect the audience and just tell very good stories without having to bend over backwards. 90s Disney would've never touched something like Wreck-It Ralph or Zootopia, early aughts Disney would've made them into garbage. Lasseter's background is in animation. Say what you will about the man, but he at least "gets" animation. More so than Jeffrey Katzenberg, Michael Eisner, David Stainton, and just about everyone else who ran the show since 1967 ever did.

The problem with the studio in the post-Walt years is this... It's not the filmmakers, it's the people running the show. All of the directors, writers, and animators on the Renaissance films were and are insanely talented people. This is true of most studios. You can still see their magic in even the worst Renaissance-era features (Pocahontas), so that definitely does mean something. Animation needs to be backed by people who care, and I think the 90s sort of brought in an age of executive-run animation that relies on formula and kids. How much farther did we really get from the animation scene of the 1960s and 1970s?

90s Disney pushed for kids, other studios focused on kids, lots of studios nowadays are very kid-centric. Everything has to be a faaaaaaamily picktcha! Though animation has been pigeonholed as a kids' medium (or just an inferior form of filmmaking) since the 1960s, I'd say the 90s solidified the whole "Yeah, it can be for adults... But it's gotta be for kids as well" attitude. It's a problem we're still dealing with in the features industry, not so much elsewhere. American TV animation was perhaps all set once The Simpsons came out, but American feature animation has yet to see a genuinely adult work that puts an end to this conventional wisdom.

So a lot of good came from the 1990s, but also a lot of not-so-good... Carry on.

6 comments:

  1. *Sigh* If only the other studios knew animation wasn't just for kids, had the same adult appeal as Disney's movies, and most of all, didn't try to imitate Disney. Then maybe they wouldn't have killed 2D theatrical animation in the first place!

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  2. The real problem as to why non-Disney animated films failed was because they were run by people and studio heads who didn't understand why the great animated films, Disney or otherwise, worked because they devote a lot of time to story and characters (the most important parts of a movie), not a formula of how animated films should go. It doesn't just apply to the 90s, several animation studios today stick to a formula of how animated films work, and that leads to their downfall. Thankfully, we have Disney and Pixar who know how great stories and memorable characters are principal when it comes to filmmaking, so those are the animated films we should focus on.

    Also, while the 90s had some weak animated products, I think the reason people say it's the best animation era is because most of the animated products were very strong. So, they can easily ignore the weak parts and direct their attention to the parts that deserve it (which there's a lot of).

    As for Disney, you have your points about how their early big hits aren't flawless. As for me, I'll always love them, particularly Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and Lion King, and keep them in my top 10. I think the reason people don't think about them the way you do is because the story and characters work so well. They do repeat the same formula as The Little Mermaid (which was even parodied in an Animaniacs cartoon), but I think many people, myself included, don't have a problem with it because the formula fits the tone so well (though Lion King is admittedly debatable. I can't really say the formula fits well for serious stories with heavy subject matter like Pocahontas and Hunchback of Notre Dame, which is easily what led to the downfall of Disney's 90s fame. It was all because the executives running the studio felt the formula could work with everything (when it couldn't) and the filmmakers couldn't make the formula work very well (the biggest example being how the Hunchback gargoyles don't mesh well with the serious environment of the film at all). It's good to know that Disney's in a more creator-driven era nowadays, so there's more variety to storytelling, and the current decade will have plenty of great animated films to remember it by.

    ReplyDelete
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    1. 1. I thought I made that clear throughout the piece, but yeah... Studios run by people who didn't give two craps about the medium (just kids' stuff!) and thought they could make successes by merely imitating what was working elsewhere. That was the problem, and it continues today. I'm not sure if you've read it, but I made a sort of "What will the 2020s be like?" post where I talk about how this decade, it's Minions-y/formula stuff, and last decade it was 'Shrek' wannabes. Now I think animation has been Minion-ized, or kept in a safe zone.

      2. That's about right. The strong is so strong, it helps them gloss over the bad stuff... That, and nostalgia-goggles. People my age tend to act is if everything from the 90s is rolled gold.

      3. Well, it is true that 'Beauty and the Beast,' 'Aladdin,' and 'The Lion King' are relentlessly entertaining films with very resonating stories. I may have issues with all three, but when I watch them, I brush them aside because the great stuff is, again, great! BATB, Aladdin, and TLK are very good films. My main beef is that they're often called the all-time greatest animated films ever (have these people seen any other great non-Disney films out there?), or the "first great" Disney movies. They weren't the first Disney animated movies to reach adults, or do these great new experimental things. Although, admittedly I'm a real Walt snob - for me the first five features are still the gold standard and few films released afterwards by the studio have lived up to them. But I understand that's a totally unpopular opinion, but I'm all about unpopular opinions anyways!

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    2. Well, even if animated films in the next decade try too hard to be like Minions, I'm almost certain there will always be great animated works from studios where the films are creator-driven instead of executive-driven. I believe that Disney and Pixar are creator-driven, and nothing indicates that they won't stay that way. Any film that copies Minions can easily be ignored since they will clearly NOT endure for all time.

      Also, maybe the reason people say the 90s Disney films are the "first great" ones is because most people only take the time to watch films that are modern and from their time. They probably write off older films because they're from long ago and don't think they're worth looking into. If they did look into them with an open-mind, they'd probably realize they're stronger than they typically give them credit for. That doesn't mean they'll like them the way you like them, but there's a good chance they'd feel differently about animation. Still, them only focusing on the currently-released animated films is problematic, but really one thing to be expected from human nature. Fortunately, there will always be passionate animation fans like us and many others in this world.

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    3. Great works will continue to happen, as long as there's a Lasseter-run WDAS and Pixar, alongside studios like LAIKA and such. I was merely commenting on what the imitators and up-and-comers are and have been doing. (Remember that rush of CG features in 2006-2007 that tried to ape the Shrek/DreamWorks stuff?)

      Agreed on the last part, but it's even more problematic when "writers" and supposed film experts write off any pre-1989 animated feature. Casual moviegoers I can understand, but I expect better of people who often write about films. You wouldn't say "Live-action films didn't get good until when I came of age. All those older films were just ok."

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  3. How come you didn’t mention the film adaptations of Beavis and Butthead, Rugrats and South Park?

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