Tuesday, January 14, 2003

Some Thoughts on Animated Movies of the Last 15 Years

Here we have an article in the Los Angeles Times about recent animated movies, in the context of which will be nominated for and which will win the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature of 2002. This is only the second year in which this particular award has been made, which is in some ways quite surprising, given the large number of memorable animated films that have been released over the last 15 years. No Oscar for Beauty and the Beast. No Oscar for The Lion King . No Oscar for A Bug's Life . No Oscar for Chicken Run . And going back, no Oscar for Fantasia or Snow White , either.

One reason for this can be determined simply by looking at what all those films above have in common. With the exception of the very recent Chicken Run , all of them were released by Disney. Until recently, there has been little competition in animated movies. Disney might have put out a fine movie, but coming up with a list of nominees was impossible. Withough any competition there wasn't any award. There is now competition. This year there are 17 films eligible for the Best Animated Film Oscar. (The academy has established a rule that there must be at least 8 eligible films for the Oscar to be awarded).

This is part of the story, but it isn't the whole story. To give the full details of this, it is worth going back to the early 1980s, when animation was considered to be essentially dead as a movie genre. The Disney studio was at the lowest point in its history, having fallen way behind any of the other studios on live action. The animation division still existed, but hadn't really had a proper hit since the 1960s. In 1984, Michael Eisner took over as CEO of Disney. He fairly quickly revitalised the live action division (interestingly enough, by taking the Disney name off many of Disney's films, and replacing it with "Touchstone Pictures", or "Hollywood Pictures", ssince he thought audiences were likely to associate Disney with childrens' movies). Animation though was more troubling. At that time, the animation division had been working on an intricate, darker, and more expensive animated film called The Black Cauldron , a Dungeons and Dragons type adventure. This film was not quite sure what its audience was (it was apparently aimed at teen rather than child audiences, and it was and may still be the only Disney animated film not to get a "G" rating), flopped at the box office, and at this point Eisner seriously considered shutting down Disney's animation division.

However, this didn't happen. Jeffrey Katzenberg was put in charge of animated films, and a decision was made to concentrate on light animated musicals, but animated to an extremely high standard. The invention of computers lowered the cost of traditional hand-drawn animation somewhat, as such things as storyboarding no longer had to be done by hand). The songwriting team of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken was hired to write the music. The first product of this teaming was The Little Mermaid in 1989. This was the best received animated film in decades, and was a substantial but not giant hit. However, it was the film that made it clear that the rules had changed. The reason for this was that home video had reached a saturation point. Children are different from adults in that they like to watch the same film over and over again. Therefore, while the VHS rental business was a big deal for most films, childrens films tended to be purchased rather than rented. This meant that the revenue that could be raised from a successful animated children's film was truly immense. It also meant that Disney's back catalogue was suddenly immensely valuable. Whereas Disney had traditionally rereleased its classic animated films in the cinema every ten to fifteen years (so each generation of children would hopefully get to see them) it suddenly discovered that much more money could be made by releasing them on sell-through VHS. In order to aid this type of promotion, Disney put together a list of its "Classic animated films", which was somewhat selectively put together to excluse films that might now be embarassing due to racial insensitivity ( Song of the South (1946), most notably) or due to being badly dated (Victory Through Air Power(1943), anyone?).

The Little Mermaid was followed by Beauty and the Beast (1991) and Aladdin(1992) when they followed. Beauty and the Beast was instantly recognised as a classic, and is still the only animated film ever to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Pircture, and Aladdin, while less of a classic, was extremely good fun, with voice improvisation from Robin Williams. Aladdin was the first time an animated film had grossed more than $200m in the US, and with the video sales, the profit level was astonishing. (At this point, Disney started boosting its profits still further by making cheaply made direct to video sequels to its animated features, with lower production values than the cinema releases, but which sold in huge numbers to the parents of children who had liked the original). In 1994, Disney released The Lion King which grossed more than $300m in the US and was at the time the 3rd highest grossing film (of any kind) to have been released. Given that at this time animated films typically cost significantly less to make than live action, and the children and VHS effect, and the direct to video sequel, it is possible that The Lion King was at that time the most profitable movie of all time. Disney's profits at this point also received a huge boost from being able to release their library of 60 years worth of animated movies. After four hits in quick succession, Disney's reputation for animation was at its highest point in a number of decades, and the anticipation level for its subsequent films was at an all time high. The feeling at Disney was that they could release a blockbuster film like Aladdin or The Lion King every year. Production was ramped up so that in future they could achieve this level of output.

Whereas other studios had previously been willing to largely leave the animation business to Disney, with this level of profitability it was inevitable that other studios would attempt to compete. In the end, three aditional studios set up new drawn animation departments. These were Warner Bros, 20th Century Fox, and Dreamworks. The story behind Dreamworks is one of infighting at Disney. In 1994, Frank Wells, the number 2 executive at Disney, died in a plane crash. Jeffrey Katzenberg, who considered himself responsible for the renewed success of the animation division, was overlooked for the position. Katzenberg left Disney in a huff, and joined with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen, to found the new company Dreamworks SKG. Since Katzenberg considered himself responsible for the success of Aladdin and The Lion King Dreamworks financial prospectus contained extremely optimistic projections as to the likely success of the company's animated films.

The trouble with this new level of competition is that there wasn't really enough talent to go round. A bidding war ensued for the services of talented animators. One consequence of this is that the cost of making animated films increased dramatically. Disney spent around $20m producing The Little Mermaid in 1989. The first drawn animation film from Dreamworks, The Prince of Egypt (1998) was rumoured to cost as much as $100m.

Dreamworks also signed a deal distribute feature films made by Aardman Animation, a company from Bristol in England. Working for Aardman was (and is) an animator named Nick Park, a specialist in the venerable medium of clay animation, famous in England and many other places for his Wallace and Grommit animated shorts. Park's first feature film Chicken Run was released to considerable success in 2000, and Park and Aardman look likely to produce considerable more good work for Dreamworks. It is unlikely that this indicates any general trend in clay animation, however. It just happens that Nick Park is a genius. Other people will have difficulty following, because they are not geniuses.

In any event, nobody was able to ever produce the sort of hit that Disney had had with The Lion King or Aladdin ever again, at least not for a conventional drawn animation movie. (It was ultimately achieved with computer animation, which we will get to in a moment). Disney released a succession of movies that were mostly profitable, but were disappointing. Lyricist Howard Ashman died of AIDS in 1991: the last film he worked on was Aladdin, and his absence did show subsequently. Many subsequent Disney animated looked rushed, and the animation seemed a little lacking in quality. Disney had hits: Tarzan (1999) for instance, but the anticipation one felt for a new Disney animated film in the 1990s is almost completely gone. Three of the last four Disney animated films: The Emperor's New Groove(2000), Atlantis: the Lost Empire (2001) and (particularly) Treasure Planet (2002) are likely to count as outright disappointments. (Interestingly, two of the best Disney animated films of recent years, Mulan (1998) and Lilo and Stitch (2002) were the work of a separate animation unit that Disney set up in Florida. This separate unit was set up largely so that visitors to Disney's theme parks in Florida could see animators at work, rather than for artistic reasons. Oddly, the animation unit in question has turned out to be excellent).

20th Century Fox released a version of Anastasia in the standard Disney musical style (but without the visual sophistication of the best Disney animation) in 1997, which was only moderately successful. They followed up with the animated space adventure Titan A.E. in 2000, which was supposedly aimed at a teenage male audience, but this was a disaster, Bill Mechanic, the head of 20th Century Fox, was sacked over the film, and 20th Century Fox's drawn animation operation was closed.

Warner Bros. released The Quest for Camelot in 1998, which was notably unsuccessful in both critical and commercial terms, and The Iron Giant in 1999. Adapted from a children's book by Ted Hughes, this latter film is one of the great masterpieces of animated cinema and was a critical triumph, but Warners ability to promote is was so poor that very few people saw it. Animation fans weep to this day over the film's fate. After this, Warners animation efforts faded away somewhat.

And then there is Dreamworks. Dreamworks produced an animated biblical epic The Prince of Egypt in 1998, which was quite well received and which made money, but which was not the blockbuster Jeffrey Katzenberg had hoped. This was followed up by The Road to El Dorado in 2000, which was a clear misfire, and Stallion: Spirit of Cimarron in 2002, which probably broke even. Drawn animation at Dreamworks had clearly not lived up to Jeffrey Katzenberg's hopes, but Dreamworks was still doing interesting, ambitious work in the genre in 2002.

This is the story for drawn animation, the impression is that in recent years there have been a lot of films made, but that quality has been variable. A monopoly has broken down, and perhaps as a consequence of this, the hits haven't been coming the way they did before. There is still good work, but somehow the magic is gone. It may come back, it may not. Maybe though, drawn animation is on the way out. Because, after all, we now also have computer animation.

In the early 1990s, Disney signed a deal with a company named Pixar. Pixar belonged to Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple computer, and had been producing interesting animated short films. These films had been generated entirely using computer graphics and were quite impressive. Disney thought that this new technology might have some future, and so did the deal: Pixar would produce three animated feature films and Disney would distribute them. It was a very one sided deal: Pixar made the film, and Disney funded and then released the film, and then took all the profits, basically. Pixar needed Disney much more than the reverse, and the deal reflected this. In any event, Pixar got to work, and its first feature film, Toy Story was ready to be released in late 1995. Nobody had high expectations for the film. Disney was much more interested in drawn animation. Disney did not promote it hard. Toy stores were not full of associated merchandise, even though the film lent itself perfectly to merchandising. The film was considered an experiment only. And of course it was an enormous hit. Everyone in Hollywood looked around, and pretty much acknowledged that this was the future. The academy, very smartly, awarded a Special Achievement Oscar to John Lasseter of Pixar for the film.

Copying was a difficult thing for other studios to do, however, as Pixar had the technology exclusively and making a film with the technique was a lot of effort even for them. However, 20th Century Fox, Dreamworks, Disney itself, and probably other organisations, decided that they had to follow and decided to set up their own computer animation companies or divisions. Pixar renegotiated their deal with Disney so that revenues were shared equally between the two companies, but in return the deal was lengthened by three further movies. (The deal does not include sequels, and so Toy Story 2 was produced under a separate deal. All up, Pixar will have produced seven films for Disney by the time the deal is up, probably in late 2005).

No further computer animated films were seen until 1998, when Disney and Pixar released A Bug's Life and Dreamworks subsidiary PDI released Antz , two films that, somewhat curiously, had almost identical plots. A Bug's Life was more of a children's film, and featured some of the most beautiful animation ever seen. (The DVD of the film is still a favourite of people who want to demonstrate the high quality pictures that can be achieved with DVD players and fancy modern screens). Antz was technically much cruder, but had a rather witty screenplay and a pleasantly self-deprecating voiceover from Woody Allen. Both films were successful: Antz was a moderate hit, and A Bug's Life was another major hit for Pixar. Subsequently, Pixar have followed up with Toy Story 2(1999) and Monsters Inc. (2001). All four of Pixar's films have been critical favourites, and have been absolutely state of the art in terms of animation. Disney have never been able to repeat their success of Aladdin and The Lion King in drawn animation. Pixar have managed to achieve similar success in computer animation. Disney's deal with Pixar will likely expire at the end of 2005. Disney clearly wants to renew it, but at this point Pixar doesn't seem very keen. With the decline of Disney's traditional animation, Pixar has been Disney's main source of animated hits in recent years, and now, interestingly enough, Disney needs Pixar much more than the reverse. If Pixar does renew its deal, the deal will be one sided in the opposite way to the original deal: Pixar will be receiving virtually all the money, and Disney will be largely just receiving a distribution fee. (There are various rumours of some extraordinary project that Pixar is preparing for 2006 or 2007 to celebrate their freedom from Disney).

As for other studios, Disney has developed its own internal computer animation department, from which we have presently seen one movie, Dinosaur (2000). That film was moderately successful, and we will no doubt see more from them. 20th Century Fox released its first computer animated film Ice Age in 2002. This was a very substantial success and was very encouraging for them, but in animation terms it was much cruder than what Pixar and Dreamworks/PDI have been able to produce.

Dreamworks/PDI did of course produce Shrek in 2001. This film was an absolute blockbuster: the first major animated hit to be distributed by a studio other than Disney. Shrek grossed more than $250m in the US, and it was the sort of hit that Jeffrey Katzenberg assured investors he could produce when Dreamworks was founded in the first place. The film contained various sly references to Disney animated films and Hollywood in jokes made at the expense of Michael Eisner. It was more satirical than we had seen in animated film before, but not in my mind in a very sophisticated way. Its animation was of high quality, and Dreamworks/PDI are clearly the number 2 in terms of the quality of their computer animation, but they are still not Pixar.

Which was where we were with the first Oscar to be awarded for Best Animated Feature a year ago. The Academy had finally decided that the volume of animated features being released was sufficient to justify a separate award. (There has long been an Oscar for animated short film, which led to the peculiar situation where most major animated filmmakers have won oscars, but for their student films, their demonstration films in which they test new technology, and for their fun weekend projects rather than their major work). There had also been a feeling that an Oscar for animated feature would mean that animated films would never be considered for best picture. However, as animated films never seemed to be considered for best picture anyway (that one nomination for Beauty and the Beast notwithstanding) the animation crowd decided that an animated feature Oscar would at least reward their work.

There had been two major animated hits in 2002: Monsters Inc from Disney/Pixar and Shrek from Dreamworks/PDI. One was a simple, beautifully told children's story, the other was that, but also a Hollywood satire. Both were well animated, but to be frank, Monsters Inc was simply beautiful, and Shrek was not quite at that level. My feeling is that Monsters Inc will look like a classic in ten years whereas Shrek's jokes will fall a little flat. But both are good films. The Oscar went to Shrek somewhat to my disappointment. I was also a little sad that the first Animated Feature Oscar did not go to Pixar. The company has led the field to such an extent, and has produced so much good work over the last decade that has not been rewarded with Oscars, that I thought it a little sad that the first award went to the upstarts. Still, that was the way it went.

This year, as the LA Times article suggests, there is nothing quite as good as either of the two films that fought it out last year. There has certainly been good work, and the Oscar certainly should be awarded, but there are no potentially classic films in the list. Last year, the Oscar went to Shrek . The year before it could have gone to Nick Park's Chicken Run . The year before that to Toy Story 2 . The year before that to A Bug's Life ). Although there are more animated films this year than ever before, the best of them is weaker than for some years. Which is rough on the films of those years, given that there was no Oscar for them.

Of course, there actually is a classic film on the list, Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away. (I have refrained from discussing Japanese animation in this post because it is long enough already, and I am not an expert. All I can say is that at its best, Japanese animation is magnificent, particularly that of Miyazaki). I think it is unlikely, though, that the academy will award the Oscar to a Japanese film in only its second year. I hope I am wrong, but I doubt it.

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