Disney’s Lost Art of Animation

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Disney World has been making itself fairly car hostile over the last year or so and surprisingly it has nothing to do with the eco-freaks that infest it’s board of directors now.

It’s never been too hard to get around the place without an automobile.  The monorails can take you between the Magic Kingdom resorts, the Magic Kingdom itself and EPCOT. If you prefer the lake side luxury resorts, you can hop a Friendship and be motored across the water to World Showcase entrance or cruise down to Hollywood studios.

Which takes care of the people that are willing to dump $10,000 on a week’s vacation.  However, if you were at the “Value Resorts” it was either take the buses Disney provides or bring a car along.

The advantages of bringing a car are obvious. You don’t have to eat all of your meals at hyper expensive park restaurants for one. You can visit some of Orlando’s other attractions for another.  Like Sea World for instance or the downtown Orlando night clubs and of course it wouldn’t be complete without a trip to Universal Studios and Wizarding World of Harry Potter.  Walk along Diagon-Alley.  Shop for drastically expensive magic wands and wizard robes. Have a Butter beer and just spend, spend, spend…somewhere other than Disney World. In truth people have now been going down to Orlando just for the Wizarding World and haven’t set foot inside Disney World at all.

I can picture how that sit down went.

Mickey (in a high friendly voice):  So Harry I hear your’e doing pretty well here in Orlando (ha! ha!).

Harry (smiling brightly): Yes, thank you Mickey I’ve been…

Mickey (in a high friendly voice):  Did I say, you could call me, ‘Mickey?’ (ha? ha?)

Harry (looking very nervous): Uh, sorry Mister… Uh… Mouse? But yes, the Wizarding World of…

Mickey (in a high friendly voice): Shutup. You think you can come into the town, I built up from nothing but goddamn swamp and eat my lunch? (ha! ha!) You think you can pick my pocket? (ha? ha?)   You think some English Toff School fiction ripoff can just chug on into my backyard, tell everybody what’s what and nothings gonna happen? (ha? ha?) 

I am Mickey Fucking Mouse asshole!  Bugs Bunny calls me, ‘sir’ and means it! Lord Voldemort has got nothing on me, boy!  You think I’m gonna standby for your bullshit? I am going to cut you open, fill you up with rocks and feed you to the gators that I keep as goddamn pets. Nobody fucks with the Mouse. NOBODY! (ha! ha!)

The problem is that Disney World can’t actually lock their guests inside but they can make it inconvenient to take your car.

They have instituted painfully high overnight parking fees in their resort lots. Introduced an on property uber like service called the Minnie-van.  And are about to open their new Skyliner gondolas in the fall. This appears to have been a more economical alternative to expanding their hideously costly monorail system, (due the swampy nature of the ground, each of those pylons requires it’s own pumping system).

The Skyliner system is lighter, cheaper and easier to maintain. Also and more importantly, it dictates where people can go once they are on it.

Disney-Skyliner-Map

 

As you can see from this map, the Skyliner system is designed to funnel the residents of the middle class resorts into Hollywood Studios new Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge.

And I can certainly understand why Disney is doing that.

There is nothing Disney World hates more than the words “half-day park.” Guests  aren’t going to have more than one meal. They are likely to save your money for the “real parks.” It creates problems with the flow of people at night. Worst of all, guests cut their stay short by a day. It’s all ghastly, from Disney Park’s perspective. Animal Kingdom used to be a half-day park but the addition of Pandora,  combined with it’s remote location (buses or Minnie-vans, no monorail) has now turned it into a full day trip.*

Hollywood Studios is Disney World’s other half-day park.

Although, it didn’t used to be.

Hollywood Studios was one of Michael Eisner’s ‘me too’ ideas (back when me too had a different meaning).  He was rather famous for them.  If he spotted something successful close by, he would have a Disney-fied copy made before the ink dried on the building permit.  This lead to Knott’s Berry Farm’s Studio K suddenly in competition with Disneyland’s Videopolis. Downtown Orlando clubs dealing with Pleasure Island’s overnight incursion into their bottomline.   And Universal Studios waking up to discover that Disney World’s Hollywood Studios had just opened up.

What is not well remembered at this point is that Hollywood Studios was at one time an actual working film and TV  studio. The concept was that the guest would show up to take a ride on the Tower of Terror and since they were already there anyway take about three hours worth of back-lot type studio tours. Maybe be part of the audience for the New New New Mickey Mouse Club.  Take a different tour and watch the animators creating one of the masterpieces of Disney’s 1990s Animation Renaissance.  Maybe watch the Indiana Jones stunt show. Then finish up by riding the Rocking Rollercoaster.  At that point, congratulations, you’ve killed a whole day at the Hollywood Studios.

The first problem it ran into was the inherent stupidity of setting up a back-lot in an area that is 90 degrees in October and rains every damn day around three o’clock.   Second, the talent didn’t want to move to hot ass, muggy central Florida. Third, Disney World is in the middle of a freaking gator infested swamp, expansion is expensive, so the space they had was the space they had.  It couldn’t grow to fit the needs of a production that required it.

The final nail in it’s coffin was the death of hand drawn animation. And that was the true tragedy of Hollywood Studios.

The heart of American animation stopped beating the day that shop was closed down.

What happened to 2D animation and why?

We’re going to have to take a small trip back in time to discover that one.

Everyone knows that Disney animation struggled in the Seventies and Eighties.  And everyone knows why.  The death of Walt Disney.  As usual, everyone has got it wrong.  A lot of the problems that Disney animation had can be laid at the feet of Walt Disney himself while he was still alive.   While he created some of the all time classics of animation, over the course of his life Walt’s interests and engagement would change with time.  The last animated film that held his full attention was Sleeping Beauty (1959.  After that his interest switched to live action productions.  He would check in on the animated stuff maybe once a week but that was about it.

The production quality notably slipped with 101 Dalmatians.

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The use of partial cells here is obvious. That was unheard of in a Disney animated film before then.  It reeks of budgets being tightened. Don’t get me wrong, the Sixties Animated movies weren’t bad movies they were just cheaply made.

When Walt Disney died, his company became creatively stagnant.  Everyone who tried to do something new ran into the wall of, “is that what Walt would do?”  The only projects that went forward were the ones that the company’s late founder had looked into doing at one time or another but had never pursued.  Effectively the company was rooting through Walt’s trashcan in search of inspiration.  This is something of a limiter to innovation.

After a near fatal run in with corporate raiders in the 1980s, Walt’s son-in-law was fired and Michael Eisner and company were brought on-board.

The last of fails was the Black Cauldron, which was beaten at the boxoffice by the Care Bears Movie…which had already been out for months. Black Cauldron was already pretty far along in production when the new regime took power so it’s failure really wasn’t Eisner’s fault but there is no explaining that to angry stockholders.

In a bit of desperation, Eisner and Katzenberg held the first of their famous Gong Shows. These  were big pitch meetings with all of the company’s creative types.  The two winners of that first one were Oliver and Company and some kind of version of a Hans Christian Anderson story about a fish-girl or something.

The rather underrated Oliver and Company is to my mind the beginning of the Disney Renaissance. While not as famous as the Little Mermaid, it showed a great deal of innovation and broke with a lot of long standing art practice that had once defined but were now shackling the studio’s animation department.

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These shots weren’t concepts they were used as background art in the film itself.

This is the real point of this article.

Take a good look at them again. There is an intensity to the hand drawn animated work that computer animation can’t get anywhere near.  The artist drew on his memories and how they influenced his emotions to produce these layouts.  This what Manhattan at sunrise felt like to him. There was an attempt by his heart to touch yours when he applied brush to paper to create this.  This is why hand 2D animation is superior to CGI.

Anyway, it was also the first Disney animated film to feature the songs of  Ashman and Menken, whose work would define the music of Disney Renaissance.

While I will be dragging CGI a lot here, I won’t say it doesn’t have it’s place in animation.  This was also the first of the films to use computers to aid in the production of 2D in a way that the old cell and layout system simply couldn’t.

The story was, well, indifferent.  It was just a retelling of Oliver Twist with dogs and cats but it was serviceable. It hit the right beats where it was supposed to. It did it’s job.

Oliver and Company did well enough for the company to move forward with some confidence.  This was when the crushing goal of one picture a year was set.

The first of these once a year wonders was the Little Mermaid.  That as everyone knows was the beginning of the Disney Renaissance.  While it was the first of the new Princess Movies it was also the last of the old ones.  In the old Princess Movies the conflict was always external.  It was man versus man or rather princess versus evil queen but you get my point. But after the success of the Little Mermaid this (kinda, sorta) happened:

Eisner: You animators are awesome! Little Mermaid is a boxoffice monster! What else have you got for me? The answer was that they had this terrific idea.  Treasure Island but in SPACE!

Eisner (blinking in shock at such a bad idea):  “I’ll think about it…maybe. But in the meantime, Richard Williams looks like he’s finally going to complete that movie he has been making for thirty freaking years; The Thief and the Cobbler.  Come up with your own Arabian Nights themed movie and beat that one to the boxoffice.  Make sure it has a thief in it.”

A little disappointed the animators left the Presence.

Animator 1: So what do we do?


Animator 2: Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves?  


Animator 1: Nah, too violent for a kid’s movie.  How about Aladdin?


Animator 2: Well, not too violent but Aladdin isn’t a thief either.


Animator 1: He is now.


Animator 2: Isn’t this making a thief the hero a little problematic for a Disney kid’s movie?


And the answer to this question changed everything.


Animator 1: Not if we make a him a better person by the end of the story.  Aladdin’s journey to becoming a better man is the real story here.  Everything else is incidental and in service to this goal. 


Animator 2: Brilliant!  Let’s do lunch!

 

Aladdin was where they first changed the nature of the conflict to Man versus Himself. The conflict became internal and it was all about identity.  Jaffar was a pretty good villain even if the parrot managed to be even more annoying than Robin Williams.  But the climax of the story was Aladdin’s adopting a new identity as a more noble version of himself.  Casting off the glamour of being a fake prince to become a real one. Defeating Jaffar was the Anti-climax.  Just some cleaning up that needed to be taken care of.

Aladdin cost 30 million to make and raked in about half a billion world wide which made it something of a hit.  So the Animators went back to Eisner.

Animator 1: So about Treasure Island…in SPACE!


Eisner: That still sounds kind of original.  What else is out there that you can you rip off?  Anime is starting to take off now right?  Some Japanamation kid’s thing, maybe?


Animator 2: What like Kimba the White Lion?


Eisner: Sounds perfect! Simba the Lion or whatever.  I already love it!

The theme of identity was explored more thoroughly and quite explicitly in the Lion King.  The Prince who blames himself for the death of his father the Great King and abandons his identity, to run off into the forest and live as a wastrel. Again the climax of the film isn’t defeating his uncle Scar.  It is when Simba chooses to resume his true identity.  Now as the prince as Hero and and Redeemer.  This is literally one of the oldest stories there is.  The first telling of it being the murder of the god Osiris by his brother Set and his son Horace avenging his father, then ascending his throne.

Another well known aspect of the Lion King was the fact that it was viewed as an African-American Disney movie, even if it starred Mathew Broderick and half the cast was White.  The producers made the absolutely brilliant decision to cast James Earl Jones as Mufasa. You may have trust me on this one but I assure you that every African-American Alpha Male Father in the 1990s was absolutely convinced that he was Mufasa.

Preening is very important to Lefties and at a boxoffice haul of three quarter of a billion dollars world wide, there was a lot to preen about.  The Lion King proved to them that they could both virtue signal and make a shitload of money.  Everyone was delighted with the result.

The Animators went back to their boss:


Animator 1: So about Treasure Island in…


Eisner:  No.  Look we have a really good thing going here with ethnically friendly animation,  Jim Hawkins in SPACE is not ethnically friendly because being English just ain’t ethnic.


Animator 2: Well what if we make Jim…


Eisner: Not. Ethinic.  Also see if you can make it a Princess Movie.  Beauty and the Beast raked in north of 400 million world wide.  If we make an Ethnic Princess Movie we should crack a billion, easy.

Pocahontas, made 300 million world wide so it could hardly be viewed as a failure but when you are expecting a billion it’s no reason to cheer either.

After a bit of soul searching Disney decided there was nothing wrong with their formula, it’s just that the story didn’t really give the protagonist a lot to do except be romanced by John Smith.  Yes, she was exploring her identity as a Native American Princess but she was almost a passive character in her own story.


Eisner:  Okay, we’ll try this again but this time we need a more actively heroic Princess.


Animator 1:  What’s in it for us?


Eisner (hangs head):  Make us money and I’ll green light…(sigh)…Treasure Planet.

After digging they came up with the more or less true story of Fa Mulan.

In Mulan the Disney Identity quest becomes the absolutely central MacGuffin that all other events are in service to.

Look at me

You may think you see

Who I really am

But you’ll never know me

Every day

It’s as if I play a part

Now I see

If I wear a mask

I can fool the world

But I cannot fool my heart

Who is that girl I see

Staring straight back at me?

When will my reflection show

Who I am inside?

The 1990s Disney Animation Renaissance  had been a juggernaut demolishing everything in it’s path for ten years. Then all of a sudden it was like it ran into the side of a mountain.

What happened?

Several things.

First. SJW encroachment that turned the identity quest into a plea for feminism at the expensive of the story.

The monstrous success of Pixar.  Those movies only came out once every three years but they were all huge.

Third and the saddest of all.  The lightening in a bottle triumph of Rugrats the Movie.  Indeed and truly I have no idea at all as to why some flick about toddlers and dookie jokes blew the doors off but at 100 million dollars it absolutely did.  And the production cost was a paltry 25 million.

Suddenly everybody was making crappy movie versions of 2D animated kid shows.  Spongbob, Pokémon, the Simpsons, Hey Arnold, more Rugrats movies.  Somewhere in the neighborhood of fifteen to twenty of these things flooded the market place in the early 2000s. The only thing they had going for them was brand recognition.  Why spend money on the expensive art of animation when the audiences are happy as a pig in shit to see slop like Doug’s First Movie.

Disney was no better than anyone else. In fact they were worse.

Due to Blockbuster’s abusive late fee system and the fact that it was a lot harder to pirate a DVD than it was VHS tape, there was a volcanic eruption in DVD sales in the early 2000s.  If you were likely to watch a movie more than once, it made more sense to buy it rather than rent it.

The DVD Bubble was inflated with all kinds of terrible sequels to Disney’s classics as well as their new brands.  Cinderella, Mulan, Tarzan, Sleeping Beauty, The Lion King,  Aladdin, the Hunchback and freaking Bambi,** all got multiple, unwanted and cheaply made straight to video sequels.   Disney blatantly prostituted the reputation of properties they had once held dear and had had the sense to dole out with an eye dropper in very rare re-releases.

With all of that garbage being flung everywhere,  the reputation of 2D animation went south with the typical American family.  The Disney Renaissance ended with the box-office failure of Home on the Range.  Nobody went to see it because the trailers made it look like cheap-ass DVD crap.  That was how everyone responded to it.

In the mean time Pixar had developed a reputation that was based on the quality of their stories and more importantly the infrequency with which you got to see them.  They only came out once every three years and they never made sequels.

The writing was on the wall, the future was computer animation.  The 2D animation department at Hollywood Studios was shuttered and Disney moved into 3D computer animation.

But here’s the really sad thing.  2D animation has a timeless quality to it that 3D simply does not.  Take a look at Toy Story or The Incredibles, today.  While cutting edge in it’s day, the CG is so badly dated that it takes you right out of the story.

incwater

That doesn’t happen with Sleeping Beauty.

Sleeping-Beauty-at-60

There was one abortive attempt to revive 2D with the Princess and the Frog.  I’ll give Disney credit, they did try to keep the home fires burning with that one.  But sadly American attitudes at that time still equated 2D animation with cheap straight to DVD rubbish.

However, I think there is hope for the future.  The Japanese film Your Name grossed $300 million worldwide last year.  Even though it couldn’t get a distribution deal in the U.S. When that godawful CGI Lion King remake*** crashes and burns a company as greedy as Disney is bound to look around and see what’s actually making money.

*In case you were wondering. Taking a car is massively inconvenient because the lot is so huge that after you park, you have to wait for a tram to transport you from the parking lot to the front gate. Easier to take the bus.

** It pains me to admit it but that last one was actually good.

***A film that looks so awful, it merits it’s own seperate post.

8 thoughts on “Disney’s Lost Art of Animation

    1. They just really tried with that one. The others were clearly sausage being ground out as face as possible. But Bambi 2 was nothing short of reverential to the material.

      It took place during that period where Bambi is being raised by his father after his mother died. Patrick Stewart was playing the Great Prince of the Forest. If you can find that one it’s still worth a look.

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  1. The “live-action” remakes are blatant and creatively bankrupt attempts to cash in on millennial nostalgia. The sad thing is that it’s working! MrsUNIVAC absolutely loved the Beauty and the Beast one, and is unreasonably stoked for Aladdin and The Lion King. She gets very mad whenever I point out that it’s as “live-action” as a Pixar movie, or that I refuse to watch them because they’re pointless. It’ll be interesting to see what they end up doing once they’re finished mining the early ’90s Renaissance films. A live-action Black Cauldron might actually be pretty awesome.

    Remakes suck as a concept in general anyway. Is there ANY remake which is superior to its inspiration? The only ones I can think of off the top of my head are The Thing (1982) and Little Shop of Horrors (1986, the real version with the original off-Broadway ending).

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  2. Brings back some memories. We made our only trip to Disney World in the early ’90s, and had a BW sketch finished and autographed by one of the old-school animators. He just had the look of serving his last years and retiring far away from Mouse Central. The impression I got from him was that computer animation was the future, not … us. “Beauty and the Beast” was an epic example of using Silicon Graphics to generate pixels, but the tale told was cold and distant.

    NOT planning to see any of the live action versions. The Sinbad movies (Ray Harryhausen stop-action animation) had better acting and characters. Mr. UNIVAC, the original “Little Shop of Horrors” was a perfectly acceptable and dreadful B&W B- movie. Where else can you see Jack Nicholson as a young supporting actor?

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  3. Hey now…I never said that the original was BAD. I’ve never seen it, but I’ll go out on a limb and guess that it doesn’t feature fun catchy music or amazing puppet SFX which still hold up to this day.

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    1. Ouch! Your point, sir. The B&W original was straight Roger Corman drama, no music and limited FX. It delivered so straight, bad, and tense that it was an instant camp classic. I appreciate both.

      It was more fun to see young Jack before his psycho claims to fame. Like finding Clint Eastwoo as a hapless lab tech in “Revenge of the Creature from the Black Lagoon”, or who appears to be a young Lee van Cleef with a small, key role in “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms.” Or James Arness as The Thing.

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  4. Disney MGM Studios was amazing in 1992, but that was before Disney World was turned into “The Disney Store w/rides”.

    Cast members were supposedly walking around, askimg guests for their autographs in the “Hollywood and Vine” section. I never saw that happen, but my brother and I were watching some cast members playing cards, with three of them flagrantly cheating a fourth cast member in a ridiculous manner. Just then, two cast members–one dressed as a Keystone cop and chasing the other one dressed as a criminal–were racing by. My brother yelled at the cop, who turned and angrily yelled, “What?”

    “I think they’re cheating this guy at cards.”

    “Oh, really?” The “cop” moseys over and asks, “Are you cheating this guy–”

    They mumble some answer.

    “–without giving me my cut?”

    “Oh, right!” They hand him some of the money, and he walks off.”

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