The art of animation has fascinated me for as long as I can remember. As a child, my love of animation was purely surface level, but my formative years were spent developing a deep appreciation for the animation process, the creative minds behind said process, and the history of the medium as a whole, and the most interesting facet of animation history to me is the decline of the traditionally animated feature.
Traditional, or 2d, animation is what made the Walt Disney Animation Company what it is today. The production house rose to prominence with the help of projects like Steamboat Willie and the Silly Symphonies of the Golden Age of animation, all of which culminated in the 1937 release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the first feature length animated film. Disney’s history is rife with traditionally animated classics, so it should come as no surprise that they were the company most heavily affected by the industry wide shift to computer animated films.
The Disney Renaissance
The 1990’s saw Disney return to form in a way that hadn’t been seen in decades. The 1989 release of The Little Mermaid kicked off an era for the company that is known as the Disney Renaissance. In what is widely debated as being the most successful era for the company, the Renaissance era featured beloved classics such as Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Mulan and Aladdin.
Almost every film released during this time period was an absolute box office juggernaut, the only exception being 1990’s The Rescuers Down Under. Also of note is the fact that most of the films were Broadway-esque musicals, a theme that the company specifically sought to capture during development of The Little Mermaid.
The Renaissance era is also notable for having a few of its films be record breakers. Beauty and the Beast was the first ever animated film to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture. Aladdin was the highest grossing animated film of all time upon its release, but it was later surpassed by The Lion King, which is currently the highest grossing traditionally animated film, and fifth overall.
Disney was unstoppable during the Renaissance era. They once again became a dominant force in the field of animation, and created some of the most revered films in their entire catalogue. This makes the decade that would follow all the more interesting, as it is a period of stark contrast to the success that the company enjoyed during this time.
The Animation Industry: Post-Disney Renaissance
During the latter half of the Disney Renaissance of the 1990’s, a fledgling animation studio began it’s rise to prominence. 1995 saw the release of the first computer animated feature length film, Pixar’s Toy Story. Released as a joint venture with Disney themselves, Toy Story took the world by storm, and was the start to not only a lifelong relationship with Disney, but to Pixar becoming a name in the animation industry that is synonymous with quality.
Subsequent Pixar releases such as A Bug’s Life and Toy Story 2 solidified the company’s place in animation, and all three of their 1990’s films grossed higher than their Disney counterparts released in the same year. Pixar’s runaway success sparked an interest in computer animation at Disney. They had been experimenting with the technique for quite sometime, and some of Pixar’s animation tools were actually used in Beauty and the Beast, but in 2000 they would release their first computer animated film, Dinosaur.
Dinosaur was a technical marvel by the standards of the time, and is still impressive in some ways today. And while the film was a success at the box office, it didn’t quite capture the hearts and imaginations of audiences like Pixar’s films did. Making matters even worse was the surge in popularity of the company DreamWorks. Previous efforts by the company such as Antz and The Prince of Egypt were critically acclaimed, but 2001’s Shrek was a success on an entirely different level.
Disney’s efforts during the Renaissance era went largely uncontested, but in the post-Renaissance world, they had two major rivals in Pixar and DreamWorks. While these company’s films were very stylistically different, they did share one commonality in that they were completely computer animated. This marked the start of computer animation being viewed as something for all ages to enjoy, while traditional animation was looked down upon as cheap content that is suitable for children to watch after school.
Not helping the situation was the fact that the quality of Disney’s films during this time had dropped off significantly. The post-Renaissance era has some undeniable classics in Lilo & Stitch, which I would argue is just as good as any of the Renaissance films, and The Emperor’s New Groove (and Bolt, which I find to be a little underrated). There’s even a few cult classics in Treasure Planet and Atlantis: The Lost Empire. But the rest of the films from this time are mixed at best.
Brother Bear is a decent film, but Home on the Range is arguably one of the company’s worst ones. Chicken Little and Meet The Robinsons were Disney’s attempts at computer animation following Dinosaur, and these films are also somewhat of a mixed bag. Both films have cute stories, but the animation failed to match the quality found in Disney’s contemporaries. In summation, Disney’s failures during this decade were the result of their own films dipping in quality, and the rise of new technology in the industry.
The Disney Revival
Disney’s 2009 film, The Princess & The Frog, is the subject of much debate in the animation community. Thematically, it set the precedent for the Disney films that would follow it, but its box office performance was much weaker than that of its successors. So the question often comes up, should this film be considered the one that started the current era in Disney animation history, the Disney Revival, or is it a transitional film that sits squarely at the end of the post-Renaissance era?
The Princess & The Frog is an important film for a number of reasons. For one, it was Disney’s first attempt at a classic princess fairy tale since the Renaissance years. Second, it is currently the company’s last attempt at a traditionally animated feature on a large scale. The company did release a new version of Winnie The Pooh in 2011, but this film was a much smaller project than The Princess & The Frog.
In 2006, Disney officially acquired Pixar, and two of the company’s founders, Ed Catmull and John Lasseter, began overseeing both Disney and Pixar’s animated features. Disney had previously stated that Home on the Range would be their last traditionally animated film, but Catmull and Lasseter quickly revoked this decision, and decided to move forward with production of The Princess & The Frog. Many key writers and animators from the company’s history were brought back for the project, and the film was seen as a major relaunch for Disney’s theatrical releases.
The Princess & The Frog was a critical darling, and although it did recoup its budget, it failed to meet the box office expectations that Disney had set for it. This was seen as the final nail in the coffin for traditional animation in a theatrical sense, and Disney hasn’t released one in a major way since then.
Box office failure aside, The Princess & The Frog was successful in at least one aspect. It showed that Disney was committed to going back to what made critics and audiences fall in love with them in the first place, the classic fairy tale. I stated before that thematically, the film set a standard for subsequent ones to follow, leading to the 2010 release of Tangled.
Both critically and financially, Tangled was a rousing success. It was the first Disney computer animated film that I personally felt lived up the standards set by Pixar, and was also noteworthy for featuring an art style that blended in elements of traditional animation, allowing the film to stand out in the crowd. The characters and environments in Tangled really do look like they were hand drawn first, and then translated to the computer.
Tangled showed that the house of mouse hadn’t lost its magic, and the other films of the Revival Era helped further proved this point. Wreck-It Ralph was a huge success, but 2013’s Frozen was an absolute titan of a film. With over one billion dollars in revenue, Frozen is the highest grossing animated film of all time, and one of the highest grossing overall. Tons and tons of Frozen merchandise can be seen on store shelves and in Disney parks to this day, and the soundtrack in particular was a cultural phenomenon.
Frozen has thus far been followed by Big Hero 6, Zootopia and Moana, with Zootopia also bringing in over one billion dollars. But the Revival era films aren’t just insanely profitable, they are considered to be some of the best films that Disney has made in years, which is why the Revival era is oftentimes referred to as the 2nd Disney Renaissance.
What impresses me the most about these films is the fact that not only are there many more competitors in the field of animation, but each of them is putting out some of the best work they’ve ever done. DreamWorks continues to be successful with Shrek sequels, Kung Fu Panda and How to Train Your Dragon, while Pixar has released classic films such as Toy Story 3, Up and Inside Out, which I consider to be one of the best animated films of all time.
Disney’s old friend Blue Sky is still around, but there are also new players like Illumination Entertainment with the Despicable Me franchise, featuring the over one billion dollar grossing Minions film, as well as Warner Animation Group with The Lego Movie and Lego Batman. Disney has never had to perform in a field this skilled or diverse before, but it is truly commendable that they have been able to not only keep pace with their contemporaries, but outperform them time and time again.
The Future Of Traditional Animation
In a time where every major animation company is utilizing computer generated animation, what is the state of traditional animation? While the style is alive and well on television, there hasn’t been a traditionally animated theatrical film since 2011, at least in a mainstream fashion. Is traditional animation still looked at as something for children, are have we finally gotten to a time where 2d and 3d animation can profitably coexist? To answer these questions, we need to take a trip just a little ways across the ocean.
In many ways, Japan is keeping the traditionally animated feature alive. Films based on popular anime such as Dragon Ball, Naruto and One Piece still perform incredibly well at Japanese box offices, while original works from Mamoru Hosoda and Studio Ghibli (whose films are published by Disney overseas) make waves worldwide.
2016’s Your Name. has been the most recent success for traditional animation, and is easily the best thing to happen to the medium in the last decade. Not only was it incredibly popular in its native country of Japan, but its national release made it the highest grossing anime film of all time, as well as one of the top ten highest grossing traditionally animated films, with the majority of the other nine being works by Disney.
Speaking of Disney, some of their recent projects show that they haven’t entirely given up on traditional animation. I stated before that Tangled featured elements of the style, but after production wrapped on that film, Disney began work on an animated short known as Paperman, a hybrid of traditional and computer generated animation.
Paperman was Disney’s first use of a new, experimental technology known as Meander. The purpose of Meander was to more accurately represent the artist’s emotions by being able to more organically create lines and curves. This technology would be used again in the 2014 short, Feast.
Disney has stated that the Meander technology isn’t yet advanced enough to produce a feature length film, but both myself and many other animation fans would absolutely love to see one sometime in the future. It’s been a few years since we’ve seen Meander in action, but I’m confident that they are still working hard on it, as well as thinking about its future applications.
A Traditional Renaissance
With the success of films like Your Name., in conjunction with Disney’s continued development of the Meander technology, I feel pretty strongly that we will see a resurgence of traditionally animated features in the coming decade. Whether we get them in the form of genuine 2d films like the aforementioned Your Name., hybrid films like Paperman or even computer generated films that are evocative of traditional ones like The Peanuts Movie, I’m extremely hopeful about the future of the medium.
Be it an enthusiastic college graduate, or John Lasseter himself, there’s no doubt in my mind that someone at one of the major production houses is thinking about bringing back the traditionally animated feature. I can only dream about what a modern take on the style by Disney would look like, and I genuinely believe that there is room for both traditional and computer generated animation to both thrive and be enjoyed.