Up, the latest computer-animated movie from Pixar Studios, opens on Friday, which means it’s a good time to ask: are we still in the middle of an animation renaissance?
Most observers agree that such a renaissance began in the late 1980s. Walt Disney Studios had virtually created the art-form of the animated feature film, in an original “golden age” that began with the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937 and continued until the 1960s.
But by the 1970s, the studio’s animation arm was a shadow of its former self, directionless after the death of founder Walt Disney in 1966 and done in by a movie-going audience that had long since moved onto other genres.
All that changed in 1985 with the arrival of a new studio chairman at Disney, Jeffrey Katzenberg, who immediately saw the potential in trying to return the studio to its former glory. Katzenberg and Disney first partnered with Steven Spielberg on 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit, an homage to the golden age of animation.
But it was The Little Mermaid, with its clever, catchy Broadway-style score and sophisticated storytelling, that truly heralded a new beginning for the medium.
In the decade that followed, the studio had an astounding run of animated critical and box office hits, including Aladdin, The Lion King, Pocahontas, Mulan, Tarzan, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Beauty and the Beast — still the only full-length animated feature film to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. (In 2001, acknowledging the break-out success of the genre, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences created an award for Best Animated Feature, but making it even more difficult for animated films to claim Best Picture nods.)
Most of these animated Disney films followed a similar formula: a plucky, but ostracized outsider must learn to “own” his or her difference into order to end up saving the kingdom, village, or savanna — all set to truly memorable showtunes.
By 2000, however, this second Disney golden era had sputtered to an ignoble end; the studio’s animated output in the 00s has consisted mostly of modest successes or outright flops — something that ironically coincided with their decision to stop producing traditionally animated films and concentrate solely on CGI. (Needless to say, this explains the studios’ much-hyped decision to return to hand-drawn animation with The Princess and the Frog, their next release, coming in December.)
But while Disney was flaming out, other studios were eagerly joining the animation fray — most notably Steve Jobs’ Pixar, which actually partnered with Disney to release the wildly acclaimed Toy Story and subsequent critical and popular hits such as Monsters, Inc, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, and Ratatouille. (After a increasingly contentious relationship in the mid-00s, Disney acquired Pixar outright in 2006).
Meanwhile, former Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg had moved on from Disney to form Dreamworks Animation, the animation wing of his much-hyped Dreamworks SKG movie partnership with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen. The studio floundered a bit until they finally hit pay-dirt with Shrek in 2001. A string of hits followed, including Over the Hedge, Ku Fu Panda, and Bee Movie.
Still another studio, Blue Sky, found success with films such as the Ice Age movies and Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who!
Meanwhile, the less said about Robert Zemeckis’ 2004 dud The Polar Express, the better; Beowulf, Zemeckis’ 2007 film that used the same mix of CGI and “performance capture” technology, was only marginally better.
Like Disney in the 90s, the two dominant studios, Pixar and Dreamworks, each have a unique sensibility for their films — though their two styles are very different from those first Disney films. Both mostly eschew Broadway-style songs, for example. Meanwhile, Pixar creates quirky characters endowed with a strong moral sense acting out classic, timeless tales, while Dreamworks’ films usually center around some version of the irreverent (and often cloying) pop-culture-spouting hipster first seen in Disney’s Alladin.
Ironically, most of the films in the animation renaissance that started with The Little Mermaid have usually been fantasy films (and only very rarely science fiction), once again proving the durability and popularity of the fantasy genre. But incredibly, despite the obvious popularity of these films with audiences, Hollywood has nonetheless maintained its virtual moratorium on live-action fantasy-themed films.
So are we still in the middle of an animation renaissance — albeit one that has evolved since the late 1980s to meet a new generation of viewers?
By one measure, there’s absolutely no doubt. The best-received animated films are frequently among the years’ highest grossers. Shrek and its two sequels have grossed over a billion dollars in the U.S. alone.
Audiences now love animated films, children and adults alike.
But how’s the quality? By this measure, it’s never been better here too: critics tend to love these animated films, at least the ones produced by Pixar and, to a lesser extent, Dreamworks. Indeed, by some measures, WALL-E was the best-reviewed film of 2008, animated or not (though, after a terrific first thirty minutes, its charms were mostly lost on this particular writer). Meanwhile, Ratatouille was one of the best-reviewed films of 2007. And with a RottenTomatoes.com rating of 100%, Up seems poised to be the best-reviewed film of this year.
And there’s absolutely no doubt that, in terms of new technologies and the resources spent on these films, the genre has never been more impressive.
So yes, the renaissance continues.
Are there any indications that it’s finally waning?
Both Pixar and Dreamworks have their tried-and-true formulas, and in Pixar’s case anyway, it usually works. But like Disney in the late 90s, there’s also a creeping sense that they’ve gone to their respective creative wells once too often. When it comes to popular entertainment created by corporations, true innovation tends to come after failure — by the television network in last place, for example. Why change the formula that’s working — and, more importantly, making fist-loads of money?
And the current slate of animated films is willfully, almost ridiculously male-centric — unlike at least the first few Disney films at the start of the animation renaissance. Female characters are currently few, and their roles needlessly peripheral and/or generic.
No renaissance lasts forever. But with no immediate signs of the quality of animated films abating, let’s enjoy this once while it lasts.
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