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Is Disney Feature Animation ripe for another revolution?

Jim Hill

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Is Disney Feature Animation ripe for another revolution?

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Next September marks the 25th anniversary of a very auspicious event in animation history.

That's when Don Bluth -- who was then a Walt Disney Productions employee -- walked about the door at the Mouse Factory. Taking Gary Goldman, John Pomeroy and 14 other animators and assistants with him.

Why did Don leave Disney? Because he was a very ambitious man who had grown tired of watching Mouse House managers continually second-guess themselves into making mediocre movies. Of corners constantly being cut.

Bluth longed for the days when Disney actually made great animated films. Sparing no expense when it came to the creation of feature length cartoons that would delight and awe audiences. When it looked like those days were gone for good (more importantly, when it appeared that Walt Disney Productions management was extremely resistant to the idea of resurrecting the "good old days" of WDFA ... when rain drops glistened, when pools of water rippled and the stories that Disney told in its animated films actually had some guts ...), Don bailed out of Burbank and started up his own studio.

Now there are people who will tell you that the Second Golden Age of Disney Feature Animation actually got underway with the November 1989 release of "The Little Mermaid." Not me. I think that the rebirth of the Mouse Factory as an animation powerhouse should be tracked back to Don Bluth's rebellion. When he told his friends and co-workers that "Disney should be doing better than this. That we shouldn't have to settle for doing things half-assed. That maybe we should go out and start our own studio."

And so they did. Which gave the Mouse a real kick in the ass. Meaning that -- for the first time in nearly 40 years -- Walt Disney Productions actually had some serious competition in the feature animation field. That's why -- when Bluth's initial effort, "The Secret of NIMH," came out in June of 1982 and was widely praised for its lush backgrounds, full animation and thrilling story -- Mouse House managers were forced to sit up and take notice. To rise to Don's challenge, so to speak.

Sure, there were some stumbles along the way. Disney's highly touted summer 1985 release, "The Black Cauldron," comes immediately to mind. Where so much time and money was wasted on trying to create cutting-edge special effects for this alleged animated epic (remind me sometime to tell you all the story of the millions the Imagineers blew through, trying to create a workable holographic sequence for "The Black Cauldron" where it was supposed to have appeared as if one of the Cauldron-born were actually coming out of the screen to menace the audience. Admittedly, this was a really intriguing idea. Too bad it was impractical. Not to mention that the holographic technology never quite worked the way the wizards of WED intended. Anyway ...) that the film's story was woefully neglected.

To my way of thinking, it wasn't until Walt Disney Pictures' July 1986 release -- "The Great Mouse Detective" -- that WDFA finally seemed to have gotten its act together again. Here was a film -- keenly crafted by the then-newbie directorial team of John Musker and Ron Clements -- that finally got the mix right. Heart, wit and thrills. Where the movie's elaborate special effects didn't overwhelm or interrupt the story. But rather -- in the film's then-ground breaking clock tower sequence -- the CGI setting actually added to that sequence's thrills.

Of course, that was back in the day when Walt Disney Feature Animation only had a handful of executives that the artists had to answer to. Nowadays ... well, to hear one WDFA vet tell it: "There's a reason that there's a sorcerer's hat on top of our building. It's the only sort of hat that would fit the dozens of pin-head executives that we have to deal with."

I won't lie to you, gang. This is a time of extreme unhappiness and upheaval at Disney Feature Animation. When studio execs -- who are positively frantic to return WDFA to its former glory days of maximum profitability -- have once again begun to continually second guess themselves. Where corners are routinely cut to keep costs down.

And -- since WDFA execs now seem genuinely reluctant to greenlight a new traditionally animated feature -- that's why many Disney Animation vets are now reportedly talking about "... pulling a Bluth." As is: a group of artists and animators deliberately breaking away from the Mouse Factory to go set up their own studio.

Of course, the key difference between 1979 and 2003 is the Mouse now has most of its animators tied up with long term contracts. That -- during the infamous animation talent bidding war that broke out between Disney and Dreamworks in the mid-1990s -- that Mickey locked up a lot of talent by signing them to extremely lengthy deals. (Never mind that -- as the box office numbers began to slide for Disney's animated features in the late 1990s -- Mouse House managers renegotiated a number of these deals. Keeping the length of the contracts the same, but significantly scaling back the compensation that Mickey was willing to pay out to his top animators.)

Which means that a lot of Disney's artists aren't actually in a position where they can act on their rebellious urges. At least not right now. But that hasn't stopped a number of them from talking about eventually going off and setting up their very own new traditional animation studio. A place that would continue to create the sort of animated film that Walt Disney Pictures seems so determined to make a part of their distant past.

That's the thing that many Disney animation vets seem to find so hard to swallow right now. That execs at WDFA just don't seem to want to make traditionally animated films anymore. That the films that the Mouse currently has in its development pipeline -- "The Snow Queen," "Chicken Little," "Rapunzel," "Fraidy Cat" et al -- projects that had initially been envisioned as being a mix of CG and traditional animation ... are now being thought of as strictly computer animated films.

Which means that -- if Disney's veteran animators (I.E. The brightest and the best at the Mouse Factory) expect to keep working for Mickey -- they have to be retrained. Which is why many of these folks are currently suffering through Maya classes. Which -- to hear one highly praised Disney vet explain it -- " ... makes me feel like I'm going from being an artist to becoming a puppeteer."

Okay. Admittedly, change is inevitable in the entertainment industry. Let's think back to the time in the late 1920s when pictures went from silent to sound and thousands of people were put out of work because they were unable or unwilling to embrace the new technology that had risen up so suddenly to dominate the industry.

That's what I keep wondering. Can some sort of parallel be drawn between what happened back in Hollywood when "The Jazz Singer" first burst on the screen and what's happening now with the animation industry? Particularly at a time when audience's tastes in animated features appears to be changing so radically. When films like "Shrek," "Monsters, Inc." and "Ice Age" are eagerly embraced by mainstream movie-goers. While more traditionally animated fare like "Atlantis: The Lost Empire" and "Treasure Planet" seem to have trouble just covering their production costs during their initial domestic release.

So Disney Feature Animation -- in order to stay competitive in this dynamically shifting marketplace -- has to change with the times ... or does it? Many Disney animation vets have suggested that -- if they weren't constantly have to deal with the lame-brained suggestions of WDFA execs (many of which seem to have next-to-no-practical experience when it comes to the production of a feature length animated film) -- that they would still be able to make movies that could connect with modern audiences. Projects that would still have some wit and edge to them.

Me personally? I don't think that it's a co-incidence that WDFA's most recent successful feature -- 2002's "Lilo & Stitch" -- was primarily produced in Orlando. Or that Disney Feature Animation's most successful film prior to "Lilo" -- 1999's "Tarzan" -- was animated mostly at the Mouse's now-defunct Parisian facility.

You see what I'm saying here? The greater the distance from Burbank (and the middle management meddling that naturally goes with being right on the main studio lot), the better the movie turns out. The less WDFA executive involvement, the higher a film's box office.

This, of course, is NOT a world view that the creative VPs at Walt Disney Feature Animation share. They believe that they actually make a valuable contribution to the production process ... like insisting that Chicken Little be changed from being a boy to a girl (to make that film's title character come across as being more sympathetic) ... or by insisting that most of the monster sequences initially proposed for "Atlantis: The Lost Empire" be cut (thereby keeping production costs down -- never mind that this one cost cutting maneuver robbed "Atlantis" of many of its more thrilling scenes -- which made it that much more difficult for this Disney animated feature to be marketed to its alleged core audience: pre-teen boys).

It's this constant interference by WDFA execs, the sense that they're now actively being prevented from making successful traditionally animated film (so that Disney executives can justify their rush to change over their animation operation over to a totally CG affair) that currently frustrates many animation vets. Which is why -- as I mentioned at the top of this story -- a number of them are talking about "... pulling a Bluth." Going off and starting their own animation studio. Where they could create new traditionally animated films that would compete directly with Disney and -- hopefully -- eventually beat the Mouse at what used to be Mickey's game.

Is this actually going to happen? Well, it will be interesting to watch what happens over the next few years. As the long term contracts that tie many of Disney's top animators to the Mouse Factory expire. And these artists are finally free to begin charting their own courses.

Mind you, these WDFA vets may have no choice but to go off and start up their own animation studio. Given that even Dreamworks seems to be getting out of the traditional animation game. (Word has it that -- even though Dreamworks is reportedly gearing up to churn out three new animated features a year from here on in -- that no new traditionally animated films are currently in the pipeline. That this studio is reportedly waiting to see how well "Sinbad" does before it actually greenlights production of yet another traditionally animated feature.)

But perhaps these artists should take some solace in a comment that comes from a conversation I recently had with one of Disney's direct competitors: "Someone could have created the greatest animation studio that ever existed by just standing on the sidewalk outside of WDFA-Burbank and signing up all the artists and animators that Disney has let go over the past 18 months. The talent that those boneheads let walk out the door is just ... stunning."

So maybe it really is time for someone to "... pull a Bluth." To gather up this group of suddenly disenfranchised Disney artists and create a new animation studio. A place where traditional animation (an art form that even Pixar creative guru John Lasseter says that he hopes doesn't totally disappear) could continue to thrive and grow. Have a second flowering, so to speak.

Yeah, the history of feature animation is a never ending cycle of boom and bust. Right now, traditional animation seems to be on the bust side of the fence. But I can't help thinking -- given the truly impressive box office numbers that "Spirited Away" just wracked up in Japan (where this marvelous Hiyao Miyazaki movie became the highest grossing film in Japanese history, even surpassing the record ticket sales of James Cameron's "Titanic" racked up) -- that there's still a serious market out there for a traditionally animated film.

More importantly, that the real reason that the more recent traditionally animated films that Walt Disney Pictures has been turning out haven't been more successful is because studio execs won't allow the company's veteran animators to make the movies that they're actually capable of making. Even longtime Disney boosters like animation legend Glen Keane have begun complaining about studio interference. In a recent interview, Glen was quoted as saying that he's never ever seen a film that was as seriously micro-managed as "Treasure Planet" was.

So could Disney Feature Animation still be churning out successful traditionally animated features if the Mouse Factory seriously cut back on its cadre of alleged creative, continually interfering VPs? Sadly, given how firmly entrenched these executives are these days, I'm guessing that we'll never know. That -- given the current corporate culture at the Walt Disney Company (where execs constantly try to justify their enormous paychecks as well as their basically useless existence by ruthlessly cutting away at those underneath them. Which is why the staff levels at WDFA has radically shrunk over the past five years, while the number of suits that you'll find in the Disney Feature Animation's executive suite on the Burbank lot is now at an all-time high) -- it's the execs who are still managing to hang on. While artists and animation veterans are continually being shown the door.

I'm sorry if this is starting ("Starting?!") to sound like a rant. But I'm just tired of seeing talented people -- artists who actually contribute to the process -- struggling to survive. While empty suits -- people who continually waste time and money with pointless meetings where they try to justify why the Mouse keeps them on payroll -- thrive.

This is why I'm honestly encouraged to hear this talk of revolt at the Mouse House. Of animators thinking about heading for the exits, of setting up their own animation studio, of showing Disney how it's done.

Whether or not this actually ever happens ... well, let's just wait and see, shall we?

But I just thought you should know that all is really not well inside of the Mouse Factory. That 2003 is starting to look an awful lot like 1979.

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