All Animation Roads Lead Back to Walt Disney
(Author’s note: When I’m talking about animated films, I’m referring to the major family-oriented films and their respective companies. No offense intended against movies like Akira, Fritz the Cat, or Watership Down).
I received a very interesting challenge this week from a co-worker: try to come up with all fifty-two of the major animated films that Disney released. Even for a movie addict like me, it was a challenge. Between a friend and myself we managed to get the majority of old Disney movies, and all of the ones from the “Golden Age of Disney” (The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, etc.).
Then all of a sudden, we got stuck. We had a giant gap from 2001 to 2008, and we couldn’t figure it out. The problem was that it wasn’t taking films like Toy Story, Finding Nemo or The Incredibles because they weren’t Disney films. They were made by Pixar and released by Disney, similar to how Disney began releasing Studio Ghibli features a few years ago. We were having such a hard time coming up with films for those years because we hadn’t seen those movies: we’d been watching the Pixar films.
This got me to thinking about the animation industry as a whole. For many, Disney has become almost an umbrella term. Anything animated is synonymous with Disney. It’s not hard to understand why: for years, Disney was the leading animation company anywhere. They became famous for their wholesome family movies, incredible storytelling and unforgettable characters. Other studios began to form and take notice. In fact, three of the major studio heads all started by working at Disney: John Lasseter, Don Bluth, and Jeffrey Katzenberg (even Tim Burton worked for Disney as an animator and story artist way back in the day!)
Pixar is now a household name, but it wasn’t at first. Disney had been looking for new innovations into the world of animation. They were a company that prided themselves on investing in new technology. Disney artist William Garity worked with Walt Disney to invent the multi-plane camera decades earlier, which would allow them to create Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs they way that they wanted to. When Pixar Studios came along, John Lasseter and the Disney company found something they both wanted. Pixar signed a contract to make seven films for the major studio. The hope had been to boost Disney’s revenue and reputation, which was again becoming strained after their Golden Age of musical films.
Eventually, Disney realized what my friend and I realized the other day: that nobody was really looking at the animated films Disney was making at home. They were only watching the Pixar films. With the contract soon to expire and Pixar now making a big name for themselves, Disney had one of two choices: let Pixar go and compete with the newly popular studio, or buy them out. They chose the second option and promoted John Lasseter to chief creative officer, giving Walt Disney studios the chance at a new life. John Lasseter, in continuing this trend, has begun releasing the films of Studio Ghibli. Perhaps they will experience the same success that Pixar had being attached to the Disney name.
Even though you may not know him by name, it’s probable you’ve seen his work. Don Bluth, who worked on such Disney films as The Fox and the Hound, Robin Hood, and Sleeping Beauty, went on to found his own independent studio company. No doubt you’ve seen one of his films, which include All Dogs Go to Heaven, The Secret of NIMH, The Land Before Time, An American Tale, Anastasia and Titan A.E.. It’s interesting to me that his films are often mistaken for Disney films, especially Anastasia.
When Don Bluth went out on his own, he wanted to make his own kind of films. He desperately wanted to stay as far away from the traditional “Disney Princess” formula. At some point, he caved and decided to make Anastasia, the story of the lost Russian princess who must find her way before the evil Rasputin finds her first. To no one’s surprise, the Disney formula worked. The film was one of Bluth’s highest grossing movies.
Dreamworks is one of the major competitors of the Disney corporation. Gaining their own ground as a feature film studio as well as an animation studio, Dreamworks is a company with many successes. In its early days, it was responsible for the release of Antz and The Prince of Egypt. Since then, it’s found followers in its other animated films, including the Shrek series and its spin-off Puss in Boots, the Madagascar series, the Kung-Fu Panda series, Over the Hedge, Monsters vs. Aliens, and Megamind.
Here’s the interesting bit. The SKG in the company name “Dreamworks SKG,” stands for the three primary founders: Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and David Geffen. Katzenberg, the man in charge of DreamWorks animation, is no stranger to Disney. In fact, Katzenberg helped in bringing Disney back into the spotlight at one point. He was placed as Chairman of the Walt Disney Studios by Roy E. Disney, and helped Disney produce some of their biggest hits, including The Little Mermaid, The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin. Katzenberg was instrumental in much of the planning and storyboarding that went into those films, and obviously has a knack for spotting a good premise when he sees one.
With Disney again on the rise from the popularity of its Pixar films and Dreamworks gathering steam, I wonder if other studios will start to take the reins. As much as I love the films these two companies make, I’m looking forward to what Chris Meledandri, former director of 20th Century Fox Animation (Robots, Ice Age) and present founder of Illumination Entertainment (Despicable Me, The Lorax), can come up with.
Oh, and just so you know, he used to work at Disney too. It really is a small world after all.
Follow me on Twitter @THEREALATELLIX