Sad Sight at Disney Feature Animation

Discussion in 'Archived Threads 2001-2004' started by Jan Strnad, Dec 15, 2002.

  1. Jan Strnad

    Jan Strnad Screenwriter

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    I have some friends who are starting their own animation company. They needed some animation desks (huge monsters that weigh a couple hundred pounds, have built-in light boxes, hydraulics, etc.) and Disney Features was selling off a bunch of furniture due to layoffs.

    It was sad, seeing a double row of animation tables, layout tables, scene stackers and Luxo lamps with new material being hauled out of the warehouse all the time. I peeked into the warehouse and all of the animation desks, etc., reminded me of the closing shot of Raiders of the Lost Ark. In another room sat neat rows of about 250 computer monitors that I suppose will be for sale later or have already been sold to someone.

    The good news: Artists, most of them fairly young, were snatching animation desks up like crazy (at $1300 each).

    This sale doesn't mean that WDFA is going out of business, but they sure are scaling back.

    Jan
     
  2. Edwin-S

    Edwin-S Lead Actor
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    This sale doesn't mean that WDFA is going out of business, but they sure are scaling back.
    ------------------------------------------------------------
    They might as well go out of business. The animation department at Disney is likely to be reduced to the same state it was in during the seventies. In fact, I would hazard a guess that the animation department will be in even worse shape than in the seventies. At least during the seventies the animation department wasn't reduced to producing garbage movies with the number 2 behind the title. People who have been complaining about the quality of stories coming out of Disney's animation unit -Treasure Planet being the latest target- haven't begun to see the dross that is going to flow out of Disney. The previews I watched on the Lilo and Stitch DVD indicate just how bad it is going to get at WDFA. The artless lummoxes running Disney will eventually finish off the animation department once and for all. After all, there is more money to be made licensing out characters as hucksters for greasy burgers and fries.
     
  3. Jason Seaver

    Jason Seaver Lead Actor

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    Aren't the sequels being done by a different division, though - I was under the impression that they were done the TV animation guys in Toronto and/or Paris.
     
  4. Sam Davatchi

    Sam Davatchi Producer

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    I still can’t believe that they made Cinderella 2!
     
  5. MatthewA

    MatthewA Lead Actor

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    For those of you who don't know the story of Disney's last 20 years of tumult, let me summarize, so that one may put into context why the wonderful world of Disney is far less wonderful than ever (thanks to a friend of mine at MousePlanet for his info):

    The year I was born was 1983. Less than 20 years after the death of Walt, and less than 5 years after the Don Bluth and co. exodus and the studio's first forays into PG rated pictures.

    Three years earlier, they had pissed away the chance to have Steven Spielberg run the production operation because E. Cardon Walker didn't believe in "points sharing."

    The anthology series was canceled after 8 years of declining ratings, a decrease in the number of new installments, and a network switch that only temporarily helped the ratings. Only the theme parks and merchandise were the only things keeping money coming in.

    The studio was considered by everyone else to be, well, a Mickey Mouse operation. They were still working on The Black Cauldron, which they'd started in 1975 and almost no one at the studio had faith in. The ambitious "Tron" failed to generate box-office revenue (going up against E.T. did not help), and they were still reeling from financial debacles like "The Black Hole" and "The Watcher in the Woods."

    On the lighter side of things, the studio launched The Disney Channel with Westinghouse Broadcasting. It received public votes of approval from parents' groups, and even from President Reagan.

    A year later came the three events that changed the course of the studio's history. The first Touchstone movie (Splash), the Saul Steinberg fiasco (documented very well in the book "Storming the Magic Kingdom," by John Taylor which I wholly recommend), and the coming of Frank Wells, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and Michael Eisner.

    This is where the short-term gains of the studio took place, but sowed the seeds for long-term disaster.

    Eisner's cost-cutting initiatives and new plans helped increase studio revenues. Touchstone produced the hit NBC sitcom "The Golden Girls," which won 11 Emmy Awards and eventually brought in $100 million in revenues. The four-year-old home video division was given some much-needed attention; the initial home video release of "Pinocchio" was largely successful.

    He also got the studio into television animation; though this horrified the Feature Animation division, it was a financially successful venture. It was promised to the horrified FA people that Disney TV Animation would only do original characters and never, ever do low-budget animation of Walt's classic characters. He reneged on this promise with "DuckTales" in 1987.

    Touchstone became a vital profit center with films like "Ruthless People." But a revival of the anthology series failed to catch on, and limped through a four-year-run on ABC and NBC.

    1988's Who Framed Roger Rabbit? was co-produced by Steven Spielberg and the animated portions were directed by Richard Williams. Though bad buzz spread when it went wildly over budget, the film turned out to be a huge hit.

    On 60 Minutes in 1988, he told Diane Sawyer that the economics of feature animation made no sense and would never be profitable. It was a business past its prime and there were some things the company did only for tradition. But The Little Mermaid, released the following year, changed this.

    Soon, Feature Animation was producing...A SEQUEL! The Rescuers Down Under, a non-musical sequel to the successful 1977 animated picture, came in 1990 and was only moderately successful. But the very thought of FA doing a sequel was seen as pissing on Walt's grave (it was he, after all, who said "you can't top pigs with pigs," referring to the successful short cartoon The Three Little Pigs).

    Then in 1991, Mermaid co-songwriter Howard Ashman passed away from AIDS while completing Beauty and the Beast with Alan Menken. The film went on to become an immense critical and commercial hit and garnered a Best Picture nomination, an unprecedented achievement.

    Then came Aladdin, another critical and commercial smash hit. In 1994, The Lion King became the biggest animated hit to date, Disney or otherwise. But the chinks in the armor began to chafe the studio.

    Peter Schneider, head of FA, had brought in Tom Schumacher, whom he had worked with on the 1984 Summer Olympics. On Rescuers Down Under, they turned that sequel to the harmless 1977 hit into a "message" movie about animal poaching. It would foreshadow things to come.

    Frank Wells and Roy Disney initiated the development of the CAPS computer system, first used on RDU.

    Meanwhile, TV cartoons based on Mermaid and Aladdin were launched. Horrified animators could see the eventual collapse of art values and the eviction notices that would be coming for them in the long run, but were assured now that sequels would only be made for new features, never anything done while Walt was alive (though a Winnie-the-Pooh series had been done a few years earlier).

    Eisner and Katzenberg, being from New York, felt that theatre people had helped the renaissance of FA, so more Broadway types were brought in. As a result, Pocahontas and Hunchback of Notre Dame, two charming films for the entire family dealing with racism, deformity, and prostitution, came out. Though their grosses were respectable, they were short of Lion King's by a wide margin. Disney should have gotten the message; audiences preferred Little Mermaid-type animated movies to ones about heavy social issues.

    In 1994, Frank Wells was killed in a plane crash. Katzenberg wanted to be co-CEO. Eisner said no, so he left to start Dreamworks with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen.

    Box office revenues continued to drop with Hercules. Along the way came a little movie called Toy Story, the sort of movie that Disney used to make.

    Meanwhile, the at Disney Television Animation, the next boundary was ready to be crossed: Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan was optioned for a feature film to be produced by...TV animation. Now they would be making their own classics—and cheaper. It seems the heads of The Walt Disney Company were getting impatient with all the money being spent. Roy scored a major coup and got the project for Feature Animation.

    After the Movietoons feature Ducktales: The Movie in 1990 (from the French TVA division), TVA produced some successful theatrical movies, A Goofy Movie in 1995, and The Tigger Movie in 2000. The latter featured songs by the Sherman brothers, their first feature-length score for Disney since 1971's live-action/animation hybrid Bedknobs and Broomsticks. These three animated pictures were below the standards of feature animation, but they were far, far better than what TVA had been putting out to video in the form of The Return of Jafar and Little Mermaid II: Return to the Sea

    Profit margins were enormous on the direct-to-video sequels, but the brand began to erode under the toxic effect of obviously inferior material made from lookalike plots and film-seminar script templates by people who didn't care and artists half a world away. Two or three sets of directors could be fired (if they dared put forward a point-of-view) to make one empty-headed DOA video. Animation talents were now just to be looked on as crew craftspeople, any one as good as another as long as they did what they were told by the new auteur visionaries; creative executives reportable to top management. What were once marketed as handcrafted classics, now became McDonald's hamburgers, quantity over quality. Even Peter Pan in Return to Neverland paled incredibly in comparison to the original (I went only because they had an old Pluto cartoon at the beginning).

    The only remaining promise was that a sequel wouldn't be made for Snow White (which Walt had staunchly refused to do even when the Studio was tanking). It is now rumored to be in development.

    The Pixar films continued to rake in money and acclaim despite Steve Jobs' strained relationship with Eisner and the possibility he may go elsewhere once the contract is up.

    Meanwhile, Lilo and Stitch proved audiences will still go for a simple, cartoonish, emotional film. Most other FA efforts were rejected by the public. Atlantis and Treasure Planet were bigger bombs financially and critically than 1985's The Black Cauldron.

    Since 1997, the Disney Channel, once a high-quality subscription service with a diverse slate of programming for all ages, has been cheapened into a basic cable service filled with second-rate TV cartoons like "Kim Possible" and "House of Mouse," reruns of third-rate sitcoms like "Growing Pains" and "Sister, Sister," and fourth-rate original shows and movies. The stuff made in the pre-Eisner era (i.e. Wonderful World of Disney reruns and the classic short cartoons) was gradually relegated to the middle of the night before being dropped altogether this past September. TDC gloats that the number of households in which this channel is received has increased dramatically (IMO, it's because of the switch from pay-cable to basic cable).

    My opinion: Anything bad at Disney not related to the overall poor economy is Eisner's fault. He's made too many enemies. Some people won't even work for Disney because of him.

    Someone give Eisner the E-Ticket out of here before Disney goes the way of Monogram Pictures.
     
  6. Artur Meinild

    Artur Meinild Screenwriter

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    Excellent summary Matthew, I knew some of these things, but definitely not all... Let's hope Disney will someday put out more quality animation and cut down on the crappy sequels!
     
  7. Edwin-S

    Edwin-S Lead Actor
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    As a result, Pocahontas and Hunchback of Notre Dame, two charming films for the entire family dealing with racism, deformity, and prostitution, came out. Though their grosses were respectable, they were short of Lion King's by a wide margin. Disney should have gotten the message; audiences preferred Little Mermaid-type animated movies to ones about heavy social issues.
    ------------------------------------------------------------
    The summary was informative, but I have to disagree with this paragraph. How can subject matter such as racism, deformity and prostitution be made into "charming" films. The films did not do well because the makers tried to sugarcoat the subjects.
    Hunchback of Notre Dame is a perfect example of how Disneys meddling with the story resulted in the movie being lambasted by critics. The subject matter is dark and the end of the story was not a happy one. Disney injected sidekicks and a too pat, happy ending which damaged the film. Worse, it sent a message to its target audience that beauty belongs with beauty and that "unattractive" people should not stand in the way of this "law of nature". The character of the Hunchback gets reduced to the pathetic role of matchmaker. The message sent was gross.
    Disney FA keeps trying to do more adult subject matter but they do not want to lose the kid and parent audience that they have been targeting for decades. As a result of attempting to hold onto the core audience at all costs, their animated movies end up all over the map.
    Something like Hunchback of Notre Dame should have never been produced under the Disney label. If the FA unit was going to attempt to make an animated film with "dark" subject matter then they should have gone all the way to the logical end of the story. The integrity of the original story should have been maintained and the film should have been released through one of their other distribution channels, such as Touchstone.
    The Disney label is too steeped in "family values" to ever be able to successfully market a film with the kind of subject matter contained within the bookends of 'Hunchback...'. I think a well made, socially aware animated movie could succeed if it was promoted and distributed properly.
     
  8. Morgan Jolley

    Morgan Jolley Lead Actor

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    I think Disney should make a spinoff company that focuses on making some more mature animated films (to hit the group Treasure Planet was aimed at) and then make the main company focus solely on animated films for little kids.

    Just the other day, I was talking with some fellow students in French class about our favorite Disney movies (I have no idea why, High School is a strange thing). We all came to agreement that the films around the time of Aladdin and The Lion King were the best and that it was downhill from there. Disney needs to focus on what made them great decades ago, what made them great again, and what made people like Lilo & Stitch so much, and try to recreate that.
     
  9. MatthewA

    MatthewA Lead Actor

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    Edwin, I used the word "charming" with a little irony. There's no smiley for irony [​IMG] .
     
  10. Francois Caron

    Francois Caron Cinematographer

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    Great summary Matthiew! There was a lot of stuff in there that I didn't know.

    An observation. The day Pixar decides to stop making movies under the disney banner, what are the chances they'll form a partnership with Dreamworks? If any studio could bring back the old Disney magic without necessarily recycling old storylines, it has to be them. Not everything created by their animation department was a huge success, but their offerings are definitely more consistent than Disney's current crop of films.

    Unfortunately, the Disney magic seems to have died with its creator. Aside from a glimmer of hope with "The Little Mermaid" and "Beauty and The Beast", the studio never did rediscover its roots. Even their low budget live-action family films from the sixties and seventies were fun to watch. As for the current crop of successful computer animated features, Pixar deserves all the credit for that. Disney didn't have much to do with those projects aside from shoveling tons of money towards Pixar's way.
     
  11. John Kilduff

    John Kilduff Screenwriter

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    Even the voice casts for Disney's animated flicks are starting to become lower-grade.
    If we can include Pixar with Disney, then I would like to make a comparison of two competing animated fish movies' voice casts...one from Disney/Pixar and one from Dreamworks (Voice casts come from www.animated-movies.net).
    Disney's "Finding Nemo", due out next year, features voice work from Albert Brooks, Ellen DeGeneres, Willem Dafoe, Geoffrey Rush, Barry Humprhries (and his cross-dressing alter-ego Dame Edna), Allison Janney, Richard Kind, Vicki Lewis, Austin Pendleton, Erik Per Sullivan, and (inevitably) Stephen Root and John Ratzenberger (more on those two in a moment).
    Large cast, but the stars aren't exactly that major (although they are very talented).
    Let's compare this to Dreamworks' "Sharkslayer", due in 2004.
    The voice cast for this piece includes Will Smith, Angelina Jolie, Renee Zellweger, Martin Scorcese, Chris Tucker, Jack Black and Robert DeNiro.
    I count two Oscar winners compared to Pixar's one.
    I think stars are becoming more attracted to Dreamworks animated projects. A variety of celebs will be appearing in animated projects for the studio over the next several years.
    Disney, though, is relying on a lot of the same nucleus of talent for their projects (John Ratzenberger and Stephen Root for the Pixar stuff, and various other NBC sitcom stars past and present, and quite a few B-level talents for the pen-and-ink material).
    I'm more of a Dreamworks person now, sad to say. I'll relish my memories of "The Little Mermaid", "Beauty And The Beast" and "Aladdin" (THE FIRST ONES, THAT IS...none of this sequel hooey for me), but I'm into a Dreamworks thing now.
    Sincerely,
    John Kilduff...
    Flame suit on.
     
  12. Jason Seaver

    Jason Seaver Lead Actor

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  13. Chris

    Chris Lead Actor

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  14. Seth Paxton

    Seth Paxton Lead Actor

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    Yes, it's hard not to think of the Pixar team as Disney circa 1942 at this point.
    Can the Matterhorn be converted to the Buzz Lightyear Flight School ride when Pixar buys them out Disneyland in 20 years? [​IMG]
    I thought Monsters, Inc looked shakey going into it, perhaps the first letdown film. Turns out it was as solid and creative as ever.
    Still, Disney's "revival" really wasn't all that big as it turns out. Just 4 serious efforts plus Roger Rabbit, then right back where they had been it seemed. Of course I haven't seen the 2 2002 films yet, but I haven't seen a charming Disney (non-Pixar) film since Lion King.
    I think if you were just coming of the age to enjoy Disney flicks around 1990 it might feel like they were strong or back, but from somone who lived through the long abyss it really ended up feeling like a bump in the road. Sort of "oh, hey, they're back,...er, no, wait, nevermind" [​IMG]
    A real bummer.
     
  15. TerryRL

    TerryRL Producer

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    When Pixar's deal with Disney expires, Jobs will more than likely opt to have an outside studio distribute their films for a fee and a small backend package. Basically, the same sort of deals Lucasfilm inked with both Fox and Paramount in regards to the SW and Indiana Jones movies.

    Though Jobs does have an extremely strained relationship with Eisner (the whole "Toy Story 2 doesn't count toward the deal because it's a sequel" debacle certainly didn't help matters), Disney has the "inside track" at snagging those highly sought after distribution rights, according to publications such as Daily Variety, Entertainment Weekly and the Hollywood Reporter. The only other studios being mentioned at being in the running at this point are Fox and DreamWorks.
     
  16. Ray Chuang

    Ray Chuang Screenwriter

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    I have this feeling that given the Treasure Planet fiasco--and the possible fiasco of Gangs of New York (a movie loved by critics but potentially disliked by moviegoers in general)--we could see the possibility of a major uprising by members of Disney's board of directors that will force out both Michael Eisner and his hand-picked successor Robert Iger, along with Feature Animation President Thomas Schumacher before the end of February 2003.
    Disney desperately needs new leaders. I'm hoping that people with considerable experience in animation runs both Feature and TV animation after this change; I would nominated Don Hahn to run Feature Animation for starters. [​IMG]
     
  17. Chuck L

    Chuck L Screenwriter

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    With Lilo and Stitch, I believe that Disney managed to recapture some of the spirit of the old time classics. From the very beginning, by taking an original idea, they were able to make not only a solid piece of film technically but also one that had a personal feel to it that has been lacking for many years.

    I have stayed away from every other Disney film since Beauty and the Beast. Before that though, the only films that I can say that I have truly enjoyed not only for their art and story was Lady and the Tramp and the films that came before it. I agree with Francios on the assessment that the best part of the company died when Walt did.

    While I know that movies need to conform to the changes of the technical advancements, I do not feel that the most of the current product coming from the majority of animated studios, not just Disney, lack the heart of the animation of old. The computer work that encompasses about 95% of most features, leaves me cold. Lilo and Stitch, was not only effective in a wonderful story, but you could tell the art that went into the film and simply not keyboard strokes.

    NOW...I am not knocking computer animation. I am all for it. But Disney has seemed to over the years, care more about making their films hip and tech-savvy, than they have at capturing a moment.

    From the very first moment that I saw the trailer for Treasure Planet, I was moved only to not watch the film. It had no appeal. While they did take a huge risk on this film, nothing had more of a adverse effect on the revenue than the ill-inspired live action The Country Bears.

    Disney for years, and granted this was before the home entertainment industry, seemed to always have a re-issue on the big screen. It was easy money, and there is nothing, we can almost all agree, better than seeing a film the way it is meant to be presented. Granted, theaters have changed in the past decade, but I believe that what hurts Disney in the long run is their keeping their 'treasures' hidden. Roy Disney has been noted as saying that he does not believe in their censoring of films based on what the values were at the time of the movie makers. At the same time, the corporate office isn't listening to the bloodline of the company, and still insisiting on keeping one of their most reguested titles in the vault...Song of the South. They would surely have a cash flow coming in if they released the title in the states instead of letting the bootleggers get the money for the title.

    In closing, and again it doesn't even apply soley to their animation division, but to their entire home entertainment division. With the quality issues that are existing in their live action releases, their panning and 'scamming' of classic titles to appeal only the mainstream, as well as not having a true hit in the theater, it all piles up.

    My boy Stitch was a step in the right direction. The problem is, how to recapture the moment and this masterpiece. It would be nice if they could, but from what I see of upcoming product, they are hurting.
     
  18. TheLongshot

    TheLongshot Producer

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    A few comments here:

    First off, I agree that Disney trying to do dark isn't working. I know the talent at Disney would like to do more than just cutsy kiddy films, but the Disney reputation and suits will not allow that. It is the reason that we get half-assed visions like Atlantis and Treasure Planet. It would be nice if there was an alternative studio that did great classical animation, but that hasn't happened yet.

    Dreamworks has their own problem, and that's Katsenberg. He's still trying to follow his own formula at Disney with the first two films. At least Spirit was kinda daring, even if it didn't succeed.

    Interesting that Fox and Dreamworks are mentioned as canidates to inheret Pixar, since they are their primary competitors. I really don't see Dreamworks working with Pixar.

    Also, is there no love for Tarzan? I still think that was the best Disney film since The Lion King. (Just as a note, I haven't seen Lilo And Stitch yet, so I'm not bagging on that film.) Hell, they even made Rosie O'Donnell almost palatable for me.

    Jason
     
  19. Jason Seaver

    Jason Seaver Lead Actor

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  20. TerryRL

    TerryRL Producer

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    That's true, but the fact is Pixar is a goldmine. Pixar is a billion-dollar force all it's own and those distribution rights are going to be highly sought after. I don't expect Disney to lose the bidding war, but can you imagine how big a coup it would be if either Fox or DreamWorks snagged those rights?
     

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