Last summer I wrote a blog entitled
, in which I covered the lengthy history of Pixar and its rise from computer software company to animated powerhouse and ending with its tragic fall from grace with Cars 2. As I said in that blog, a perfect run is something that once taken away can never be returned. That's the thing with perfection. One mistake is all it takes to ruin it. Pixar made a dozen incredible films before failing so utterly that it felt like a slap in the face to longtime supporters and made many question whether Disney was forcing John Lassetter to release films that weren't up to his normal standards. A year and a half later we have a considerably different animation landscape. So I thought it would be a good time to look back at the past year and a half of animation and question whether the recently released Frozen is a sign of a second Disney resurgence, or whether it was merely a fluke in the heartless cog of corporate America. But before we do that a bit of a history lesson is in order. So I'll be splitting this blog into a couple of parts. In this first part I'll detail Disney's lengthy history focusing on the facets that lead to the various peaks and dips in quality over the decades. So if you ever wanted a nice, condensed piece on Disney history here you go.
So here is the issue facing Disney Animation (both the Animated Studios portion and Pixar) today. In fact it is the same issue that has faced Disney throughout its entire existence. Quality takes time. In fact it can take a lot of time. Frozen was released this year, in 2013, somewhere around 75 years after Disney first attempted to adapt The Snow Queen to film. The challenge was so great that Disney ended up never adapting a Hand Christian Anderson novel to film in his lifetime. But it isn't only that film that saw numerous starts and stops at Disney. Rapunzel was in the works for over a decade. Jack and the Beanstock is still in production hell. Walt Disney spent years perfecting his studio's films. When something wasn't working it was cancelled. And the final product lost money far more often than it made money. Today we look at Disney's classic films like they were a sure thing, but at the time virtually all of Disney's movies were a financial disaster. Only a handful made a significant profit, and a fair number lost quite a bit of money.
Disney refused to sell out. He refused to release a film he didn't feel was up to his ridiculously high standards. People will give you varying takes on how much influence Walt the man had on the films that bear his name. The truth is that while he never animated a movie in his lifetime, and by the late 1950's spent only a small portion of his time working on animated films at all, his influence was similar to the one Steve Jobs had at Apple. He took people who were good and made them great. He would send workers home crying. He would tear apart work that most other animation studios would release. He was a perfectionist beyond measure and he held every single one of his animators up the high standards to which he held himself.
The first five films Disney made are still considered by many to be the greatest animated films of all time. Snow White, Pinocchio, Dumbo, Fantasia, and Bambi are masterworks of animation. Outside of Dumbo and Snow White they all were massive financial failures, but they were and are true pieces of art. During the 1940's Disney put his animated features on hold to make propaganda films for the US during World War 2. He kept his team's creative juices flowing through what he called package films, or films containing a series of shorts. None of these films are fondly remembered today (or remembered at all by most people) but they kept the studio afloat during the war years.
In the 1950's Disney resumed animation on a number of features. These included Cinderella, Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, and Lady and the Tramp. Of these all but Alice were both critically and commercially successful. Disney ended the decade with what is maybe the most ambitious animated film of all time, Sleeping Beauty. Made for an at the time staggering cost, and in development for more than a decade, Sleeping Beauty was Disney's magnum opus and arguably the single greatest achievement in traditional, non-computer assisted animation ever. Of course the lacking story and the sheer cost of it all meant the production nearly bankrupted the company. The final three films worked on by the man himself were One Hundred and One Dalmatians, Sword in the Stone, and The Jungle Book. And with the end of Disney's life came the 1970's and the darkest period of Disney animation. After the failure of The Aristocats, and Robin Hood, Disney released the series of shorts they had created about Winnie the Pooh as a single feature length film. The followed this with The Rescuers, which was the first financial success for the company since Disney's death. But that success was followed by The Fox and the Hound and the utterly terrible The Black Cauldron.
With those failures the then CEO of the company nearly shuttered the animation department. It took Disney's nephew Roy E Disney to save the animation division by bringing in Michael Eisner to help revitalize the company. While several mid 80's films like The Great Mouse Detective and Oliver and Company were minor successes, it was the implementation of the CAPS system designed by then fledgling computer software company Pixar that lead to Disney's second golden age. CAPS was a computer assisted technology that let Disney return to the painterly style that defined its earlier films as opposed to the 70's and 80's when the company used Xerox technology to make its films. The first film made in this style was The Little Mermaid and it brought about what is arguably Disney's greatest era. It was followed by Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King. All these films were massive critical and financial successes. But it wasn't to last. The second half of the 90's saw a decline in the critical success of the films if not their commercial popularity. Hercules, Mulan, and Tarzan were all financial successes. But starting with the new decade Disney's animation department fell apart. A string of commercial failures lead to the company shuttering most of its animation division. Duds like Atlantis the Lost Empire, Treasure Planet, Brother Bear, and Home on the Range eventually saw Disney's animation team moving from traditional 2D animation to digital CG.
But these films were unsuccessful as well. Chicken Little and Meet the Robinsons continued the studios decline. With the animation division of Disney once again in peril Roy E Disney decided to step in one last time. In an unprecedented event Roy gathered thousands of minor Disney shareholders across from a meeting of Disney's board of directors. There he lead a massive coup, ousting Eisner from the position that Roy helped him get 20 years earlier. With Eisner gone, talks occurred between Pixar and Disney. Steve Jobs, Pixar's owner at the time, agreed to sell Pixar to Disney under the condition that Ed Catmull, Pixar's president take the same position at Disney Animation, and that John Lassetter would become Disney Animation's chief creative officer. In this position Lassetter would have complete control over all creative aspects of Disney's animation division and would bypass all normal greenlighting processes. Lassetter had complete control to make whatever he wanted.
Over the next 5 years quality at Disney slowly but steadily increased. Bolt was followed by Princess and the Frog, Tangled, Winnie the Pooh and Wreck-It-Ralph. While these films weren't as good as the best work of either Disney or Pixar they were significantly better than anything Disney had put out in the previous 10 years. Last year, for the first time ever, Disney put out a film that was just as good, if not better than the film Pixar put out. Wreck-It-Ralph was a great little film but it felt a lot more like a Pixar movie than a Disney one. This year Disney finally got its groove back, putting out easily the best American animated film of the year with Frozen. In fact it put out the best American animated film since Toy Story 3 and the best animated Disney film in nearly 20 years.
And that brings us to the present. 75 years after Snow White, Disney has the potential to once again find animation glory. But questions remain about quality control. The shadow of Cars 2 still looms over the entirety of Disney animation, and the money grab that is Planes (and will be Planes 2) only rubs sand into the already festering wound. It doesn't help that Brave and Monster's University were nowhere near as good as last decade's Pixar work. Neither were bad, mind you. Brave had some astounding animation and Monster's University did a great job parodying college life in a way that was fun for the whole family. The first day of school scene especially was probably the best parody of that event I have ever seen in film. The film lacked the emotional heart that the best Pixar films have, and was a bit poorly paced. So the question is, what does the future hold? I may not have all the answers, but several recent events can shed some light on the future of this storied studio. But those events will have to wait until next time. I hope you enjoyed your Disney history lesson. With this knowledge in your head be prepared for next time when I look into the future and predict what the future will hold for Disney and Pixar.