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Posted by Raven10 (2186 posts) -

Last summer I wrote a blog entitled

The Perfect Run

, 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.

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#1 Posted by Aetheldod (3914 posts) -

I nevr knew that Disney had so many "box-office" flops , but Im more than certain that through the extended years of the existence of these films they have turned profit and more , because of video-dvd-blueray sales , tv rights and what not. I have a mixed fealing with Disney/Pixar... I love their animation quality , but friggin hate their "family oriented" ethos , that hinders experimentation into other types of themes etc. (Just like Nintendo).

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#2 Posted by Brother_PipPop (284 posts) -

Very enjoyable/informative read can't wait for the next installment!

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#3 Edited by Raven10 (2186 posts) -

@aetheldod: Yup. Disney rereleased their films in theaters every 7 years until the rise of VHS after which they rerelease their movies on home media every 7 years. That's how they stayed afloat. One of the most interesting things about Disney's history is how today we view almost all of their pre-70's films as classics today but upon their release quite a few were critically panned and commercial disasters. Probably the biggest shift has come from Alice in Wonderland. At the time it was savaged by critics and offered as proof that the story was unfilmable. Now people view the Disney version as the defacto version of the story. On the other hand, The Black Cauldron has always been considered the lowest point in Disney history and I highly doubt any film will ever overcome that travesty.

EDIT: I also thought I should mention that I think the greatest achievement of Pixar is that they are able to handle incredibly complex themes in a kid friendly format. Sure I would love some darker Pixar stuff, but one of John Lassetter's guiding principles is that Pixar's movies have to unearth some sort of emotional truth. Every Pixar film dissects some sort of person. Toy Story is about young children and their imagination. Monster's Inc. is about the working man and manages to say some very powerful things about corporations and corporate brainwashing. Finding Nemo is about new parents. The Incredibles is about middle aged men and mid-life crisises. You can go through each Pixar movie and see the type of person the film is trying to shed a light on. In a simple, kid friendly format, Pixar has managed to say more about life than most of the greatest adult filmmakers ever will.

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#4 Posted by butano (1997 posts) -

I would say Tangled was the kickstart of Disney's 3rd golden era (minus Pixar), and really got that classic Disney Princess tone with fantastic music that actually worked with their 3D animation. Wreck-It Ralph was fun, but Tangled is definitely up there with Beauty and the Beast and Sleeping Beauty.

Purchasing Pixar and promoting John Lasseter as the chief creative officer for both Pixar Studios and Disney Animation was the best move possible by Roy Disney and Bob Iger after the clusterfuck Eisner was about to pull with ending Pixar's contract.

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#5 Posted by Aetheldod (3914 posts) -

@raven10: Hey ont get me wrong I understand what you are saying (regarding to Pixar) but I still think they should venture more outside of the usual animation style of Hollywood/old Disney regardless , not saying that they should go all the way like the anime does , but you know , try stuff like Mitazaki did from time to time (by this I mean a director/studio who did something extremely kid friendly like Totoro to something really dark and heavy like Mononoke hime or Grave of the fireflies)

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#6 Posted by Raven10 (2186 posts) -

@butano: Tangled was good but I wouldn't call it Beauty and the Beast or Sleeping Beauty good. The music was classic Menken but the lyrics weren't as great as Ashman or Rice's lyrics. And the story was good for what it was, but it felt like a retread of past ground. It was a solid Disney princess movie but that is all it was. Frozen managed to be that and so much more.

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#7 Posted by kpaadet (421 posts) -

Just a fyi, its spelled Hans Christian Andersen.

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#8 Posted by GERALTITUDE (5722 posts) -

Man, amazing write up. Thanks. Very interesting.

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#9 Edited by Hunter5024 (6702 posts) -

I still really miss 2d stuff.

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#10 Posted by Humanity (16234 posts) -

@raven10: Great write-up I actually learned a lot of interesting factoids about Disney - unless you're a lunatic and made half of that up.

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#11 Edited by Cybexx (1570 posts) -

As a wrinkle to the quality control issue, The Snow Queen may have been in and out of pre-production at Disney for over a decade but its final form, Frozen, was actually animated in 9 months which is nuts when you consider the entire production time on most Disney/Pixar movies is 4 years.

Back in September I attended the Spark Animation festival in Vancouver and the final talk was from Hyrum Osmond, Supervising Animator on Frozen. At this point Disney had only released the Olaf and Sven teaser trailer and had just shown a tiny bit more than that at D23. Osmond had flown in just after the final animation work was completed and he was messaging Disney on his phone as the talk was starting to get permission to show what he had brought. A lot of the material, such as 2D animation pencil tests for the characters, had not been seen publicly.

While he was very happy with what they had accomplished, they have put in place polices for future productions to avoid crunching as hard as they had to on Frozen. It sounds like Disney got lucky that their team managed to pull the movie together so quickly and as anyone who has seen the movie can attest, the animation is stellar. Osmond claims that Big Hero 6 is looking great but adapting a Marvel superhero comic is not exactly standard fare for Disney Animation so its kind of hard to get a read from the one clip they've released of their San Francisco / Tokyo mash-up city, it is pretty at least.

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#12 Posted by DarthOrange (4178 posts) -

Add some pictures duder!

Also I loved Brother Bear.

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#13 Posted by GnaTSoL (873 posts) -

Frozen is pretty bad. New era my ass.

Horrible songs, bad story, crap evil-doers, and only funny-enough and not too comical.

I'll also add this, I don't like everything being 3-d nowadays. I thought this was a pixar movie for a while. Both studios are blending too much I think and losing anything close to unique identities.

Sorry for the negativity. I don't think frozen is for adults I guess.... You'd have to lower your standards for a film like this. OPINION.

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#14 Posted by Tireyo (6713 posts) -

This was an amazing read, and the most informative thing that I've ever read about Disney. I would actually like to read a post about Studio Ghibli (You have that Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind icon!) from you. If you already have it written, bump it please! If not, then it's alright. It'll be something for you to think about!

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#15 Edited by MegaLombax (457 posts) -

Thank you for such an informative piece. I'm very looking forward to the next installment!

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#16 Edited by EXTomar (5047 posts) -

The dirty secret is that animation like this is always expensive especially compared to "Conventional Actors" and "Conventional CG FX". The only way it seems to work is either small scale direct to video or big expensive multi-year productions that are kind of risky where even Pixar can drop it. Sometimes even the a big popular hit like Lilo and Sitch still didn't mean anything where that group was immediately shuttered after winning a bunch of awards because they were too expensive to run. A key piece of Disney's general plan is that they plan for the long haul where a movie might not make money on the release but they put it out in multiple places at multiple times for years and eventually recoup the production cost.

Side note: The way it works for Japan is the same where they HEAVILY RELY on outsourcing and cheap labor to do a ton of the work otherwise production costs would spiral out of control.

I think Frozen is good stuff. Although I'm familiar with The Snow Queen story itself, it is no worse than the modifications (or some may say butchering) of other classic stories from Disney. The interesting thing about Frozen is the structure where plays with the whole "princess genre" which Disney had a heavy hand in helping to create. It is not a "deconstruction" but it clearly knows and states the rules and convention but never bucks but in the end toys with them for a far more interesting story. Especially with the third act at "left turn" (not a twist!!) where it is hard to see the actions of the antagonist as evil at any particular point until that moment which is realistically how evil often works in the real world. And in the same vein as Adventure Time and MLP, they laid out the ground work for a bigger story if they chose to pursue it by laying out details and clues that are tangential and in the background to this story but could fit into a bigger one.

So yeah, I would totally see a followup movie that flips this story: Call it "Burning" or some other spin on "hot" and focus on Elsa saving Anna and I'd eagerly go see that. :) The point is that Disney/Pixar clearly have the technical chops where the big thing about Tangled and Frozen are their story. I feel if this is really a "third age" it is because they shifted the writing to be more interesting instead of any other piece.

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#17 Posted by Raven10 (2186 posts) -

@extomar: I'm honestly a bit torn over whether to discuss the ending in my next blog. I agree entirely with what you are saying but considering how important the ending is to the overall experience of the film I really don't want to spoil it for anybody. I'll have to see if I can write around it in some way.

@tireyo: I'm sure I've written a blog somewhere at some point about that subject. I'll probably write another one after I see The Wind Rises speaking that it is Miyazaki's final film. That studio has an incredible history and Miyazaki himself is such an interesting person.

@cybexx: The problem is when a film doesn't work out and they have to shift schedules around. They aren't going to have any movie ready next summer, for example, after the delay of The Good Dinosaur. They are in a tough spot, which is what I'll be examining next time, where financially they need to release a couple movies a year, but creatively it's not always possible or realistic to expect quality stories to be written like clockwork. That's not how creativity works.


Thank you! I hope part two lives up to your expectations.


Whoops. That was a typo on my part. My apologies.

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#18 Posted by Demoskinos (17326 posts) -

Im sort of weirded out a bit to see such a exhaustive write up about Disney's animation studio on giantbomb of all places but it was a pretty fun read.

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#19 Posted by Raven10 (2186 posts) -

@demoskinos: Well my two passions in life happen to be gaming and animated films and I enjoy writing blogs here because the community is quite supportive in general so while I try to focus my blogs on gaming, I occasionally do a blog on animation. I also find the history of Disney specifically to be very interesting simply because people today tend to believe everything Disney did up to his death was a success which isn't even remotely true. They also either believe he wrote and directed all of his movies, or that he was just an executive and had no involvement while the truth is somewhere in between. So sharing some of the details behind the man and the studio is always something I enjoy doing.

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#20 Posted by Apparatus_Unearth (3688 posts) -

Is Princess and the Frog good?

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#21 Posted by chiablo (1043 posts) -

FYI, it's Hans Christian Andersen. You put "Hand" as his first name. Great write up, I actually learned quite a bit from all this.

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#22 Edited by SaturdayNightSpecials (2547 posts) -

Interesting. I never knew about any financial failures they had pre-2000, except Fantasia.

I can't fathom how The Lady and the Tramp fared better than Alice In Wonderland.

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#23 Posted by TheHT (14323 posts) -

I don't know why this is here, I didn't read your previous blog, and I don't know why I kept reading, but that was fascinating.


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#24 Posted by Raven10 (2186 posts) -

@saturdaynightspecials: Well since you asked (sorta). As anyone who has read Alice knows, the Disney movie is nothing like the book. This is true of every Disney movie ever, but up to that point Disney had only adapted fairy tales that were several hundred years old. In comparison, Alice was a relatively new book at the time (in that there were very old people still alive when the movie came out that were alive when the book was written). There were relatively modern interviews with Lewis Carol about the book and the meanings behind it. To make matters worse, Alice is an illustrated children's book. And the illustrations were hugely beloved at the time and very well known. So Alice suffered a similar fate to many popular book adaptations. The movie changed the book in far too many ways and fans were not pleased. Since those fans in many cases were the critics who grew up with the book, they uniformly trashed it.

The other issue was that Alice was at a low point in popularity when the movie was released. The initial hype around the book had faded and the crackdown on drug use in the US had made the book unpopular among parents. 15 years after the movie came out we had the rise of rock and roll and the hippie movement, and with that there was a massive resurgence in the popularity of Alice due to the psychedelic nature of the book (Lewis Carol was an opiate addict). Since these new fans could care less about the original illustrations, and watching a movie (even a Disney movie) was a lot more socially acceptable than reading a children's book, Disney's version became the defacto version, and earned quite a bit of profit a couple decades later in home video sales.

@chiablo: Yea, sorry. Typo on my part.

@apparatus_unearth: Well as far as the animation itself is concerned it's pretty damn incredible. The story is okay as is the music. I guess I would call it good but not great. Part of the problem for me, and this is a personal taste thing, is that I just don't like Randy Newman's music anywhere near as much as I like Alan Menken's music. Newman writes pop tunes while Menken writes broadway tunes. They are both incredible at the style of music they write, but for me when I think Disney I think think Broadway not pop. But if you enjoy Randy Newman's work (he writes the music for a lot of Pixar movies like the Toy Story series) then I'm sure you'd enjoy it.