This is going to be a very broad post, and I'm assuming it will have a lot of ranting, so bear with me. But it's been on my mind for months and I'd like to write a primer on what I see as the downfalls of mainstream animation.
A week or so ago, I finally saw Disney's Tangled
Now, this won't be a review of Tangled, suffice it to say that I was very impressed by it. And not just the animation; that's a given. I mean, it's Disney and, even in Disney's darkest days, the animation has always been ahead of almost anyone else. Tangled had some of the best animation I've seen in the last few decades, but I digress.
No, what impressed me, though, at the same time it frustrated me, was the story. We've all heard the Rapunzal fairy tale and, if we haven't, we can at least name certain plot points. I'm not going to say Tangled "took the story we know and turned it on its head" like a lot of fairy tale adaptations try to do (and fall flat doing). What I will say is that it was told very well. And that's it. It was aware of what kind of movie it was, and didn't try to be anything else. Which is good. More on this later, but these days, you see animated movies that don't exactly know what they are (candidly, Dreamworks and Blue Sky tend to be examples of studios that make such movies).
Tangled is a musical, and that's kind of to be expected from Disney. Not that that's at all bad. I don't think it's a gimmick. If musicals can be considered legit works of art in general, then animated musicals should be treated with equal respect. But here's where things start to get a little frustrating for me.
Copying Disney does not a good movie make
Let me take you back to the Disney Renaissance. It's the mid '80s and Disney has been producing some, let's face it, terrible films, and had begun working in television, a medium that almost requires a lack of quality in order to make deadline on budget. And let's not fault the wrong people. It wasn't necessarily the creative minds at Disney; much of it had to do with those pesky executive decisions with a side of studio politics. Well, some time in the mid '80s, the Disney execs wised up and hired Roy Disney, Walt's nephew, to supervise the animation department. Roy's goal was to not let his uncle's magic die with the rest of the studio's quality.
In 1988, Who Framed Roger Rabbit was released, and was a hit. It was produced by Steven Spielberg and Disney, and it showed audiences that animation could still tell stories. After Roger Rabbit proved to be a success, Disney decided that a film they'd been toying with since the '30s would be turned into a full-on animated Broadway musical. The film was released in 1989 and was called The Little Mermaid.
Enter a few years later, in 1991, and arguably one of the best animated films of all time was released - Beauty and the Beast, also a musical. Over the next decade or so, Disney continued to produce critically acclaimed animated musicals, almost all of which were based on fairy-tales or other older, common stories.
And it was during this beautiful period of animation rediscovery that the first cancer cells formed which led to 2D animation's very, very untimely death.
Suddenly, animation studios started popping up all over, and new animated films were being released all the time. The animation was hardly Disney quality, but if you had asked lay audience members who had produced these movies, they would probably respond with "Disney." Well, sure. Disney were the big players, and nobody else really produced animation in those days. By default, people assumed Disney made every animated movie of the day. But there was another, more heartbreaking contributing factor to the Disney-esque features of these new non-Disney movies. And I imagine the conversations between studio execs went something like this:
Exec #1: Let's make an animation division. Animation is popular again.
Exec #2: What kind of movie should we make?
Exec #1: Well, Disney's been hitting it big with these musical fairy-tales.
Exec #2: So, if we make a musical fairy-tale, it will be a hit, right?
Exec #1: Yeah, that sounds about right. Listen, I'm gonna go play with some more mercury. I'll talk to you later.
Exec #2: Hurrrrr
And without warning, animation was shoehorned into its own genre - musical fairy-tales. All of a sudden, if you made an animated movie, it had to be a fairy-tale, and it had to have musical numbers, because that's what audiences really liked about Disney, right? Not the characters or the actual story content, or the storytelling. No, in the studio execs' minds, Beauty and the Beast was a brilliant movie because it had an enchanted castle with a singing teapot. And what's more, you couldn't even convince distribution studios to get an animated movie funded unless it was a fairy-tale musical. Let that soak in and piss you off really hard.
I mean, sure, you had Brad Bird's The Iron Giant in 1999 which is still an animation cult classic. And you have Miyazaki's great anime films. But Miyazaki's films are released primarily in Japan. And The Iron Giant, which should have immediately been a hit, bombed because advertisers had no idea how to market it. Watch the trailers. They give you no sense at all to what the movie actually is. You just couldn't sell a 2D movie unless it followed the Disney formula. It meant that people started thinking of animation as a genre, which is by far one of the stupidest things you could say. If animation is a genre, then so is live-action. But, far more irritatingly, it also meant that 2D animation was about to die from over saturation.
And if that doesn't make your blood boil, it soon will.
This is running really long, so in the next part, I'll talk about the rise Pixar and the subesequent (and completely misguided) death of 2D animation in America.