COMMENTARY : Current Animated Films Still Trail Vintage Treasures

December's critical and apparent financial failure of Filmation's "Pinocchio and the Emperor of the Night" illustrates just how badly the American animated feature has degenerated since the premiere of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" in 1937, or "Yellow Submarine" in 1967, or "Fritz the Cat" in 1972.

Each of those features was a breakthrough offering new visions of what an animated film could be--visions that few contemporary animators have explored. So much of their work, epitomized by "Pinocchio," is weakest where the breakthrough films were strongest--in story, visual style and content.

"Snow White," the first American animated feature, represented the culmination of nearly a decade of experimentation and training in the art of animation. The film earned more than $8 million in 1937 and an additional $45 million on its 1987 re-release. In contrast, the new "Pinocchio" grossed just over $600,000 its opening weekend--a pathetic $510 at each of more than 1,100 theaters.

Although the animation of "Snow White" is fluid and polished, the excellent storytelling enthralls viewers. Every scene advances the plot. During production, Disney made the difficult but wise decision to discard two long, costly sequences because they impeded the flow of the story.

The greatest weakness of new features from "The Black Cauldron" and "An American Tail" to "Pinocchio" has been the inability of the writers and directors to present a story clearly and coherently. In Filmation's new movie, the story comes to a screeching halt for 10 minutes while the action shifts to the insect city of Bugsbergh.

Contrary to popular belief, animation is not a dying art: Writing for animation is. Without a well-told story that makes the viewers care about the characters the way they care about Snow White, all the visual artistry in the world becomes an empty exercise in technique.

The Disney movies established a graphic style that dominated animated features until "Yellow Submarine" (Great Britain) which represented a conscious revolt against the familiar. Production designer Heinz Edelmann defied tradition to create a dazzling, psychedelic world of bizarre landscapes and misshapen monsters. "Yellow Submarine" simply didn't look like anything audiences had ever seen. No American animated feature made during the last 20 years has challenged its visual imagination.

Virtually every American animated feature uses designs based on the pattern of rounded characters and realistic backgrounds that Disney pioneered in "Snow White."

Opulent films, like "American Tail," copy that pattern; lower-budgeted ones, like "The Chipmunk Adventure," use watered-down versions. There's no sense of the special, magical world animation can create. How monotonous would live-action film be if every director copied the film noir look of "Lady From Shanghai"?

Like the classic Disney features, "Yellow Submarine" was not aimed exclusively at children--who most Americans considered the primary audience for animation. Then Ralph Bakshi's "Fritz" brought sex, drugs, violence and counter-culture rhetoric of the underground "comix" to the screen.

Fritz was a caricature of a shallow student radical who paid lip service to "the revolution," while chasing every female who had the misfortune to cross his path. His adventures echoed and satirized the lives of many young viewers. Bakshi followed "Fritz" with the semi-autobiographical "Heavy Traffic" (1973), a powerful work that proved an animated feature could be as personal and immediate as a live-action film.

Using animation to depict Fritz's randy escapades or a cartoonist's coming of age in the gritty depths of New York City was a radical idea--so radical that no one else has attempted it in a feature. But no personal animated feature comparable to Bakshi's early work has been made at an American studio in the last 15 years--despite the box-office success of "Fritz" and "Heavy Traffic."

In the '80s, animated features have grown less personal and more sterile due to an unholy alliance between the studios and the toy industry. Instead of providing entertainment, cartoons tout merchandise: "Rainbow Brite and the Star Stealer," "My Little Pony: The Motion Picture," He-Man's "The Secret of the Sword" and the three Care Bears features.

In an effort to defend their shoddy actions, spokesmen for the toy companies point to the merchandising campaigns associated with the Disney features and ask what the differences are. The answer is simple and obvious: Walt Disney made excellent films that continue to entertain audiences decades after their initial release. They also continue to earn money from related products, but merchandising was always a secondary consideration for Disney.

When the fur has worn off the Care Bears products, few will be interested in watching their films. Disney's "Cinderella" has earned an additional $25 million since Thanksgiving--more than three decades after its initial release.

In 1941, Walt Disney described what he saw as the future of animation: "What I see off there is too nebulous to describe. But it looks big and glittering. That's what I like about this business, the certainty that there is always something bigger and more exciting just around the bend; and the uncertainty of everything else."

Disney would look in vain for big and glittering things in recent animated features. But there is some hope for the future.

Previewed animation from Disney's "Oliver and Company" looks impressive, although a musical version of Dickens' "Oliver Twist" with dogs sounds like an unlikely subject for an animated feature. Storyboards, character designs and other pre-production material suggest from "The Little Mermaid" (based on the Hans Christian Andersen story) look even more promising. The young artists are eager to begin work on it, and feel it may be their breakthrough film.

"The Land Before Time Began," Don Bluth's next film for Steven Spielberg's Amblin Productions is being made under strictest secrecy in Dublin. A similar policy of secrecy shrouds the Amblin/Disney co-production, "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" but animators who have seen rushes report that the blending of cartoon characters and live actors is extraordinarily effective.

Two ambitious features that have been in production for years, Richard Williams' "The Thief," and "Little Nemo" (based on Winsor McCay's magnificent comic strip) from TMS, remain in limbo.

If any of these films scores a big enough hit, it could trigger the long-awaited, often-delayed renaissance in American animation. But anyone who attended the premiere of "Snow White" or "Yellow Submarine" or "Fritz the Cat" could have legitimately expected animators to take the medium further than they have. Fifty or 20 or even 15 years later, a renaissance shouldn't be necessary.

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