That Won’t Be All, Folks, as Cartoons Make a Comeback : Animation: The recent box-office success of full-length features is creating a new boom in the industry that may rival the ‘golden age’ of the ‘30s.
Buoyed by the success of “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” “Oliver and Company,” “The Land Before Time” and “The Little Mermaid,” animation is enjoying a banner year:
* “The Little Mermaid,” which earned a record-breaking $82 million, won two Academy Awards--the first animated feature to receive an Oscar since “Dumbo” in 1942.
* At least five new animated features are scheduled to be released this year.
* The madcap Roger Rabbit returns to theaters next month in a new short that will screen with Disney’s “Dick Tracy.”
* The other Oscar-winning rabbit, Bugs Bunny, will appear in his first theatrical short in 26 years when “Box Office Bunny” debuts this fall.
* Starting today, the AMC Theatre chain will show a classic Warner Bros. short before the feature in 1,700 theaters across the country.
The new AMC policy is the latest development in the current animation boom that threatens to rival the “golden age” of the 1930s. Since 1986, animated films have grossed more than $400 million domestically, and Fox’s “The Simpsons” is one of the biggest hits of the 1989-90 TV season.
Fifty years ago, when Elmer Fudd first admonished audiences, “Be ve-wy, ve-wy quiet: I’m hunting wabbits,” cartoons were an essential part of a trip to the movies. AMC is bringing them to the big screen after a long hiatus.
“In 1989, we conducted an extensive research study to see what people felt would enhance the movie-going experience,” said AMC president Ed Durwood at a press conference in Century City Monday morning. “Of the 70,000 people we polled, 42% wanted to see a cartoon before the feature--a higher figure than for any other possible improvement. We felt this response revealed an on-going interest in animation and indicated that the success of ‘Roger Rabbit’ and other recent animated films do not represent a passing fad.”
Patrons at most AMC theaters will see one of 130 shorts chosen from a list the surviving Warners directors and animators compiled of their best work. The bulk of the films were made during the late ‘40s and ‘50s, when the Warners artists made some of the fastest, funniest cartoons in the history of the medium. Bugs, Elmer, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Tweety, Sylvester, Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner formed a versatile repertory company of comedians that rivaled even Disney’s creations.
For the AMC release, Warner Bros. has struck new 35-millimeter prints, adjusting the nearly square image so that none of the visuals will be lost in the contemporary wide-screen format. These cartoons have been popular on television for decades, but in recent years the networks have excised the pratfalls and explosions because of their allegedly violent content. The films will be shown in the theaters “in their classic form, with no editing whatsoever.”
Most film industry observers credit the seven-minute “Tummy Trouble"--the first Roger Rabbit short--with the quick start last summer for Disney’s “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids,” a movie that went on to gross $130 million. On June 15, Disney will roll Roger out again in “Roller Coaster Rabbit” to see if he can give “Dick Tracy” a hand.
“ ‘Honey’ was a very strong, successful movie in its own right, but its entertainment value was enhanced by the cartoon,” said Peter Schneider, senior vice president of feature animation for Walt Disney Pictures. “I don’t think Disney has created a character of the magnitude of Roger in the last 30 years--a character who’s real in the way Mickey Mouse is real, who jumps off the screen into people’s laps. We’re moving ahead with the sequel to ‘Roger Rabbit,’ but we’ve also done the two short cartoons. What better way to keep the character alive than using him correctly?”
Animation historian John Canemaker, who previewed “Roller Coaster Rabbit” at Disney’s Florida studio, recalled a renowned MGM animator when he described it as “very funny and very Tex Avery in tone. The pandemonium builds much more skillfully than it did in ‘Tummy Trouble.’ ”
“Box Office Bunny,” the new Bugs Bunny cartoon, is slated to debut this fall. Directed by former Disney animator Darrell Van Citters, the film is being animated at Warners’ Burbank animation facility. Dan Fellman, senior vice president/general sales manager at Warner Bros., said the studio has yet to decide which feature to release with “Box Office Bunny.” Fellman also expressed the hope that the success of the distribution arrangement with AMC will enable Warners to produce additional new cartoons.
This renewed interest in animated shorts comes 18 years after the last Hollywood cartoon studio closed. Cartoons had been a feature of motion picture shows since the days of silent film; from the ‘30s through the ‘50s, every Hollywood studio had either an in-house animation unit or a distribution deal with an independent cartoon producer.
The 1949 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that forced the studios to discontinue block booking killed cartoons. Under block booking, a theater owner who wanted a studio’s hit feature also had to take a second feature, a cartoon and--often--a newsreel and live action short. A percentage of the rental fee for the entire package financed the animation production.
Theater owners refused to pay more than nominal fees for cartoons, and an animated short couldn’t earn back its production costs on its initial release. As a result, the Hollywood cartoon studios closed their doors during the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. Walter Lantz, who finally stopped production in 1972, said, “We didn’t stop producing cartoons because their popularity died out, it was because we couldn’t afford to make them.”
But a good cartoon could be re-released over a period of years and earn a substantial profit. At the AMC press conference Monday, an audience of adults and children whooped with laughter at Friz Freleng’s 1954 Bugs Bunny-Yosemite Sam short “Captain Hareblower.”
“It’s a wonderful feeling to come back into a theater and see one of these films on a big screen,” said Freleng, a five-time Oscar winner who directed 266 Warners cartoons. “Since I left the studio, I’ve usually seen them by myself on a little tube; it’s nice to know the laughs still come in the places I intended, 26 years later. I think when theaters stopped showing cartoons, it left a big hole in the entertainment.”