Ten years ago--even five years ago--the art of film animation appeared to be going the way of 3-D. Few films were being made, few young artists were studying animation and few people seemed to care very much whether they were made or not.
Special effects was the marvel of the '80s, and the legacy of "Star Wars." What kids wanted to see were optical illusions-- laser swords, animatronic aliens, computer-generated pyrotechnics and strange worlds inhabited by real people. The magic of classical animation had been diluted and degraded by Saturday morning cartoons, and the the costs of labor-intensive cel painting raised animated features into the high-risk category for studios and investors.
"When we left Disney in September of '79, feature animation wasn't doing very well," says John Pomeroy, a former Disney animator who is now a partner in the Ireland-based Sullivan Bluth Inc., which made "An American Tail" and "The Land Before Time." "I think '81 or '82 was the low point for the entire industry. There wasn't a lot of money to be made in animated films and there wasn't a lot of interest in them. The animated feature was really close to extinction."
A spate of artistic and financial disasters in the early '80s that included "Hey Good Lookin,' " "Twice Upon a Time," "Fire and Ice," "Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown (and Don't Come Back,)" "1001 Rabbit Tales" and "Daffy Duck's Movie: Fantastic Island" had given animation a reputation as box office poison. In 1982-83, the total domestic gross for "Rabbit Tales," "Fantastic Island," "Fire and Ice" and "Twice Upon a Time" was less than $2 million.
The live-action films of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg had usurped both the family audience and the fantastic worlds that had once been Walt Disney's exclusive domains. When film after film failed to connect with an audience, even people who were deeply committed to the art of animation began to doubt the viability of the feature-length cartoon.
After the indifferent performance of "Heidi's Song" (1982), Hanna-Barbera quietly shelved plans for a series of theatrical features, like Wile E. Coyote gently discarding the catapult that launched him into a cliff. Don Bluth's "The Secret of NIMH" (1982) grossed only $13 million, and the Bluth artists spent the next several years trying to develop a second feature--and doing animation for video games.
Even at the venerable Disney studio, animation seemed to be languishing. Among the artistic disappointments were the live action/animation combination, "Pete's Dragon" (1977); the Christmas featurette, "The Small One" (1978); "The Fox and the Hound" (1981) and the long-awaited "The Black Cauldron" (1984).
But, like Snow White, who lay near death after taking a bite of the Wicked Witch's poisoned apple, the art of film animation has gone to the brink and returned. Animation has not only fully recovered but is healthier than ever. Consider:
* Production of theatrical features and television programs is booming. With at least a dozen new features and an unprecedented array of television programs scheduled for release before Christmas 1992, studio output rivals the "golden age" of the 1930s.
* Since 1986, animated features have earned over $400 million domestically, not counting re-releases. "The Little Mermaid" earned over $6 million on its opening weekend alone.
* "Little Mermaid" won two Academy Awards this year--the first cartoon feature to receive an Oscar since "Dumbo" in 1942--and was the first animated film to be considered seriously for a best picture nomination.
* The interest in animation has revived the short cartoon. "Roller Coaster Rabbit," the new Roger Rabbit short, is playing with "Dick Tracy." Bugs Bunny returns to the big screen this fall in "Box Office Bunny," his first theatrical short in 26 years. The AMC chain recently began showing vintage Warner Bros. cartoons in 1,700 theaters across the country.
* The success of animation hasn't been limited to the theatrical box office. Fox TV's "The Simpsons," the unchallenged hit of the 1989-90 season, has helped to spark an increase in animation production for television. For the first time in 20 years, CBS and ABC are developing prime-time animated series.
* Ten of the 20 best-selling video cassettes are animated films, including "Bambi" (10.5 million units), "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" (8.5 million), "Cinderella" (7.5 million) and "The Land Before Time" (4 million).
* Cels, backgrounds, drawings, preliminary drawings and other artwork from animated films, that a handful of devotees bought and sold among themselves for a few hundred dollars 10 years ago, now command six-figure prices at prestigious auction houses. In 1989, a Canadian collector paid a record $286,000 for a cel-and-background setup from the 1934 black-and-white Disney short, "Orphan's Benefit," at Christie's East. On a less rarefied level, hundreds of collectors are buying animation artwork in the $500-to-$5,000 price range at galleries and auctions.
"It's a wonderful time to be making animated movies," states Peter Schneider, Disney's senior vice president of feature animation. "People are really starting to look on it as serious movie making. The keys to that shift are 'Who Framed Roger Rabbit,' the financial success of 'Oliver and Company,' 'The Land Before Time' and 'An American Tail.' I think the capper was the artistic success of 'The Little Mermaid.' Not just its financial success, which was phenomenal, but the fact that it won two Oscars and was perceived as a legitimate movie."
"We're experiencing a full-blown renaissance," adds Pomeroy. "It's amazing: I don't think this much excitement, enthusiasm and money has been poured into the industry since the late '30s, when there were at least a dozen animation studios in business."
This resurgence can be traced to four factors: a shift in the way the medium is perceived within the film industry; the skyrocketing cost of live action filmmaking during the '80s while animation costs remained relatively stable--making it a bargain for producers; the emergence of a new, enthusiastic audience for animation that includes both children and adults; a generation of talented young artists who are eager to challenge the best animation of the past and push the art in new directions.
Ten years ago, Disney was the only company with a record of successful animated features, and there was a tacit assumption within the film community that Disney was the only company that could make money in animation. The success of Steven Spielberg's "An American Tail," made by Sullivan Bluth in 1986, shattered that theory. The story of a family of emigrant mice who come to America at the turn of the century seeking freedom, "Tail" earned more than $45 million for Amblin'/Universal.
"I think it was important that a studio other than Disney went out and made that kind of money with an animated film," says Pomeroy. "People said, 'Wait a minute, there are possibilities here. It isn't just the Disney name that can generate this kind of enthusiasm and dollars in animation.' "
One of the goals of the new management team that took over Disney in 1984 was to reclaim the studio's pre-eminence in animation. Their first film, the enjoyable "The Great Mouse Detective" (1986) opened to good reviews and moderate business. Two years later, two features opened on the same day for the first time in the history of animation: Disney's "Oliver and Company" and Don Bluth's "The Land Before Time." "Oliver" won the face-off, $53 million to $46 million. The contest was repeated in 1989, when "Little Mermaid" beat Bluth's "All Dogs Go to Heaven," with a record-breaking $84 million to $26 million.
Studios that didn't make animated features when they had full-time in-house animation deparments have suddenly gotten involved in development, production and/or distribution. MGM/UA distributes the Sullivan Bluth films, Fox is working with Hanna-Barbera on "The Endangered," Warner Bros. is backing both Richard Williams' long-awaited "The Thief" and "Rover Dangerfield," starring a canine caricature of the comedian who gets no respect.
"Animation wasn't hot four years ago, when I first got the idea for 'Rover,' ," said Rodney Dangerfield in a telephone interview from New York. "With the help of some other people, I got the screenplay done, wrote the songs, got the animators lined up and the design for the character worked out, then we were able to make a deal with Warners. It took two and half years and I invested over a million dollars of my own money in it, but I was willing to take the chance."
The cost of live-action film making rose precipitously during the '80s. The average Hollywood film now costs $25 million--more than the most expensive animated feature. Although the studios decline to release exact figures, industry sources put the cost of "Little Mermaid" and the upcoming "Rescuers II" in the $18 million to $22 million range; "Land Before Time" and "All Dogs" at $12 million to $14 million. It's possible to make a good animated film for considerably less: Hyperion's modest "The Brave Little Toaster" was made for $2.75 million.
Animated features don't require the above-the-line expenses that make up a substantial portion of a live action budget: Major stars, directors and screen writers now command multimillion-dollar salaries, plus percentages of the film's gross profits. Animation writers and directors are paid flat salaries with no "points," and although the voice actors and musicians in animated films are paid residuals, the animators are not, a very sore point for many of them. If Roger Rabbit were a live-action star, he could demand--and get--$10 million for his next picture.
In a recent magazine interview, Steven Spielberg said, "As the dollar shrinks and movies cost more, my imagination is becoming less and less affordable. So I've turned to animation to free it up. In animation, anything can happen."
"Animation may be a bargain, but much of your box office consists of children's admissions at half the adult price," cautions David Kirschner, the producer of "American Tail" and now president/CEO of Hanna-Barbera. "Obviously a large percentage of the audience for an animated film is children, unlike an R-rated Arnold Schwarzeneggar or Bruce Willis film. But a film as good as 'Little Mermaid' or 'American Tail' will expand that audience and bring in the $7 admissions as well as the $3.50 admissions, because the desire for entertainment cuts across demographic lines."
Tom Wilhite, who served as head of production at Disney 1980-83 and is currently producing the animated "Rover Dangerfield" with his partner, Willard Carroll, maintains that the recent box-office success of animated films indicates the presence of a significant new audience.
"During the 1980s, the family audience grew markedly: There are more than 32 million children between the ages 4 and 12 in the country, and an additional 4 million children will be born into baby-boom families each year for the next several years," he explains.
"The clothing and toy industries were aware of the growth of that audience sooner than the film industry, but they eventually discovered it. You also have more executives at more studios who are parents and need something to take their young children to. I think that fact is as important as anything, because the executives identify with that audience."
But the film that did the most to revive interest in animation was the Touchstone/Amblin hit "Who Framed Roger Rabbit," which tapped into the nostalgic affection members of the baby boom feel for the classic Hollywood cartoons of '30s, '40s and '50s.
"Those of us who are in our 20's, 30's and early 40's grew up on animation--on prime time, on Saturday morning and in syndication," says Wilhite. "I think there's a receptivity among baby-boomers to animation because it was much more a part of our upbringing than it was for older adults who may have seen the same cartoons in theaters."
In addition to Hanna-Barbera's "Jetsons: The Movie," Disney has two features currently in release: "Duck Tales: The Movie: The Secret of the Lost Lamp," based on the popular TV series, and a reissue of 1967 classic, "The Jungle Book." DIC will release "Super Mario Brothers," based on the TV show based on the Nintendo game, later this year. Disney's "The Rescuers Down Under," the first animated sequel, will open at Thanksgiving with the Mickey Mouse featurette, "The Prince and the Pauper"--opposite "Rock-A-Doodle," an updated version of "Chanticleer" from Sullivan Bluth.
For 1991, Disney is planning "Beauty and the Beast" for the holiday season, with Sullivan Bluth counterprogramming "A Troll in Central Park." Fievel Mousekewitz and his family will visit the Old West in "An American Tail II," made without Don Bluth's participation in London, while Hyperion's "Rover Dangerfield," slated for July, is being made in Glendale. Williams, who won Oscars for his work on "Roger Rabbit" and his adaptation of "A Christmas Carol," is scheduled to complete "The Thief," which he's been working on for more than 20 years.
Among the films slated for 1992 are "Aladdin" from Disney, another feature from Sullivan Bluth (possibly "Song of the Ice Whale") and two ecologically themed works, Hanna-Barbera's "The Endangered" and Kroyer Films' "Ferngully." A sequel to "Roger Rabbit" is in preproduction, probably for release in '92 or '93.
No release dates have been set for "Little Nemo," an adaptation of Winsor McCay's classic comic strip from the Japanese TMS studio; "The Adventures of Pico and Columbus," a film about Christopher Columbus and a helpful woodworm, currently in production in Germany; or Chuck Jones' "The Short, Happy Lives of Barnaby Scratch."
Observers within the animation industry are divided as to whether this unprecedented amount of production will establish animation as a legitimate genre--or glut a notoriously fickle market.
"It scares me that people may jump on the band wagon and hurt this renaissance by trying to cash in on the market for animation," says Kirschner. "I'm concerned that studios may say 'yes' to films that need more work in the development stages before they're ready to be shown to the public."
"I don't think four or five good pictures per year is going to glut the market, and the capacity of the American animation industry to produce more than four or five pictures a year--and even that's a stretch--is going to keep a lid on number of films," counters Wilhite. "I think it would be sad if a major animated picture comes along that's not particularly successful and people condemn the form as not commercial."
The volume of work in production seems to ensure the survival of the animated feature, for the next few years at the least. But the uncertainty surrounding what direction it will take recalls the Cheshire Cat's reply to Alice when she asked which road she should follow to get Somewhere: "You're sure to get somewhere if you just keep going long enough."
Prior to World War II, Walt Disney was animation's undisputed artistic leader, and in the "Big Five" ("Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," "Pinocchio," "Fantasia," "Dumbo" and "Bambi"), he pioneered new visual styles and expanded the emotional content of the medium.
Since then, most American features have looked backward rather than forward. The film makers seemed more interested in recreating the lush beauty of the early Disney features than in recapturing the innovative spirit that inspired them. How much the work of previous generations should influence their own animation and in what ways is an issue that divides the young artists in today's studios.
John Pomeroy, who argues that standing on the shoulders of giants enables an artist to see farther, is one of the most articulate defenders of the traditionalist view:
"You can use others' work to generate your own method of expressing yourself with a pencil, but you start by copying other people," he says. "I started copying drawings out of Robert Field's book, 'The Art of Walt Disney' when I was 11, and that's what generated the interest that put me where I am today."
Disney's Glen Keane, whose work includes the powerful bear fight in "The Fox and the Hound" and Ariel singing "Part of Your World" in "The Little Mermaid," takes the opposite position:
"I think we've shown that we can do a traditional, Disney-style feature, but I feel new artists who are worth their salt are going to challenge the medium and push it further," he says, gesturing expansively.
But if the artists are divided by their approaches to the animated feature, they are united in their love for the medium. Unlike the previous generation, who entered the field because no other jobs were available for artists during the Depression, the young men and women making features today grew up wanting to be animators. Peter Schneider summed up their enthusiasm and commitment:
"We have two goals: to keep improving the movies technically and to find stories that are relevant to us as an audience, yet are timeless. I want to get an animated movie out there that is so technically challenging and so strong thematically and visually, that it sets its own standard, that you can't compare it to anything the studio's done previously. That may be naive and even undoable, but that's my vision."