The 00’s were a rough decade for theatrically released, traditionally animated films. 2D started as the dominant storytelling art form and found itself supplanted by CG midway into the decade. How did that happen? Is 2D doomed? To find our answer, we’ll have to travel back to the 90’s and explore the key factors that made 2D ripe for a fall from grace in the 00’s.
The 90’s saw a boom with studios such as Warner Bros. (1993) and Fox (1994) creating their own feature animation divisions in response to Disney’s success with The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. In 1994, Jeffrey Katzenberg resigned from his post at Disney and went on to form Dreamworks SKG with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen later that same year. The results of WBFA’s, Fox’s, and Dreamworks’ 2D efforts were mixed. Fox and WBFA saw some modest successes financially and critically, but the films released by these studios were largely plagued by poor storytelling and marketing issues. This put 2D in a poor position to maintain its status as the first choice for visual storytelling should anything new – like CG – come along. Pixar’s Toy Story, released in 1995, was the first feature animation film created exclusively using 3D CG. It was critically acclaimed and financially successful. Toy Story had a production and advertising budget of 65M and made 191.1M domestically. Though it took time to see the full effect, it completely changed the animation industry landscape.
20th Century Fox
In 2000, Fox’s Phoenix, Arizona studio, headed by Don Bluth and Gary Goldman, released Titan A.E. The film is said to have cost approximately 85M to produce. It took in 9.3M opening weekend and went on to make only 22.7M domestically. The disparity between what it made and what it needed to make was assisted by Disney’s wide-release of Fantasia 2000 on the same exact day. Disney had previously engaged in this tactic by re-issuing The Little Mermaid on the same day as Fox’s Anastasia in 1997 and in 1994 with the re-release of The Lion King coinciding with the debut of New Line’s The Swan Princess. Disney’s needlessly ruthless approach aside, Titan A.E. ultimately did itself in by starting with an unoriginal idea and compounding it with storytelling issues, flat voice acting from its lead characters, and, while each might have been visually compelling on its own, poorly meshed 2D and CG animation.
Fox had let two-thirds of the studio’s staff go earlier that year and officially closed the Phoenix studio approximately two weeks after the movie’s release. The studio had cost 100M to start up, only to find modest success in its release of Anastasia, which was derivative of the Disney releases of the time. It had not met its commitment to output a film every 18 months, and its departure from the animated musical formula, Titan A.E., tanked.
Fox shifted their focus from 2D to 3D CG in transforming the New York based Blue Sky from a special effects and commercial production house to a feature animation film studio. The Blue Sky
movies tend to have an assembly line feel, with their stories having
been told many times before and their visuals not meeting or exceeding
the level of other studios. Their first release, Ice Age (2002), was reviewed as “unoriginal” but “witty” and received a 78%
fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Continuing the trend of lacking
originality, Robots (2005)
was reviewed less favorably, but managed a domestic gross that
surpassed its production budget. It featured Robin Williams in the same
exact role he’s played since his performance as the genie in Disney’s Aladdin. Their following film, Everyone’s Hero (2006), was conceived and directed by Christopher Reeve. Everyone’s Hero was
considered a heartwarming but poorly executed effort that made only
14.5M domestically. Horton Hears a Who (2008) was reviewed favorably and
was credited as one of the few Dr. Seuss adaptations to stay true to the
spirit of the original material. Fox’s most recent film, Ice Age: Dawn
of the Dinosaurs (2009), has begun to expose cracks in the franchise’s facade by once again treading back over the same material. To Blue Sky’s credit, they’ve stepped up their game with regards to animation. The film did well with a production budget of 90M and domestic gross of 196.4M, but it was still poorly received by critics.
Warner Bros. Feature Animation
WBFA has a troubled history. Animators at the TAG Blog seem to have pleasant enough memories of their time at WBFA; however, within those memories exist recollections of a great deal of sitting around and doing nothing. While WBFA had about eight or nine films in development within its first year, Bob Daley, chairman and co-CEO, failed to pull the trigger quickly on greenlighting projects.
Space Jam (1996) was the only film to come out of WBFA that had a domestic gross (90M) exceed its production budget (80M). Quest for Camelot (1998) was a pleasant, if unmistakable misfire. One review called it a “nearly perfect reflection of troubling trends in animated features”. The King and I (1999) was horrid from start to finish. It contained some of the worst meshing of 2D and CG ever seen on film. Another review referred to it as “a cheesy piece of infantile animated pap”. WBFA had a true gem with The Iron Giant (1999), arguably one of the best animated films of all time which, unfortunately, fell victim to a miscalculated release date and a misleading marketing campaign. It had a production budget of 70M and a domestic gross of 23M. Director Brad Bird has referred to the film as a “highly regarded financial failure”. Osmosis Jones (2001) was very nearly an adequate animated movie, which would be fine if it wasn’t half live-action and if the film’s latter sequences weren’t terrible. After these financial failures, Warner Bros. scaled back its feature animation division by 250 employees in 2002. Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003) was described as “nonsensical” and “uninspired compared to the classic Looney Tunes” on Rotten Tomatoes. It had a production budget of 80M and a domestic gross of 20M. Needless to say, none of this made for a successful animation division and WBFA produced no further films after 2003.
Dreamworks released a total of four 2D animated films between 1998 and 2003: Prince of Egypt (1998), The Road to El Dorado (2000), Spirit: Stallion of Cimarron (2002), and Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas (2003). Prince of Egypt was the only 2D film with a domestic gross exceeding its production budget. The others, while entertaining and quite pretty, suffered from predictable plots and other storytelling issues. They did not meet the level of excellence necessary to thrive in the environment they were born to, and they subsequently flopped at the box office.
Dreamworks’ 3D CG offerings have had much more success. Antz (1998), their first CG effort, was unremarkable. Shrek (2001), however, had some very tight dialogue and gave audiences something they had greatly longed for by turning the fairy tale formula on its head, poking it with a sharp stick. Adults enjoyed this film as much, if not more, than their children. Shrek’s production budget was 60M and its domestic gross was 267.7M. Shrek 2 (2004) was not as fresh, but it exceeded the original’s success with a production budget of 150M and domestic gross of 441.2M. Shrek the Third, while far from loved by critics, continued the financial success with a production budget of 160M and domestic gross of 322.7M. With the exception of Antz and Bee Movie (2007), all of the CG movies produced by Dreamworks [Shark Tale (2004), Madagascar (2005), Over the Hedge (2006), Kung Fu Panda (2008), Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa (2008), and Monsters Vs. Aliens (2009)] have had their domestic gross surpass their production budget. While Dreamworks’ films have largely been financially successful at the theater, they are often treated as the red headed step children to Pixar’s offerings. It wasn’t until Kung Fu Panda that their movie making achieved a level of artistry that transcended its commercial purpose. While Dreamworks shows no signs of returning to 2D as a storytelling medium any time soon, 2D animation has shown up in very slight amounts, such as in Kung Fu Panda’s stylized opening sequence.