Generations have grown up with the presence of Disney in their lives. If there has been one constant, it is Disney’s traditionally animated features. Our appreciation of the art form stems from those films. Their near
disappearance makes the mouse’s story
during the 00’s particularly heart-wrenching, and who can’t be moved by the plight of all the artists and other employees who found themselves
put out of work during the transition to 3D CG?
In 1989, the company created Walt Disney Feature Animation Florida, which had initially worked only on shorts and later assisting with features coming out of the Burbank studio. It wasn’t until Mulan
(1998) that the Florida studio had a film to call their own. The movie, an adaptation of a Chinese folktale, was well-received with an 87% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It had a production budget of 90M and a domestic gross of 120.6M. Their next film, Lilo & Stitch
(2002) was the story of a delightfully odd girl and a destructive alien she adopts as a pet. The movie relies heavily on themes of family and Hans Christian Andersen’s tale, The Ugly Duckling
. Lilo & Stitch
had a production budget of 80M and domestic gross of 145.8M.
The Florida studio’s last film, Brother Bear (2003), follows an Eskimo named Kenai who transforms into a bear after dispatching, in an act of thoughtless revenge, the one that took his brother’s life. It was not nearly as engaging as the studio’s first two releases and, to go along with its 39% rotten rating, was described as “pleasant, if unremarkable” by Rotten Tomatoes. There was one important scene regarding Kenai’s direct connection to the death of the mother bear; it could have been particularly poignant but is instead glossed over in montage. Brother Bear had a production budget of 80M and domestic gross of 85.3M. On November 14, 2003, then President of Walt Disney Feature Animation, David A. Stainton, paid the Florida studio a surprise visit. He pulled the plug on their latest film in production and strongly suggested people begin looking for work elsewhere. The studio was officially shut down on January 12, 2004. A small, unconfirmed number of animators were offered jobs at the Burbank studio. The rest sought employment with other studios or left the industry entirely.
According to the Orlando Business Journal, Roy Disney, company founder Walt’s nephew, called the move, “another example of Michael Eisner’s de-emphasis of creativity and total indifference to the impact his decisions have on the people who helped to make the company great”. Roy Disney resigned as Chairman of the Feature Animation Division and as Vice Chairman of the Board of Directors on November 30, 2003 in a blunt letter addressed to then CEO, Michael Eisner. In that letter he acknowledged that Eisner had at one point been a good fit for the company, then proceeded to criticize Eisner for micro-management, company-wide loss of morale, failure with ABC Prime Time, building theme parks “on the cheap”, enforcing the idea that the company was “rapacious, soul-less, and always looking for the ‘quick buck’ rather than long-term value”, driving talent away, failure to establish and build upon relationships with creative partners such as Pixar, and failure to establish a clear succession plan. Stanley Gold, who had been on the board of directors, issued his own letter of resignation shortly thereafter. According to marketwatch.com, criticism of Eisner’s management can be traced to the time of COO Frank Wells’ death in 1994. Studio Chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg also resigned soon after being rebuffed in his attempts to replace Wells.
While all the insanity of WDFAF was going on, the Burbank team was still pumping out films. Dinosaur
(2000) was a product of WDFA’s CG Unit. It composited CG characters over live-action backgrounds shot in Venezuela. The film was described as having great visuals and atmosphere, but no plot to speak of. It had a production budget of 127.5M and a domestic gross of 137.7M. The Emperor’s New Groove
(2000) was the film salvaged from the troubled production of Kingdom of the Sun
, originally to be far more epic in scale. The movie went from being a story in the spirit of the Prince and the Pauper to a simpler buddy film. The final product received an 85% fresh rating, but it had a production budget of 100M and a domestic gross of only 89.3M. Atlantis: The Lost Empire
(2001), was notable for production designs by comic artist Mike Mignola (Hellboy
, Screw On Head
), but not much else. The film received a 46% rotten rating. It had a production budget of 120M and domestic gross of 120M. Treasure Planet
(2002) seems to be something of a fondly remembered flop. This film, once again, was made during a time when 2D’s grip was tenuous at best, and Disney had to pull through with stellar characterization and story to support the polished visuals. It really needed to succeed and didn’t. The film had a 70% fresh rating, but it failed financially with a production budget of 140M and domestic gross of merely 38.2M. The final 2D film to come out of Burbank for quite some time would be Home on the Range
(2004), which received a 54% rotten rating. The production budget was 110M, and the domestic gross was 50M. Of the films that were received poorly, it is tremendously uncommon to find complaints about Disney’s lustrous visuals. The common theme to the criticism was weak story and characterization.
In several interviews and articles there were mentions of the company receiving credit for animated successes that were not their own. The general public thought of
” and the Disney name as synonymous; it is not a great logical leap to say this perception was probably a double-edged sword. In addition to damage done from within, the Disney brand, which had once stood for the pinnacle of quality, was further dinged by the financial and critical failures coming from other studios. Trust in your brand brings consumer loyalty. Without that, you have nothing. A movie about a somewhat
realistic looking animated rat might only have drawn a
n insignificant audience if it had been released by anyone other
than Pixar, with their strong brand name.
Disney and Gold launched SaveDisney.com in December of 2003, with the purpose of ousting Eisner and the belief that they could effect change within the company by applying outside pressure. In their assessment of the online and media campaigns, IR Web Report said that this would go down in history as a symbol of how the web can be a powerful communications tool and a democratizing force in the capital markets, serving as an effective blueprint for how other shareholders and activists could use the internet to challenge companies on governance and other issues. In the media, Disney said all the right things by establishing a rapport with the public, letting them know he stood for the ideals on which his uncle founded the company, creating the perception that he was the last line of defense. He took an already unloved man and made him a pariah. On March 4, 2004, Eisner received a 43% no-confidence vote at a shareholders’ meeting; the CEO was stripped of his role as Chairman. George Mitchell took over the position. That September, Eisner set a date for his exit as CEO, and on March 13, 2005, Bob Iger was officially named as his successor. On July 18, 2005, the Walt Disney Company announced a truce between Roy Disney and Bob Iger, and savedisney.com was taken down.
Now, let’s head back to the films. The frequent complaints of weak story and characterization are prominent in two out of the three Disney 3D CG offerings. Chicken Little (2005) was cute, but not strong enough to capture audiences’ attention. It received a 37% rotten rating, had a production budget of 150M, and pulled in 135M domestically. The Wild (2006) might have prompted potential film goers to think, “Hey, why does that look a lot like Madagascar?” Disney made an interesting character design choice for the animal stars by going with the one point between realism and stylization that makes people uncomfortable. The film had an 18% rotten rate, with a production budget of 80M and a domestic gross of 37.4M. Meet the Robinsons (2006) was a step in the right direction, almost as if Disney was beginning to find its bearings in the newer medium. The film received a 66% fresh rating and made 97.8M domestically. Bolt (2008) was originally called American Dog and then not. Chris Sanders of Lilo & Stitch fame was originally working on the project and then not. The final product was well received critically. It had a production budget of 150M and domestic gross of 114M. One could argue that Disney had done so much damage to their brand by now that even a good movie was a hard sell.
The Walt Disney Company announced its purchase of Pixar on January 25, 2006 after weeks of circulating rumors. With the announcement, Steve Jobs became a member of the board, and Pixar’s John Lasseter became Chief Creative Officer. This was quite a turnaround from 2004; discussions on their distribution agreement had broken off that year due to a strained relationship between Jobs and Eisner. Lasseter has been a very vocal supporter of the traditionally animated 2D medium, with some online outlets calling him the savior of 2D. A bit premature, I think. But the support is encouraging, and if there is one man poised to give the medium the push it needs, it’s him. ThePrincess and the Frog marks Disney’s first return to 2D since 2004’s Home on the Range. Ron Clements and John Musker of The Little Mermaid and Aladdin fame wrote and directed the film. Princess and the Frog will see wide-release in theaters on December 11, 2009.
You are reading Part 2 of The Fall and Rise (?) of 2D Animation.
Part 1 | 2 | 3 | Go back to the Toons of the 2000s Intro.