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Toons of the 2000s: The Fall and Rise (?) of 2D Animation – Part 3


You are reading Part 3 of The Fall and Rise (?) of 2D Animation

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For better or worse, Pixar changed the animation landscape with its initial foray into feature film production. Toy Story (1995) proved conclusively that a character driven story could be told effectively using 3D CG. Prior to this, CG had been relegated to special effects, background elements, props, and other non-living constructs within traditionally animated films. Pixar had made a conscious decision to avoid using humans as any of their lead characters largely because the CG technology was incapable of capturing or emulating what the mind would accept as human motion at the time.


Pixar has been at the fore with solving the medium’s challenges. With Monsters Inc. (2001), they created the most convincing fur-covered creature yet seen in James P. “Sully” Sullivan. In Finding Nemo (2003), Pixar created a believable and gorgeous ocean environment. The Incredibles (2004) was the first Pixar film that saw stylized humans as lead characters. Bird called the film, “everything that computer-generated animation had trouble doing”. At that year’s San Diego Comic-con panel for the movie, Bird touched on the technical hurdles of the medium in mentioning how easy it was to create an explosion and how complicated it was to animate the folds in a person’s shirt as he’s being lifted by it. In Cars (2006), their first production after having been purchased by Disney, we were exposed to jaw-dropping vistas as the cars drove across the country. In their latest films, they’ve begun finessing their work with delicate touches such as the shadows of balloons or the stubble on Carl Fredrickson’s chin in Up (2009). This is all eye candy, of course. Whenever prodded for their focus, they inevitably mention good stories and characterization being what anchors a film.


The studio has had an amazing track record. Every single one of the 10 films they’ve released [Toy StoryA Bugs’s Life (1998), Toy Story 2 (1999), Monsters Inc.Finding NemoThe IncrediblesCarsRatatouille (2007), Wall-E (2008), Up] has seen domestic grosses larger than their production budget. Even their weakest film in terms of characterization and story scored a 75% fresh rating over at Rotten Tomatoes. All of their other releases range between 91% to 100% fresh. Prior to their purchase by Disney, Pixar had supplanted them as the world’s dominant animation studio. Like it or not, every other studio’s success is measured against theirs. It’s an almost unnatural level of success, and it has fans and critics of Pixar alike waiting and watching for their first true misstep.

Walt Disney has been quoted many times as having said, “I don’t make movies to make money — I make money to make movies.” Pixar seems to have carried on in that tradition. In fact, we’ll close out this section with some quotes from current Chief Creative Officer of Disney, John Lasseter, because they’re heartening and give hope for the future of 2D animation.


“Quality is the best business plan.” 


“From the beginning, I kept saying it’s not the technology that’s going to entertain audiences, it’s the story. When you go and see a really great live-action film, you don’t walk out and say ‘that new Panavision camera was staggering, it made the film so good’. The computer is a tool, and it’s in the service of the story.”


“Andrew Stanton always said that 2-D animation became the scapegoat for bad storytelling, but you can make just as bad of a movie in 3-D.”


 “The whole notion that the audience didn’t want to watch hand-drawn animation any more was ridiculous. It would be like saying the audience didn’t want to watch something made with a particular camera. Give me a break!”


“It’s storytelling. No one goes to a movie to see a particular technology. They go to see story and characters. They go to be entertained. What it was is that 2D became the scapegoat for bad storytelling.”


Now that we’ve taken a look at the past decade, what does the future hold for 2D Feature Animation? Craig Grasso, a former employee of Disney’s Florida studio, said in one interview, “People didn’t stop painting when they invented the camera.”

It’s not uncommon for an advancement in technology to capture the attention of audiences. It happened in live-action film with the addition of sound and then color. The novelty of the technological advancement does attract more attention and put more people in the seats. For awhile. Eventually people grow accustomed to the additional stimulation and, once again, begin to notice flaws in other areas of the film. The exact same storytelling flaws exist in CG that did in 2D. It will probably take a hit in popularity sometime down the road and likely for the same reasons.  Though, if you’re holding out for CG to disappear entirely, you’re in for a long wait. Like sound and color, it’s here to stay. It has cemented itself as a viable storytelling medium and produced some exceptional films.   


Even if it could, do we want 2D to return to its place of prominence? 2D was certainly poorly serviced as an art form in the 90’s and 00’s because of it. Why not allow it to exist in a more niche role? Why not allow the more commercial vehicles to be what they will be and allow 2D to exist as a choice of artists? The best reviewed CG films are as such because their artistic style complimented an already solid story. It’s also important to remember that the number of animated films released annually has, on average, doubled from the prior decade. More animation is always good, even if it’s not all 2D.

The 2D medium is not dead. It never fully left us. We have only touched on the big studios and the films they had a direct hand in producing. Disney still had traditionally animated 2D output into 2005 with films that were originally intended as DTV releases. While we saw no traditionally animated releases from the major studios in 2008, we did have Waltz with Bashir, a 2D CG movie created in Adobe Flash. Throughout the decade we’ve had limited and wide releases of anime. Later this month, we’ll see The Princess and the Frog from Disney. Whether we’ll see Lasseter continue to deliver on his 2D commitment remains to be seen, but things are not nearly so bleak as they may have seemed mid-decade.

2D will likely maintain a minimized role in the next decade, but it will be around. It is more likely in the decades to come that the other major studios will, once again, take chances on visual styles beyond CG. So we go into the new decade with a cautious hope that 2D, while unlikely to ever return to its former prominence, will become more oft used. And, hopefully, we’ll end up with a choice of stories that better suit it and that it better suits. 

For Further Reading:

Cartoon Research, Box Office Mojo, The Numbers and Rotten Tomatoes were vital reference material in the writing of this blog post.

Warner Bros.:
Making The ‘Tunes’ Come To Life: Animator Bruce Smith Co-Directs, Sacremento Observer, 11/20/1996
Quest for Camelot: Warner Bros.’ Animated ‘Camelot’ Hits Formulaic Notes, Sun Sentinel, 5/14/1998   
Lean, Mean Fighting Machine: How Brad Bird Made The Iron Giant, Animation World News, 8/1/1999


Warner Bros. takes `Giant’ hit, Chicago-Sun Times, 9/5/1999

As the Summer Warms Up, The Box Office Cools Down, New York Times, 6/29/2000  

Good Times at Warner Bros. Feature Animation (circa 1995), TAG Blog, 7/25/2006    


Interview with Titan A.E. Co-Director Gary Goldman, IGN Movies, 6/6/2000        

Animation titans clash Studios to war again, Chicago-Sun Times, 6/18/2000

Animator Bluth’s Status Uncertain as Fox Closes Animation Studio, Mormons Today, 6/27/2000 

20th Century Fox Closes Its Phoenix Animation Studio, Los Angeles Times, 6/29/2000
DreamWorks SKG. (Jeffrey Katzenberg, Steven Spielberg and David Geffen form DreamWorks SKG, television studio venture), Broadcasting & Cable, 1/16/1995

Disney to bolster animation unit at Florida studios, The Free Library, 3/7/1997

Lilo & Stitch Review, Film Freak Central, 12/1/2002

Disney Layoffs Hit Animation Unit, toonzone, 06/07/2003

Disney Does Digital, Ditches Drawings, Slashdot, 11/10/2003

Why Disney Really Gave Up the “Ghosts”, Jim Hill Media, 11/20/2003

Disney’s Latest 2D Casualty, Animation Magazine, 11/26/2003

Roy Disney’s letter blasts Eisner: Text of resignation letter from founder’s nephew, Market Watch, 12/1/2003

Two leave in Disney board shakeup: Roy Disney, Gold blast Eisner in exit announcements, Market Watch, 12/1/2003

Roy Disney, Stanley Gold quit Walt Disney Co. board in Eisner feud, Jerusalem Post, 12/4/2003

Disney heir launches anti-Eisner site, Cnet, 12/12/2003

Lost art, St. Petersburg Times, 12/21/2003

Disney Closes Local Animation Studio, Channel 2 WESH Orlando, 1/12/2004

Disney shutters Florida studio, CNN, 1/12/2004

For Roy Disney, The Company Founded By His Uncle Walt Is Much More Than A Business. Marc Gunther Sat Down With Him To Learn What Made Him So Mad At CEO Michael Eisner, And Why He’s Leading A Mouse Hunt, CNN/Fortune, 1/12/2004

Disney animation studio in Orlando, Fla., is closing, Deseret News (Salt Lake City), 1/13/2004

Roy Disney blasts Eisner for Orlando animation closing, Orlando Business Journal, 1/13/2004

Disney Closes Florida Animation Studio: An In Depth Look At What Is Viewed As The End Of Traditional Animation at Walt Disney Studios, Film Buff Online

Eisner out as Disney chair, CNN, 3/4/2004

Eisner No Longer Disney Chair, Mouse Planet, 3/4/2004

Web-based campaigns a wake-up call for corporations, IR Web Report, 3/12/2004

Few film animators manage to stay in the picture, The Seattle Times, 3/30/2004

Disney Picks Robert Iger to Replace Eisner, NYT Says, Bloomberg, 3/13/2005

Empire of the Rats: Disney, Eisner, and the Rot in Hollywood, toonzone, 4/12/2005

Disney Mends Rift With Kin of Founder, New York Times, 7/9/2005

The Day SaveDisney.com Died, The Motley Fool, 7/18/2005

Disney Moves Away From Hand-Drawn Animation, New York Times, 9/18/2005

David Stainton Out!, Cartoon Brew, 1/24/2006

Disney buys Pixar, CNN, 1/25/2006

Lasseter to bring back Feature and Short Classic Disney 2D Hand Drawn Animation!?!?!?!, Ain’t It Cool News, 2/13/2006

Disney’s enchanting return to 2-D animation, USA Today, 5/3/2007

John Lasseter believes in 2D animation, The Animation Blog, 12/25/2007

Innovation lessons from Pixar: An interview with Oscar-winning director Brad Bird, McKinsey Quarterly, 4/2008

2D Animation is not dead, Disney will keep the art form Alive, GeekTyrant, 2/27/2009

A Conversation with Tom Bancroft, Fulle Circle Productions, 3/14/2009

“Quality is the Best Business Plan,” Pixar’s John Lasseter, Bob Sutton: Work Matters, 3/14/2009

Lilo & Stitch, Disney Feature Animation Florida’s finest hour–remembered, Orlando Sentinel, 4/1/2009

SDCC 09 – Disney talks Princess and the Frog, Gaming Angels, 8/27/2009

John Lasseter gives old-school animation a hand at Disney expo, Reuters, 9/13/2009

D23 2009: John Lasseter Talks Up the Future of Disney and Pixar Animation, toonzone, 9/17/2009

Interview: ‘Princess and the Frog’ Directors Ron Clements and John Musker, Cinematical, 10/23/2009

You are reading Part 3 of The Fall and Rise (?) of 2D Animation

Part 1 | 2 | 3 | Go back to the Toons of the 2000s Intro.