Saturday 27 July 2013

Editorial: Thank You, Mr. Lasseter. Or, An Analysis of Walt Disney Animation Studios' Spectacular Comeback (2007-2012 and Beyond)

With Disney's Frozen just around the corner, I think it's time to look back and see the slow-but-sure comeback of Walt Disney Animation Studios since John Lasseter took over. With the Disney Company owning some of the most influential brands in the world (Pixar, Lucasfilm, Marvel), the Disney Animation Studios sometimes gets lost amidst its more media-frenzy-inducing siblings. Nonetheless, since Walt founded it back in 1923, the Animation Studio has been, and continues to be, the cornerstone of the Disney company (even if sometimes that's not apparent).

Most Disney fans know that WDAS is responsible for some of the finest animated films of all time, from Snow White to The Lion King. Disney Animation have created many animated classics that keep entertaining audiences of all ages and, whether they were released 70 or 10 years ago, their legacy remains untainted. Not all the films the studio have released are undisputed classics but when you are in business for more than 80 years, there are sure to be some duds now and again. But, since 2007, WDAS have been on a great streak churning out films that not only have ambitious and daring stories but also have emotional depth and visual inventiveness. It may be early to talk of a new Renaissance but it can't be denied that the studio is undergoing a great comeback, and all this can be traced back to one man: John Lasseter. Under his management, the studio has flourished and positioned itself again as one of the leading animation studios in the world. And considering that he has been receiving lots of flack for Pixar's current "decline" and being (unfairly) criticized for his management policies, I think it's important we remember in what state WDAS was before he took over, compared to the state it's in now, seven years later. I think it's time we thank him for returning Walt's beloved studio to its former glory and launching it into a bright and exciting future.

The Dark Days

People may have forgotten that the early and mid-2000s were not kind years for WDAS (back in those days it was still called Walt Disney Feature Animation). After Tarzan, the Renaissance was officially over and, the next decade saw the release of underwhelming and disappointing motion pictures that not only were box office bombs but also had unappealing stories that didn't attract anyone. Sure, there were some bright spots (Lilo & Stitch) but most of their output was met with indifference by both critics and audiences. When 2004 arrived and Home on the Range was released, the studio hit a new low with a film that looked more like a DTV film than a feature-length theatrical one. That, coupled with the announcement that the studio was closing its hand-drawn division and focusing only on CGI animated films, was just the last nail in the coffin. Then, in 2005, Chicken Little, their first CGI animated film was released and, with that, their worst animated film so far. Not since the 80s had the studio been in such a crisis and, with heavy competition from other studios (mainly Pixar and DreamWorks), Walt Disney Animation Studios stopped being relevant yet again.

Keep Moving Forward

Thankfully, Disney bought Pixar in 2006 and, with that, Lasseter took over. The next movie that was slated for release was Meet the Robinsons, directed by Stephen Anderson. When Lasseter came on board, the project had lots of story problems and he persuaded the director to rethink the film again and scrapped many storylines that didn't work. The result? A heartfelt film, which might not be perfect and its animation may not be as polished as today's standards, but became a ray of hope for the studio. When released in 2007, it was a modest box office success but put the studio on the map again and people started paying attention.

The Truman Dog

The next film, Bolt, had a very difficult production. Originally being directed by Chris Sanders and titled American Dog, the film went through changes including the removal of the director (who now works at DreamWorks) and a new title. Perhaps the weakest film under his management, Bolt nonetheless manages to charm with its clever premise and colourful characters. Not only that, but it also became a greater box office success than its predecessor and snagged an Academy Award nomination. Sure, it must've been hard to let someone as talented as Sanders go, but sometimes you have to make tough choices and, in this case, I think it worked for the best. The Disney studio was on the right track again.

The Glorious Return

I clearly remember that the thing that most excited me in 2009 was wanting to see The Princess and the Frog. Sure, Up is a masterpiece and of course I went to see it opening day, but the fact that a new, hand-drawn animated film was being released by Disney surpassed anything else. Not only that, but further increasing my excitement, the legendary duo of Ron Clements and John Musker were in charge of the film, so it quickly became my must-see event of the year. And I ended up having a great time. The Princess and the Frog not only pushed the studio forward, but it also reminded the audience of why we love Disney movies. It may have not been a great box office success but it stands as proof that Lasseter was set to change the studio for good, and for that I will forever grateful.

The Best of Both Worlds

I have to be honest, the trailers for Tangled did not look good. They seemed too DreamWorks-esque and I feared that they would try to imitate their (then) sitcom-esque formula. Moreover, after The Princess and the Frog, I was disappointed that this film would be CGI instead of hand-drawn. Nonetheless, Lasseter and producer Glen Keane promised a film where they would take the best things about hand drawn animation and mixed them up with the best of CG animation. The end result was a gorgeously animated movie which bore little resemblance to what the trailers made us believe we'd be getting. Just looking at Rapunzel's gorgeous hair, you can see all the care that went into making this film and the visual style of it resemble the classic look of hand-drawn animated movies. And with a great story to boot, we had another winner.

The Silly Old Bear

After giving us great spectacles like The Princess and the Frog and Tangled, I was surprised to find that the next film was a Pooh film. This shorter, quieter affair seemed something unnatural for the Disney Studio. After all, the only Pooh film released by the main studio had been The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, and that was back in 1977. Since then, Pooh had been relegated to films for toddlers and little children and DisneyToon was in charge of producing his subsequent films. Nonetheless, I was thrilled that the film was hand-drawn and when I went to see it I was completely disarmed by the charming innocence and sense of nostalgia that it brought. People may think that making a Pooh film was a safe bet but I think it was a daring thing to do. In this age of cynicism and action-packed movies, to have a film so pure and honest is a rarity and when you look at it, you can't help but smile. It didn't do great business (and the 'brilliant' decision to release it the same day as the last Harry Potter film may not have helped) but the new Pooh film remains a bright (if underrated) spot of the new Lasseter era.

The Good Villain

The last film released is also the best so far to come from the studio under Lasseter's management. Wreck-It Ralph was a complete delight from beginning to end and that is attributed to its incredibly original premise (full of surprising twists), wonderful animated personalities and a heartfelt relationship between two outsiders. The fact that it's all set inside the gaming world (with great cameos by some of the most recognizable characters from video game history) is just an added bonus for a film that manages to thrill on many levels and that really elevates Walt Disney Animation Studios to a new heights.

Short Films and Techniques

It's nothing new that John Lasseter has being receiving lots of attacks, especially over Pixar and the Brave controversy (something that's getting tiresome by now), but also recently because many hand-drawn animators were let go from WDAS and the studio announced that no hand-drawn movies were in development at this point. I was disappointed with the news but we have to understand that he is running a business here and, sometimes, the right choices are the tough ones. Nevertheless, I don't think hand-drawn animation is dead. I think it's going through a certain type of evolution. Just take a look at Paperman, which just won the Oscar, and you can see that the studio still respects and loves the hand-drawn technique. This year, a new Mickey Mouse short, titled Get a Horse!, debuted at the Annecy Festival and is rumoured to be attached to Frozen. By the looks of it, it seems like an old-fashioned short made by Walt Disney himself. It features classic-looking Mickey and Minnie Mouse and it was done in hand-drawn animation, so no, I don't think that the fact that feature-length films are not being made in hand-drawn animation means that the technique is dead at the studio. We don't know what the future will bring and I completely trust John Lasseter to keep the technique alive because, after all, he was the one that brought it back, wasn't he?

The Future

Things are looking pretty good for WDAS. Frozen is becoming another must-see event and just by looking at the spectacular animation, you can tell the film it's a worthy trip to the theatres. Big Hero 6 is next and marks the first time Marvel and WDAS will work together, and if the brief footage we've seen so far is any indication, we're in for a real treat. The upcoming years are full of films whose premises, titles and crew make them exciting even though we don't know much about them. That's what John Lasseter has done, he created a new identity and a sense of pride for the studio that got lost after the Renaissance. The oldest animation studio in the world is also now one of the most fearless, ambitious and daring, one not content to play it safe, but always trying to push the boundaries in every aspect of a film to make it amazing. I just wonder what would've happened to the studio if John Lasseter didn't take over its creative leadership. I guess, maybe it would've been gone by now, so thank you, Mr. Lasseter, for your hard work and for giving us back the Disney studio we all know and love. Thank you very much.

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