Animated feature-length films have carved a niche in American culture as a viable and enduring art form. Whether the story concerned the X-rated adventures of Fritz the Cat or the G-rated fairy tales offered up over the course of 60 years by Disney animation, animated films have offered a glimpse into another world that often could not be shown by any other filmmaking means.
Animated feature films comprise what is perhaps the most flexible twentieth-century entertainment medium. From its very beginnings, animation offered possibilities undreamt of with conventional film. Ink and paint on paper (and later cels, for transfer to film) offered a much wider palette than the strict physical realism imposed by the motion picture camera. Animators could create other worlds, superhuman abilities, bizarre creatures, and impossible effects with the stroke of a pen. All of this was possible with televised animation or animated shorts, but the feature film format opens wide the doors of possibility. Film animators have much more time and money to fully realize their vision, and movie screens provide a vast canvas on which to present their work.
Any serious discussion of popular animated film centers on one name: Walt Disney. Disney's prolific imagination and managerial skills helped shape the company that would completely dominate animation for decades to come. Disney's studio started out with a staff of talented animators who turned out animated shorts featuring soon-to-be-popular characters such as Oswald the Rabbit and Mickey Mouse. Perhaps the most important of Disney's partners was the prolific Ub Iwerks, who was with Disney from the beginning and designed many of the technical innovations that propelled animation ahead (most notably the multiplane camera.)
The first fully animated film was Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. To be sure, Snow White was not an entirely groundbreaking project. Full-length films in a quasi-animated format, usually involving shadow puppets or actual animated puppets, had already been produced with limited success. Prior to Snow White, Disney and his stable of animators had many years of success with a wide variety of characters, most notably Mickey Mouse, but never before had a studio gambled on a full-length animated feature. Their risky play was rewarded with critical and financial success; Snow White, released at the end of 1937, became the most successful film of 1938, with $8 million in ticket sales.
Snow White allowed Disney and company to experiment with animation in many new ways, including a larger cast, more character development, comic relief, and high drama; in short, they placed into their animated film all the elements normally associated with a live-action feature film. They also paved the way for the format followed by dozens of future animated films, with such enduring elements as musical interludes, sneering villains, and wacky sidekicks for comic relief.
Snow White also featured a number of technical advances that allowed the animated feature to move beyond the limits that had been imposed by the short format. Animators studied at length the films of live actors going through the motions of the characters in order to best capture realistic human motion. The multiplane camera invented by Iwerks allowed the illusion of depth, and a new effects department added realism to images impossible to accurately draw by hand, such as violent weather and effective shadows.
One gimmick that punctuated animated film from the very beginning was a fascination animators had with combining animation with live action. A decade prior to Snow White, Disney's studio had produced 52 "Alice comedies," one-reelers that followed the adventures of a child actress interacting with animated characters. From time to time thereafter, animators made further attempts to combine the two forms, each time pushing the technology further. Disney released Song of the South in 1946, featuring life on a southern plantation illustrated by animated stories told by Uncle Remus. The live action/animation marriage reached its zenith in 1988, with the release of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? This 1940s-style cartoon noir featured the most realistic combination of live actors with animation seen before or since. No small amount of credit was due to director Robert Zemeckis and animation director Richard Williams, who managed technical feats long thought impossible in human-cartoon interaction.
The Disney studio's place as a dominant force in animation was sealed by the enormous success of its early movies, as was the place of animation in the annals of popular culture. Films such as Fantasia (1940), Pinocchio (1940), and Bambi (1942) further expanded the financial and artistic horizons Disney had set. Disney went through a variety of phases as the decades progressed. The ethereal, fairy-tale look of Sleeping Beauty (1959) gave way to stylized, intentionally exaggerated work in such films as 101 Dalmatians (1961) and The Rescuers (1977). But there was one other very important effect of Snow White and those movies that followed: Although there would be many variants and offshoots, feature-length animation was irrevocably cast in the public mind as a medium for children's stories. And as children's stories, animated films for years were perceived as a kind of second-class genre.
After many disappointing years, animated film experienced a tremendous resurgence in 1989, when Disney released the hit The Little Mermaid. This adaptation of the Hans Christian Andersen tale kick-started an animation renaissance which was still well underway in the late 1990s. The Little Mermaid was an enormous hit, and it provided enough memorable characters and catchy tunes to sell stuffed toys, soundtrack albums, and sing-along videos for years to come. Disney's follow-up to The Little Mermaid, 1991's Beauty and the Beast, sealed the popular resurgence of animated film. It also earned for animated film the respect of both critics and the public. Beauty and the Beast was both a financial and critical success, and was the only animated film to be honored with an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture.
Disney followed this success with 1992's Aladdin and the most successful animated film of all time, The Lion King, in 1994. With over $350 million in domestic box office sales and tremendously profitable toys, tie-ins, and various other merchandising efforts, The Lion King re-established animation as a force to be reckoned with; putting it on the same level as even the most expensive or lucrative live-action franchises. With 1995's Toy Story, the first full-length movie animated completely on computer, Disney positioned itself once again at the top of the technological game. No longer were cartoons limited to what could be done with paint and pen.
Disney's animated films in the 1990s established a format that became nearly universal to films that hoped to emulate the success of Disney's releases. The so-called "Disney formula" included several basic elements: several show-stopping tunes, lovable sidekicks to add comic relief, and a cast of recognizable voice actors. A general theme of all post-Little Mermaid Disney animated features—that one's true worth is measured by what's inside rather than what is outside—is also often associated with this formula.
However, Disney was far from a monopoly in the crowded field for motion-picture success, especially in the wake of the enormous profit of The Lion King. Over the course of the 1980s and 1990s, one of the most consistent challenges to Disney's dominance came from Don Bluth and Gary Goldman. Bluth, a veteran Disney animator whose work stretched as far back as Sleeping Beauty, and Goldman both felt that the Disney studio had strayed from the ideals Walt Disney had exemplified and led a mass exodus of animators from the Disney stables in the early 1980s.
Bluth and Goldman went on to produce a number of successful animated projects, including The Secret of NIMH (1982), An American Tail (1986), The Land Before Time (1988), and the fully-animated video games Dragon's Lair and Space Ace. Their work met with acclaim and respectable box office—in fact, The Secret of NIMH was the most successful non-Disney animated film up until that time, and its $45-million take outgrossed many contemporary Disney films as well. However, while Bluth and Goldman's work was able to stand on its own and make a profit, Disney's box office dominance was still secure.
But, the rise of Bluth had a galvanizing effect on the animation industry. The success of Bluth's films showed that, even though knocking Disney from its position at the top was unlikely, there was still commercial viability in animated film. Furthermore, Bluth himself stated that he hoped his work would make Disney's improve as well, since competition tends to bring out the best in all parties involved. There might well be truth in his statement, since the success of The Little Mermaid and Disney's own renaissance soon followed.
In 1997 and 1998 the playing field for animation was reshuffled. Disney appeared vulnerable to competitors, as recent efforts such as Pocahontas (1995) and Hercules (1997) had done respectably at the box office, but had not achieved the smash hit status of The Lion King. Sensing an opportunity, other studios moved in to claim their piece of the animation pie. Bluth and Goldman signed on with 20th Century Fox to produce animated movies, starting with 1997's Anastasia. Several other animated efforts from rival studios, such as Quest for Camelot (1998), were released in the late 1990s during what might be accurately titled an animation binge.
Bluth was not the only former Disney man to challenge the giant. Jeffrey Katzenberg, formerly the head of Disney's animation division and the man credited by many with spearheading Disney's renaissance, split with Disney in 1994 to co-found Dream Works SKG and head up that studio's animation efforts. By 1998, DreamWorks upped the animation ante by releasing two highly acclaimed challengers to Disney's throne: the computer-generated Antz (1998) and The Prince of Egypt (1998). Katzenberg's gamble paid off; The Prince of Egypt, as of early 1999, stands as the most successful non-Disney animated film of all time, with a total domestic take of nearly $100 million.
Feature-film animation has come a long way since the completely hand-drawn cels of Snow White. Even in traditionally animated films, computers are used extensively to enhance color, add depth, and create special effects, often in subtle ways. The brilliantly colored flying carpet in Aladdin and the stampede in The Lion King would both have been impossible or considerably more difficult without the aid of computers. Completely computer-generated fare such as Toy Story (1995) and Antz pushed the envelope even further, proving that photo-realistic detail and shading are possible without using a single cel of hand-drawn art.
Creating an animated film is an enormously time-consuming process. Several years of work by hundreds, if not thousands, of staffers goes into producing the hundreds of thousands of frames that make up one ninety-minute animated film. Special effects are even more time-consuming. Dream Works estimated that 318,000 hours of labor went into creating the parting of the Red Sea in The Prince of Egypt.
Animated film's most important place in popular culture is the manner in which it has completely penetrated American society. Feature-length cartoons are considered by parents as one of the last bastions of wholesome family entertainment left in a world that feeds a constant diet of violence, disrespect, and vulgarity to their children. No matter how worried one might be about the general mental health of their children, so the conventional wisdom goes, one can't go wrong by taking them to a cartoon. The stars of animated films quite often become children's role models, favorite characters and imaginary playmates.
In addition, animated films tend to seep into popular culture and become the "official" versions of those stories, often overshadowing the originals. Disney's fairy tales are the best example. For children everywhere (and adults, for that matter), the images of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, Aladdin, and the Little Mermaid that they see on the big screen or television are the immutable canon. This same influence tends to frustrate teachers, parents and scholars when animated films veer too far away from the established story or, especially, historical fact. In 1995, Disney released Pocahontas, the animated story of the Indian princess who saved explorer John Smith when he encountered the Indians in the seventeenth century. Disney's version ran far afield of history in many ways, and teachers in many elementary schools prepared "Pocahontas curriculums" that were meant to counteract whatever false ideas about history their impressionable students got after seeing the film.
Disney was not above completely rewriting literature when crafting an animated feature from an established tale. In one famous anecdote, Disney gave one of the story men on The Jungle Book (1967) a copy of Rudyard Kipling's original novel and said, "The first thing I want you to do is not to read it." In a similar vein, many Victor Hugo scholars expressed dismay when 1996's The Hunchback of Notre Dame strayed wildly from the novel, particularly in its ending.
The economic and cultural impact of animated film extends far beyond what appears on screen. Marketing, merchandising, and other promotional tie-ins are extremely lucrative side deals that go hand-in-hand with feature film animation. At times, the tie-ins can be more profitable than the movies themselves. By the 1990s, when movie marketing had become an irreversible force, animated film characters seemed to be everywhere. During a major marketing push for one animated film or another, it sometimes seemed impossible to walk down the street without being bombarded with one reference or another to the film in question. Toothbrushes, toys, lunchboxes, clothes, pencils, sheets, underwear, books, Broadway plays, and made-for-video sequels all bear the image of whomever happens to be the hot animated character of the moment. Fast food restaurants became part of the act, offering small toys and trinkets as part of value meals to promote the film.
If parents tend to put their complete trust in animated fare to provide wholesome entertainment for their children, then that trust is balanced by the susceptibility of those movies to backlash. It takes very little to set off severe criticism of real or perceived offensiveness in animated films aimed at children. Parents take such subjects very seriously. For example, Disney has been the subject of numerous boycotts and protests for the content of their work. Arab groups strongly protested a lyric in Aladdin that read, "where they cut off your hand if they don't like your face/It's barbaric, but hey, it's a home!" That line was excised in video copies of Aladdin. At other times Disney has had to fend off allegations of subliminal messages. Rumors at various times accused Disney of inserting the whispered line "all good kids take off your clothes" into Aladdin and the word "sex" into several frames of The Lion King.
If animated film is usually geared to appeal to the youngest members of society, it is also sometimes intended to appeal to the mature. Ralph Bakshi's Fritz the Cat (1972), based on the Robert Crumb comic strip, was the first X-rated animated movie, due to its numerous graphic sex scenes. On a somewhat less excessive level, Heavy Metal (1981), based on stories from the erotic science-fiction magazine of the same name, featured fantastic violence and sex to an extent rarely seen in animated film.
Whatever the subject matter, animated film also offered animators the opportunity to make creative statements that were impossible in any other medium. Heavy Metal, for example, displayed the vision of that magazine's creators in a far different manner than the limits allowed by the magazine format. Music and animated films have gone hand-in-hand in a curious marriage for some years now. On occasion, popular musicians have used animated film to illustrate their work with varying success. The late-1960s psychedelic stylings of the Beatles found their perfect niche in the swirling, psychedelic Yellow Submarine (1968). On a much different point of the musical compass, Pink Floyd The Wall (19) featured numerous animated interludes that illustrated the main character's descent into madness in a way that conventional live-action film couldn't quite capture.
Television animation, an offshoot of the popularity of feature film animation, proved a profitable medium for broadcasters and producers, so it comes as no surprise that a number of successful television animation franchises have made the leap to the big screen, with varying levels of success. 1980s characters such as the Transformers, Go-Bots, and He-Man found modest success in theatrical releases. In the 1990s, Beavis and Butt-Head Do America (1996) and The Rugrats Movie (1998) proved to be tremendous moneymakers for their producers, ensuring that television would provide fodder for animated film for some time to come.
Animated films have been produced all around the world, although like much foreign film, most of them have not quite made their way into the lexicon of American popular culture. One exception to this is the distinctive look of Japanese animation—"anime." Slick, stylized visions such as the futuristic Akira (1988) appealed to animation fans who appreciated the detail found in Disney work but wanted more mature fare.
Animated films have been integral parts of popular culture for over six decades. Many of the classics are still popular with children and adults, and more are being pushed into production every month. With the advent of computer effects and completely computer-generated cartoons spearheading an entirely new kind of animation and freeing up the creative minds of animators to soar to greater heights, the art of animated film is set to launch into another sixty years of success.
—Paul F.P. Pogue
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