It is a time of turmoil for one of the world’s most recognised corporations, especially since the Mouse House’s last animated project, Chicken Little, failed to do the numbers that such Pixar collaborations as Toy Story have brought in. Indeed, it has been widely speculated that the film’s commercial fate would determine the future for future Disney in-house animation (the film opened in America in November to a gross of over $130,000,000).
"Sure, there has been a lot of pressure on us, no doubt about it," comments Jason Ryan, the Dublin-born supervising animator for Chicken Little when Kameracatches up with him. "But there is a lot of pressure on practically every film that is made," he laughs. "We just think about making the best movie that we can and then we test it with audiences again and again and again, just to see if people are laughing in the right places and if the story is clear."
In 2005, the company announced that its Disneytoons Studio in Australia will close in 2006 – sounding the death knell for traditional 2D features, and bringing to an end the legacy that began in 1937 with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The Sydney-based studio is the last where hand drawn cartoon features are produced, although in recent years the turnout has largely been in cheap, unmemorable sequels to past classics such as Cinderella, Lady and the Tramp and The Lion King. The closure leaves 250 animators unemployed, although the company has maintained that the demand for computer generated animated features, highlighted by the popularity of titles such as Finding Nemo, leaves them with little choice but to continue in this vein. "To us, the 2D product is obviously dead," admits Ryan. "It has happened because of the lack of blockbusters on the 2D end."
Even so, Chicken Little represented a major turning point for Disney because it was the first CG effort to be produced without Pixar, the studio behind such hits as Toy Story, Monsters Inc and The Incredibles and credited for instigating the revolution in 3D animation. It was also released at a time when the organisation had just said its farewell to long serving CEO Michael Eisner, the man largely responsible for Disney’s late eighties/ early nineties peak but who has come under scrutiny from shareholders and company directors alike. Roy E. Disney, the nephew of Uncle Walt himself, resigned from his position as vice chairman and the head of Disney animation in 2003, reportedly furious at Eisner’s inability to secure a further deal with Pixar (rumour has it that arch rivals Dreamworks, creators of Shrek, were at the time interested in building up a relationship with the Toy Story masterminds). Setting up a website entitled "Save Disney", the bitter family member finally succeeded in ousting Eisner from the company – and upon the CEO’s exit this past September, the corporation entered into its latest stage of existence under the grip of its former president Bob Iger.
With Disney’s shares in a lull during late 2005 and with the company’s success resting to a large extent on its ownership of the ABC network and its bustling theme park business (Hong Kong Disneyland is the latest to open) no one could safely predict the future for the organisation’s token animation arm – let alone that they would eventually buy Pixar for themselves. After all, ten years ago few could have expected that there would be no more ‘flat’ cartoon features from the very studio that was built on the back of their success. Instead, Mickey Mouse and his kin have been replaced by lifelike 3D creations – bringing us back to Chicken Little and Disney’s first attempt at making an in-house, computer generated feature (the film arrived on DVD in the UK last week).
"This is the first time that the public will see what Disney can do with cartoon style CG animation," states Ryan. "It is an adventure, and it has a heart-warming feel throughout but it also has this zany, comic animation to go with it. It is really, really appealing."
Chicken Little tells the story of its young title character, who one day has an acorn drop from a tree and hit him on the head. Convinced that the sky is falling, the feathered critter has to face the humiliation of being laughed at by everyone that he speaks to – and then, for real this time, a part of the sky actually does collapse sending everyone into a panic. "Apart from the main story, it is about Chicken Little trying to gain the respect that he always wanted to have from his father," mentions Ryan. "I think people can relate to it," he confides, "All of the test screenings that we have put it through… we have tested this on audiences from ages five all the way up to 45 just to see who will want to go and see this film. The results have just been incredible. Everyone has gone crazy about it – you’ve never seen anything like this before, it is pure Disney characters, the kind that we all fell in love with as kids, but it is in CG which gives them a whole new sense of believability."
Therein is also the problem, of course. Will audiences eventually become tired of having their cartoons resemble something that does not look like an animated movie? Early evidence suggests that they might. Valiant, the full length CG picture from Britain’s Vanguard Animation Studios, and which Disney distributed, was a flop – making back only half of its $40 million budget in the US. Compare this with the runaway success of 2002’s traditionally animated Lilo and Stitch, which brought in a box office tally of $145 million, and it becomes uncertain whether or not the studio’s decision to fire its 2D artists is a wise one. Interestingly, Valiant was advertised as being "from the producer of Shrek and Shrek 2" – as if Disney is acknowledging the market value in publicising its own rivals rather than relying on its own, supposedly quality, brand.
The company has been here before, of course. In 2000 Disney was certain that they had the next big thing – a picture called Dinosaur, which was shot with real, naturalistic backgrounds and then enhanced with digitally created characters. The token merchandise was prepared, and a Dinosaur ride even opened for business in Walt Disney World, but the movie underperformed at the box office and such an ambitious project was never attempted again. This is something that Ryan, who worked on Dinosaur, is well aware of: "I would not go so far as to say that we are never going to do 2D again," he confirms. "But CG is definitely the flavour right now. I think that we are excited about this new technology and really want to explore it so we are putting all of our strengths over from the 2D animation into the CG."
The voices of the bitter ex-animators that created such past classics as Aladdin, Beauty and the Beastand The Lion King are not going unheard, however. A recent documentary entitled Dream on Silly Dreamer has been playing at American film festivals and attracting rave reviews. Directed by former cartoonist and employee Dan Lund, the picture details the sacking of 200 animators at Disney’s famous Burbank studios. When still battling to oust Eisner from the studio earlier in 2005, Roy E. Disney actually invited shareholders to a free screening of the movie, perhaps indicating that at least one member of the company does not want to see the demise of 2D features.
Nevertheless, looking to the future and Ryan states that the company is already planning a return to the fairy tales of yore, with an adaptation of Rapunzel. "This one is going to be huge, it will be so epic," he maintains, "We are going back to the great fairy tales, like Cinderella – going back to the real Disney classics. It is not a farce, with fart jokes or anything, you know? We are going back to the sort of Disney story that we all loved when we were younger."
Indeed, looking back to the past – how does Ryan feel that Uncle Walt himself would react to his own studio turning its back on the sort of animation that he and his artists turned into a modern art form? "When we are making films we are trying to bring new technology to everything and that is how Walt would do it," he replies. "That is what he did with all these great films they made, and you could always tell that he was exploring how to get an extra dimension into his work."
For Ryan the air of change at the Disney animation studios is a positive one, "It is a very exciting time in Disney right now, and to be working here, because we are figuring out new ways of doing things," he laughs. "I know it sounds corny but it is so exciting to come to work everyday." Clearly, times have changed at the Magic Kingdom but, for many former employees, the transition doesn’t come with a happy ending.
Ten examples of essential Disney magic
The Old Mill (1937): This Silly Symphony cartoon marks the debut of the multi-plane camera – allowing for realistic three dimensional animation and a depth that no cartoon had exhibited up until this time. Fittingly, the short won an Oscar in 1937 and is still outstandingly eerie and wonderfully atmospheric.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937): The first full length animation feature – and still likely to keep you rooted to your seat. It also happens to feature more horror than 99% of the genre titles you’ll see at your local Odeon.
Pinnochio (1940): Arguably the peak of classic Disney animation. A amazing film and one of the finest motion pictures in history.
Fantasia (1940): At this point Disney’s studio is on a roll – with Fantasia breaking ground in the art of placing music and sound with suitable motion picture sequences. Sadly, the movie fails to recoup its costs, leading to a hard time for the studio – especially with the onslaught of World War 2. Nevertheless, with Fantasia perhaps the finest example of 20th century screen art is displayed before the viewer. Watch it and try not to let your jaw hit the floor…
Bambi (1942): Bambi’s mother is shot and a whole new generation embraces animal welfare. Bambi is a prime example of a movie that changed the world, at a time when the world was badly in need of humanity…
Song of the South (1946): Disney prefers to sweep this under the carpet – due largely to its very ‘of the time’ documentation of post-civil war Georgia. However, the movie is certainly not racist (actor James Baskett even won a ‘special’ Academy Award) and the animation segments remain, quite possibly, the best the studio ever did.
Seal Island (1949): How many people know that Disney brought the wildlife film to commercial prominence with this Oscar winning documentary? This is what paved the way for the National Geographic channel, March of the Penguins and Lord Attenborough himself…
Lady and the Tramp (1955): Disney’s first attempt at filming an animated feature in the widescreen format remains one of the studio’s greatest projects. A masterpiece – and one that utilises the full 2.35.1 image better than most modern blockbusters…
Beauty and the Beast (1991): After years of turmoil, almost-great animated ‘classics’ (step forward The Rescuers, The Fox and the Hound and Robin Hood) and a new administration with a keen eye on the commercial, Beauty and the Beast slipped out. It also gained an Oscar for best film (The Silence of the Lambs won, which is just indefensible) and remains one of the standout releases of the nineties.
Toy Story (1995): When the love of CGI runs its course, Toy Story will be remembered because it was simply one of the most entertaining releases of its year. Regardless, the birth of CGI starts here…