Friday, February 10, 2012

Is Traditional Feature Animation Doomed?

Disney animation fans should be happy to hear that the long in-development animated feature film adaptation of "The Snow Queen," based on the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale, is finally back on track. It even has a release date staked out: Thanksgiving, 2013. On the other hand, those who love Disney's hand-drawn, traditionally animated films, myself included, will be less happy to learn that the new movie, though initially conceived to be traditionally animated, will be done in 3D CGI, like Disney's last fairy-tale film, "Tangled." And it's also getting a name change, going from "The Snow Queen" to "Frozen."

When John Lasseter assumed leadership of the struggling Disney animation unit, he vocally announced his support for the resurrection of traditionally animated films at the studio, and he got a lot of people's hopes up. But then "The Princess and the Frog" did only middling business, while "Tangled" unexpectedly became a monster hit. Now, I don't have anything against "Tangled." I thought it was a great film, and I'm glad it got such a strong response and convinced Disney that there is still an audience out there for its fairy-tale musicals. However, when you compare the performance of "Tangled" to "The Princess and the Frog," the easy conclusion to draw is that "Tangled" did better because it was a CGI feature. I'm not convinced that this is true.

However, the final nail in the coffin of was the new "Winnie the Pooh" film, which despite receiving a lot of critical support, was a total disaster at the box office last summer, opening against the final installment of "Harry Potter." It's an incredibly charming piece of work and I enjoyed it, but it's hard to summon much enthusiasm for a feature that only runs 63 minutes. It didn't even pick up an Academy Award nomination in the Best Animated Film category this year, losing out to a pair of foreign contenders, "Chico & Rita" and "A Cat in Paris." Ironically, both are also hand-drawn features.

And there's the strangest part of it. Traditional feature animation is doing just fine everywhere else in the world. CGI hasn't made many inroads in Japan's flourishing anime universe, and the beloved Studio Ghibli is still turning out blockbuster hand-drawn films. "The Secret World of Arrietty," one of their latest, is finally reaching American theater screens next week. France and Russia, countries with long, animation traditions, have turned out their share of CGI features, but they haven't dominated the scene to nearly the same extent that they have in the US.

When you look at the American animated films being produced by the big studios, the ones that get played on thousands of screens across the country, they are overwhelmingly CGI animation. "Winnie the Pooh" was the only new traditionally animated film to receive a wide release in the United States last year, and "Arrietty" will be the only one this year. Compare this to seven new CGI films, and three stop-motion ones coming out in 2012. This is not counting, of course, the rereleases of "Beauty and the Beast" and "The Lion King" which were converted for 3D viewing.

Meanwhile, new technology has allowed more traditional animated films to be made in the last few years than at any time in history. We're seeing animated features, both traditional and CGI, coming from places as diverse as South Africa, Israel, and Singapore. A small but vibrant independent scene in the US still produces a few hand drawn features every year, like "Idiots and Angels" and "My Dog Tulip," both aimed at an adult audiences. Even animated documentaries are becoming in vogue, after the success of "Waltz With Bashir."

I'm glad to see so much diversity and innovation in these animated films, but at the same time it's sad to that the most talented, most commercially successful studios are stuck working in the confines of such a limited range of stories and styles. It's bad enough that Americans still can't get out of the mindset that animated films are for children, but now those films are all increasingly conforming to a standard visual aesthetic. Everybody wants to look like PIXAR, essentially.

Not that there's anything wrong with PIXAR. But when the majority of American animation looks like all PIXAR, all the time, then we have a problem. So many studios are doing so well these days, I can't believe we don't have room for a few traditionally animated features in the mix. They don't have to be the polished, perfect Disney extravaganzas of old, but the medium still has so much promise and potential, and others around the world have done such great things with it lately – and I can't help feeling that we're missing out on all the fun.

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