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Making Film History: 1998's Animated Features

No question about it. 1998 was the year of animation, thanks to the successful release of so many theatrical features. Evan Backes puts it all in perspective and alerts us to 1999's treats.

Year after year, moviegoers across the world have expected at least one animated feature, generally from the desk of Walt Disney and company, but 1998 has been the first year in animated history where animation has become a prevalent medium of filmmaking. Every June, Disney issues a brand new film, and within the past few years the films have been tiresome enough to make an eight year-old fall asleep. Nothing was improved in 1997 when Disney produced Hercules, a bland portrayal of the ancient hero in a rather modern-day setting. But in 1997, something different happened: Fox Entertainment released Anastasia a direct mock-off of the recent Disney style. Although 1997 was a meek year for animated feature films, it did represent the coming of a new revolution for animation. After the runaway success of The Lion King, studios like DreamWorks SKG quickly jumped onto the bandwagon to make their mark in 1998 and 1999. The Record-Breaking Releases On June 6th, Disney released Mulan, their 36th animated feature. Based upon an old Chinese tale, Mulan is a girl who joins the army disguised as a man to save her country. Disney spared nothing in respect to tradition with furry side-kicks and politically-correct adult jargon. With an array of mixed reviews and equitable box-office standings, Mulan was quickly pushed aside and the `bug-bout' between DreamWorks and Disney/Pixar started to erupt.

DreamWorks' Antz was slated for release in March of 1999, months after the Thanksgiving release of A Bug's Life. However, the battle suddenly shifted course when Jeffrey Katzenberg, DreamWorks' film leader, surprised the world with his announcement that the release date of Antz had been moved up to October 2, 1998. This was a sly move on DreamWorks' part, but as I look back on it -- and after seeing the rival A Bug's Life -- it turned out to be a very clever maneuver. Hollywood was now ready to release four animated features (Antz, A Bug's Life, Rugrats, and The Prince of Egypt) in a matter of only three months, a remarkable venture in film history.

Images © DreamWorks LLC and © Disney Enterprises, Inc./Pixar Animation Studios. All Rights Reserved.

Antz was first to hit the silver screen. This was the first time since Toy Story that we had seen a complete computer animated film. Set within an anthill in New York City's Central Park, Antz told the story of Z, a worker ant, who tries to fight the eternal conformity of his society. DreamWorks marketed their film as an adult feature that would be suitable for children as well, but even with the help of leading voice actor, Woody Allen, Antz lacked the magical spark that cartoons typically bring, and instead left a dark and claustrophobic impression. Antz may have come first and relished more star-studded actors, but the suspiciously similar A Bug's Life was far more alluring and emerged as a lush children's classic. The idea of writing a movie solely based on insects is an attractive offer, but Antz failed primarily due to character development. We never really felt connected; whereas, A Bug's Life ventured into the entire insect kingdom and provided the character depth that any good film should have. A Bug's Life's sophisticated storyline only added to the remarkable computer techniques that created some of the most magical scenes in animated history, e.g. the rain shower scene and the final war against the grasshoppers. Meanwhile, Nickelodeon produced their first full-length animated film: The Rugrat's Movie. Based directly on the television program, the film introduces a new member of the Pickles family, and in turn, leads us into a number of childish adventures. As expected, the film did remarkably well.

The Prince of Egypt was a visual blockbuster. © DreamWorks LLC.

So four down and one to go, and coincidentally Hollywood saved the best for last. After four grudgingly long years of production, the most anticipated film of 1998 - presented in the almost forgotten traditional format - was finally released: The Prince of Egypt, DreamWorks' animated epic about the life of Moses and the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt. The pure audacity and monumental structure of the film revives the ancient story of Moses in the most grand manner. The animation is breathtaking; within each frame exists stunning visuals and unique character designs.

We all know the story, but The Prince of Egypt seems to have forgotten bits and pieces that create gaps in one of the most fragile stories of mankind. Still, between the valorous chariot race, the unsettling slaying of the first born and the colossal parting of the Red Sea, The Prince of Egypt was the cherry on top of last year's cake. What Could Top That!?! The question now stands, how could 1999 possibly top last year's immensely successful slate of animated films? The answer is diversity. Because there is close to a dozen animated films that are scheduled to release this year, the easiest and most organized manner to present them is by studio.

Quest for Camelot could have been better to say the least. © 1998 Warner Bros. All Rights Reserved.

You may be saying, "Hey, you forgot Warner Bros.' Quest for Camelot on your 1998 list!" Frankly so, and I did it for a reason. Quest for Camelot was an atrocity for animated filmmaking and Warner Bros. as a whole. Warner Bros. may have hung their heads in shame during 1998, but they have a couple of films up their sleeve which ought to determine their ultimate fate. Their latest feature, entitled Iron Giant, is about a behemoth metal machine that drops from the sky and frightens a small town in Maine in 1958. After befriending a young boy named Hogarth, the Iron Giant finds its humanity and saves the town's people from their fears and prejudices. Based upon the 1968 book, Iron Man, by the laureate British poet Ted Hughes, and directed by talented Brad Bird (The Simpsons, King of the Hill), expect this summer feature to find a warm place in your heart. Next fall, Warner Bros. is going to release The Incredible Mr. Limpet, a computer animated extravaganza based on the 1964 film by Arthur Lubin about a man who becomes a secret weapon when he turns into a fish. Jim Carrey is to take the place of the seasoned Don Knotts, but unfortunately this film will probably flop as bad as the original. A digital house has not yet been chosen for the CG portion of the film. As usual, Disney will have its fair share of the coin in 1999 with its typical June release of a traditionally animated film and a conjugated production between Pixar Animation Studios in late fall. On June 25th, Disney will release their 37th animated feature, Tarzan in another one of their typical breaches of originality. Besides that looming factor, there is much to look forward to: the animated stylings of Glenn Keane, the musical score of Phil Collins, and the romance script between Tarzan and Jane. Although the film will probably include a cute and cunning animal side-kick from the jungle and awkward monkey wisecracks, expect Tarzan to be one of Disney's best films of late.

Although originally intended as a direct-to-video film, Toy Story II will receive a full-blown theatrical release like its hit 1995 predecessor. © Disney Enterprises, Inc./Pixar Animation Studios. All Rights Reserved.

Remarkably, Disney is releasing two animated sequels this fall: Toy Story II and Fantasia 2000. Although most animated sequels are issued as direct-to-video releases, these two films are important additions to animated history. In the second Toy Story, Woody is stolen by a toy collector while Andy is off at summer camp. With the incredible advancement of computer animated film, expect Toy Story II to be a delectable piece of eye-candy. Fifty-nine years since its predecessor, Fantasia 2000 will be a dream come true for Walt Disney, who envisioned the idea of Fantasia as an ever evolving creation that should be improved over the years. Although the long-awaited sequel will lack the "Night on Bald Mountain" sequence featuring Bill Tytla's dramatic Chernabog animation, it will gain a number of exciting pieces: a Nutcracker sequence, a whale and undersea arrangement, the creation of Mother Nature, and Donald Duck and Noah's Ark. To top it off, Fantasia 2000 will be released December 31, 1999, just in time for the new millennium.

DreamWorks isn't going to give up the fight in `99 with their third animated feature, The Gold of El Dorado. This film is a visually captivating tale set amidst 16th century Mayan culture about a couple of roguish swindlers who get their hands on a map to the fabled city of gold, El Dorado. The plot is sophisticated, yet wickedly funny with a stern PG-13 rating, so expect this one to be a hit this fall. Fox Entertainment has decided to make a dramatic reappearance after their Anastasia release in 1997 with the 1999 production, Monkey Bone, the latest project from film noir creator, Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas, James and the Giant Peach). The comedy revolves around a cartoonist (played by Ben Stiller) and the incredible fantasy world that takes place in his mind after he slips into a coma. Earlier in 1998, Fox dismissed director Art Vitello for the up-and-coming Planet Ice feature, and instead, elected Don Bluth and Gary Goldman, who have both worked together on a number of titles, such as An American Tail and Anastasia.

Is a Celebrity Death Match feature in the works? © MTV.

In addition to the big studio animated films, a number of other studios are venturing into the animated venue. This summer, Miramax Films is releasing Hayao Miyazaki's extravagant 1997 film, Mononoke Hime, which was first issued in Japan. It will be re-dubbed and renamed, Princess Mononoke, for American audiences. Alongside Princess Mononoke, Columbia TriStar Pictures is releasing the long awaited sequel to the 1981 cult classic, Heavy Metal, titled, Heavy Metal F.A.K.K. 2. Before our eyes are opened to some of the year's greatest films, Paramount Pictures is following its TV-to-movie tradition with South Park: The Movie, where the four little tykes are sent to military school. Paramount is also planning an animated Christmas `99 release of either Beavis and Butt-head II or a Celebrity Deathmatch feature. 1998 has been a watershed year for animated films, but it has only begun. As we enter the new millennium, anticipate the medium of animation to only expand. Evan Backes is the creator of the Stay Tooned website and a freelance writer for Animato Magazine.