Cartoon Movies: Acting Their Age?

by Andrew Osmond

A child's mother is gunned down by unseen assassins. A boy delinquent screams with terror as his body mutates. Bare-breasted witches cavort `round a monstrous, bat-winged demon. No, this isn't some new R-rated exploitation pic out to corrupt today's youth. Rather, these are three of the most memorable scenes from Disney's 'golden age' feature cartoons, Bambi, Pinocchio and Fantasia.

Despite its poor showing at the boxoffice, many hailed the subtle story-telling and genuine charm of The Iron Giant as the true future of animated features. © Warner Bros.

Yet many of today's animation film-makers don't seem satisfied with such a striking heritage. Speaking to the UK magazine Empire at the end of last year, DreamWorks' Jeffrey Katzenberg said, "Seventy years ago, Walt Disney took a certain technique called animation and told the kind of stories he wanted to tell, which were fairy tales, stories and films for children, which was a lovely idea and informed everything he did. I respect and admire that. But it's not what I want to do. What I want to make is a Spielberg movie in animation, or a Barry Sonnenfield or a Martin Scorcese or a David Lean. The tradition up to now has been to do things cartoony. We don't mean to be pretentious, but we set out to do fine art. I'm not saying that cartooning isn't fine art, just a very, very different style." ["Fine Tooning," Caroline Westbrook, Empire 115, January `99, pp108-11.]

Are audiences tiring of the Beauty and the Beast formula? © The Walt Disney Co.

Katzenberg's sentiments are echoed elsewhere. Penney Finkelman Cox, co-producer of The Prince of Egypt, commented, "We want to tell edgier, sophisticated, more adult stories." ["Fine Tooning," Caroline Westbrook, Empire 115, January `99, pp108-11.] Kelly Asbury, story supervisor and director of DreamWorks' forthcoming Shrek, added, "There are so many Little Mermaids and Beauty and the Beasts you can watch, and I think as adults have been re-embracing animation in the last ten years, there's been a hunger for more than that." ["Fine Tooning," Caroline Westbrook, Empire 115, January `99, pp108-11.] Philip LaZebnik, co-writer of Pocahontas, said of contemporary Disney animation, "There's a real desire to break away from simple kid audiences and make movies that appeal to adults." [Disney: The Mouse Betrayed, Peter and Rochelle Schweizer, Regnery Publishing, 1998, p140.] Bill Mechanic, chairman-CEO of Fox Filmed Entertainment, said of his studio's Anastasia, "What we've tried to do is make a movie first and an animated movie second. We've been very careful to make sure it's not a kiddie picture." ["High Noon for Toon Boom," Andrew Hindes, Variety, July 14, 1997, p54.]

Two distinct messages emerge from this rhetoric. One is that feature animation, having enjoyed a renewed high-profile in America for more than a decade, needs to change or grow irredeemably stale. The other claim is that animation features should somehow 'grow up,' tell stories with more adult appeal. In particular, the comments of Katzenberg and Mechanic suggest feature cartoons should grow closer to live-action films.

Will to Change
The first claim -- that feature animation needs to undergo radical change to stay commercially/artistically viable -- is attractive to many animation fans. It's an odd claim, however, in that there's no obvious way to judge it.

Disney's dominance in US feature animation denies us the chance to weigh the fortunes of, say, Pocahontas -- which after all turned a profit -- against a comparable, more 'conservative,' rival. The lack of a level playing-field is demonstrated by the infamous test-screening of Don Bluth's 1994 Thumbelina. When Warners stripped its logo from the start of the film and inserted Disney's, the audience scores soared, demonstrating the huge influence of Disney brand loyalty. Not that this means Warner's Thumbelina would have been successful in any world, but that's beside the point. The lack of rivals mean there's no way, even with hindsight, to tell if Disney should have made Thumbelina rather than Pocahontas. Disney execs clearly thought not, but with no comparison except their own studio's past performance.

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