ANIMATION WORLD MAGAZINE - ISSUE 4.8 - NOVEMBER 1999
Cartoon Movies: Acting Their Age?
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These qualms aside, the restlessness of animators is clear. The strength of the 'will to change' was newly confirmed, oddly enough, by the disappointing performance of Brad Bird's The Iron Giant. The subtle story-telling and genuine charm of Bird's film was hailed by many as the true future of animation features, yet it blipped at the box-office. (Although due to its relatively low production cost, it may turn out to be a reasonably profitable film, especially through video sales.)
Writing for The L.A. Times, Charles Solomon noted the sense of frustration in the animation community following Giant's failure. "The artists are thoroughly weary of drawing similar heroines/heroes singing similar songs, while similar sidekicks make anachronistic wisecracks. One former Disney artist confessed he left the studio because, `I just couldn't stand to draw another Busby Berkeley number.' The e-mail at Disney, DreamWorks and other studios has been buzzing with messages among animators praising Iron Giant and urging one another to see the film again, to take friends, to support it any way they can." ["It's Here: Why Aren't You Watching?," Charles Solomon, Los Angeles Times, Calendar Section, August 27, 1999.]
Moving on to the second claim -- that animation should be more adult-themed and bear a greater resemblance to live-action -- there's no doubt that the idea chimes with recent animation.
The Prince of Egypt, a re-make of Cecil B. Demille's The Ten Commandments, reflects a wish to rival live-action. Photo courtesy of DreamWorks Pictures. TM & © 1998 DreamWorks LLC.
One of the most important films in this respect was 1991's Beauty and the Beast, perhaps the first Disney film where the human (or near-human) leads proved more memorable than the anthropomorphic support. The Lion King set further precedents with its 'epic' vistas and mythic overtones (or pretensions), both echoed in The Prince of Egypt. The wish to rival live-action was represented not only in Prince's remaking of The Ten Commandments, but also Aladdin's treatment of Thief of Baghdad (with added lifts from Spielberg), and Beauty and Hunchback's respective nods to the live-action versions by Cocteau and Dieterle. The films frequently use adult heroes, as opposed to baby-faced animals or wide-eyed children. Think of the title characters in Anastasia or Prince, notably older than most of their predecessors. The subject-matter is similarly ambitious: racial harmony, filial conflicts, even the fires of lust (Hunchback's notorious 'Hellfire' sequence).
Anastasia's adult heroes, as opposed to baby-faced animals or wide-eyed children. © 20th Century Fox.
Yet the box-office for most of these films was dubious, and the critical reception more mixed yet. Pocahontas, one of Disney's most ambitious 'human' dramas, marked a downturn in Disney profits, beginning a slump in its in-house animation continued by the Victor Hugo Hunchback adaptation and only reversed by Mulan. Elsewhere, Anastasia and The Prince of Egypt had fairly respectable receipts, but neither enjoyed the kind of revenue pulled in by Disney in the early '90s. Their budget-return ratio was ambivalent.
Variety critic Todd McCarthy says, "The strengths and weaknesses of Mulan help call into question the basic premises of Disney animated films at this newly evolved stage of their development." © The Walt Disney Co.
Critically, the main charge was that such stabs at 'adult' animated drama produced uneasy mixes at best, muddled hybrids at worst. Too many of the films, it was said, merely extended Disney conventions into unworkable contexts. The point was raised by Variety critic Todd McCarthy, reviewing Mulan (to be fair, one of Disney's most successful recent films): "The strengths and weaknesses of Mulan help call into question the basic premises of Disney animated films at this newly evolved stage of their development. The central situation is so intrinsically vital it makes the standard comic and kid-friendly elements, notably the cutesy animals, seen incongruous if not unnecessary." ["Mulan Blazes New Femme Territory," Todd McCarthy, Variety, June 8, 1998, p66.] Others go further: far from advancing animation, it is said, the Disney formula merely becomes more prevalent and stale in these new efforts. (See Charles Solomon's comments above.)
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