As I had hoped when the Disney-Pixar deal went down, Pixar’s John Lasseter is reintroducing traditional hand-drawn animated features in his new role as Chief Creative Officer at Disney. First up: The Frog Princess, to be directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, the guys who directed The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and Treasure Planet (well, two outta three ain’t bad). Alan Menken will be in charge of the music for the movie, which will be a return to the Broadway-esque Disney hits of the early 90’s (think, for example, Beauty and the Beast (which Menken worked on) and The Lion King). This announcement seems to me to be something worth celebrating — the driving talents behind The Little Mermaid making a new cartoon feature with John Lasseter in charge of the whole thing? Oh, yeah, man, good stuff.
But according to the news brief on the IMDb, the Hollywood Reporter doesn’t think Disney’s bringing 2D animation back is such a hot idea: the traditional animation “no longer draws the crowd,” the Reporter says. Um, hello, Hollywood Reporter? Yeah, the thing is that bad hand-drawn animated flicks, movies that seem excessively lame, insult the audience’s intelligence or seem to exist only as launching pads for Happy Meal toys… those are the movies that don’t bring audiences anymore.
Let’s go back to 2002, the year the death knell for cel animation was rung, for just a moment, shall we?
In November of ‘02, Treasure Planet, by most accounts a not-very-good movie, brings in a pitiful $38 million in the United States. Planet’s monumental failure pretty much single-handedly decimates Disney’s cel-drawn animation department, resulting in thousands of layoffs and the shutdown of Disney’s Florida animation facility. It was at this point that the “hand-drawn animation is dead” movement began in earnest.
Yet only five months earlier, Lilo and Stitch, a great movie with plenty of heart designed to appeal to both adults and children, pulled in $145 million domestic, plus launched a spinoff series and several direct-to-DVD sequels. Lilo and Stitch grossed almost as much in its opening weekend ($35 million) as Treasure Planet made during its entire theatrical run. By any metric used, Lilo and Stitch was a solid hit. (For some reason, every article I’ve read of the “no one wants to watch 2D animation” variety ignores this fact — doing so would dispute the foregone conclusion the writers were trying to assert, I suppose.)
Even 2003’s Brother Bear, which was released with relatively little promotion as a result of the huge stinking disaster which was Treasure Planet, managed to earn a healthy $85 million at the box office. (And 2004’s lame Home on the Range, also released with almost no promotion, still managed to out-gross Treasure Planet with a $50 million haul.)
So because of one massive stinkbomb, all of a sudden no one wants to watch hand-drawn animated features anymore?
Audiences do like hand-drawn animation when done well. (Have you noticed the huge surge in popularity of anime over the last decade?) Computer animation isn’t inherently superior, and doesn’t automatically ensure that people will show up. You’ll notice that in the glut of computer-animated movies that have come out over the last few years since 2D animation went into its coma, there have been some pretty big duds in that list, too (The Wild and it’s $36 million take, anyone?). Would The Iron Giant or The Lion King have been better movies if they had been done in 3D rather than 2D? No, I don’t believe it would have. What makes these movies work are the characters, the story, the songs (where applicable), the heart and soul that comes through — not whether the animation is flat or three-dimensional.
If John Lasseter’s going to be overseeing these new features, I have every expectation that the new breed of 2D movies will be more Lilo-like than Planet-esque. Lasseter might be most associated with computer animation, but the man knows storytelling and character and detail, and it’s those qualities which I hope will make these new hand-drawn features every bit as excellent as the Pixar films.