Sunday, April 14, 2013

Better Know A Studio Part I: Walt Disney Studios

With animated features becoming more and more successful and prevalent, it can sometimes get confusing about who makes which movie.  In this recurring series I'll cast some light onto each studio, it's history, and where it stands in the landscape of animated films today.  My other, slightly more selfish purpose for this series of articles is to try and teach that not every animated film is done by Disney, nor is every CGI one from Pixar or Dreamworks.  It's a serious pet peeve of mine, and dammit if I'm not going to try and do my part to educate the public.  Now then, onto the first (ironically enough): Walt Disney Animation.

Started by brothers Walt and Roy O. Disney in Kansas City in 1923, Disney is the oldest, the largest, and for decades was THE standard by which all other works of animation were measured.  The studio pioneered many early technological and artistic breakthroughs, including sound, color, the multi-plane camera, and the so called, "imitation of life," school of animation.  It was this ambition that led to the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves in 1937, the first cel-animated feature length film.  

Snow White was, of course, only the first in a long line of animated films produced by the studio. I have lumped the long history of the studio into three rough periods.  The first, and arguably the best artistically, extended from Snow White in 1937 to Sleeping Beauty in 1959.  This era contained some of the most beloved films (Alice in Wonderland, Cinderella, and Bambi) as well as some of the most experimental (Fantasia, Saludos Amigos).  These films had some of the best artists in the history of the medium working on them and they had no stifling limitations in regards to what was expected of them since they were the first.  The results were some of the best crafted and innovative films ever made.

The next era that I half-jokingly refer to as "The Disney Dark Ages" runs from One Hundred and One Dalmatians in 1961 all the way to Oliver & Company in 1988. Starting in the 60's, the quality of the films started to drop for a myriad of reasons. Walt's death in 1966 left the company and studio without his strong leadership and vision.  Additionally, the scores of talented animators who had worked on the earlier films had either moved on to other studios or were starting to get older and their skill had started to diminish. Finally the new, more efficient, method of xeroxing animation cels made production easier, but the image quality suffered, creating a signature look of slightly scratchy line work.  Not all of the movies produced in this time were not bad per se, and you definitely start to see an uptick in quality later on as the studio moved towards it's next big era.

The last major Disney epoch extends from The Little Mermaid in 1989 to the present. This is perhaps the most beloved era and contains some of the biggest and most popular Disney movies.  My generation was raised with these films.  Beauty and the BeastAladdin, The Lion King, Mulan...I could go on and on.  After Tarzan, the studio started playing around again with less conventional stories (Lilo & Stitch, The Emperor's New Groove), all-CGI films (Dinosaur, Chicken Litttle), and some that we have collectively chosen to forget (Home on the Range, Treasure Planet).

After a few real misses in the last few years, the studio seems to be headed back in the right direction with Tangled and Wreck-It Ralph.  Pixar founder John Lasseter (more on him in a later post) is now in charge of the studio, and I had high hopes for what else is coming.  However, recent news about Disney laying off hundreds of employees has me worried that the company may in fact be moving away from producing animated films, or even original films at all.

I could do a separate article about each of the studio's fifty-two animated films, but for now this is where the studio is today.  Aside from Mickey Mouse & Friends, animated films are still the company's hallmark even though it has grown to be one of the largest corporations in the world. While the playing field has grown and more teams are springing up, Disney continues to be the Yankees of animation.  Love 'em or hate 'em the House of Mouse earned its place on the top of the pile, now they just have to not fall off.

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