Wednesday, January 03, 2007

A New Era of Disney Animation

Disney Studios soon returned to the quality of its heyday of animation from the 30s and 40s with advanced, more mature animations in the late 80s and 90s, including the tale of the headstrong young mermaid Ariel in The Little Mermaid (1989). The popular and highly successful film earned $84 million at the box-office and insured the revival of animated films.

An updated version of Beauty and the Beast (1991) with a strong heroine, Belle and a Beast (a mix of buffalo, lion, and gorilla), was nominated for a well-deserved Best Picture Academy Award (the first nomination for Best Picture ever received for a full-length animated feature), and the theme song "Beauty and the Beast" won the Best Original Song Oscar. Aladdin (1992), a film that moved beyond the traditional fairy tale, used computer-generated imagery, and was designed for a more adult audience - it marked a significant change in Disney's output. It received a phenomenal five Oscar nominations (and won two for Best Original Song, "A Whole New World," and Best Score). At the time of its release, it was criticized for its negative, 'Americanized' representation of Arabs and non-western cultures. The film featured improvisational comic Robin Williams as the vocal for Aladdin's blue Genie.

The complex, advanced The Lion King (1994) was the first Disney film based upon an original story, rather than upon a well-known children's narrative, although its story-line was derived from elements of Shakespeare's Hamlet, classical mythology, and African folk tales. And it was also Disney's first film to totally disregard human characters. The wildebeest stampede scene integrated 3-D computer animation with traditional animation techniques. After setting a box-office record (of over $312 million at the box-office), The Lion King spurred a boom in animation production and merchandising, and other animation production studios besides Disney entered the picture.

[Some Disney critics firmly believe that The Lion King was blatantly derived from Kimba the White Lion. Kimba was originally known as Jungle Emperor (Jungle Taitei) when it was serialized as a comic from 1950 to 1954, and it later became Japan's first color animated TV series in 1965. Fifty-two episodes were released in 1966 in English under the title Kimba The White Lion from Tezuka Productions. Disney supporters claimed that the similarities were only coincidences.]
Another exceptional film (a coordinated effort released by Disney (Touchstone), produced by Steven Spielberg's Amblin, live-action directed by Robert Zemeckis, and animated by Richard Williams) was the Oscar-winning Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), a remarkable blend of animated imagery and live-action human characters. It was filmed as a tribute to the entire pantheon of cartoon characters from Disney, Warner Bros., and MGM, and other studios in the 1940s. Its animation was revolutionary in a number of ways: (1) it used light and shadows in new ways to produce remarkably realistic, 3-D effects; (2) it extensively panned and moved the camera to reduce a static look; and (3) it had the car'toon' characters interact flawlessly with real-world objects and flesh-and-blood people as much as possible.

Warner Bros.' Space Jam (1996) also featured Looney Tunes characters within a live-action film with basketball superstar Michael Jordan. Other films that used the same techniques to mix live-action and animation were: The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle (2000) and Joe Dante's Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003).
Disney's Animation Renaissance in the 80s

In the 60s through the 80s, Disney released a second-tier of animated feature films, including 101 Dalmatians (1961), The Sword in the Stone (1963), The Jungle Book (1967) - the last film that Walt personally worked on before his death, The Aristocats (1970), Robin Hood (1973), The Rescuers (1977) (with Disney's first official animated sequel The Rescuers Down Under (1990)), The Fox and the Hound (1981) - the first major effort by the "new generation" of Disney artists, The Black Cauldron (1985), The Great Mouse Detective (1986), and Oliver & Company (1988).

Although not a classic animated film, Disney's TRON (1982), the studio's first PG-rated film and the first feature film to imaginatively attempt to represent a computer-generated 'cyberspace' world, was the first live action film with over 20 minutes of computer animation. It was also the first film to popularize the idea of a computer or network in which one could experience virtual reality, and the first film to use the term 'hack' (the root of 'hacker' or 'hacking'), and to refer to the cyberuniverse as the 'matrix'. [Landmark composer Wendy (nee Walter) Carlos (who had collaborated earlier with Stanley Kubrick on A Clockwork Orange (1971) and The Shining (1980) - among others) provided a unique synthesized/orchestral score to accompany the pioneering, on-screen animation.] It was disqualified for a Best Visual Effects award because the old-fashioned Academy believed that it "cheated" by using a computer. (In fact, the film used a laborious, frame-by-frame process to produce its computer animation.) The concept of using computers to craft environments, rather than drawing them by hand, was considered inauthentic - until Cameron's computer-animated The Abyss (1989) won the Best Visual Effects Oscar.

[The fictional cyberpunk book (the first of the cyberpunk literary genre) credited with coining the word 'cyberspace' (referring to the Internet) was William Gibson's Neuromancer in 1984. The book also referred to cyberspace as the Matrix. One of Gibson's short stories was later turned into the film Johnny Mnemonic (1995) with Keanu Reeves.]
Don Bluth

In the late 70s, a Disney-trained animator named Don Bluth, who was an animator for Disney's Robin Hood (1973), The Rescuers (1977), Pete's Dragon (1977) and The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977) broke away and formed Don Bluth Productions with a group of disgruntled animators. His first notable non-Disney work was the animation sequence of Xanadu (1980). His first independent feature-length animation was The Secret of N.I.M.H. (1982), and his first big hit was the Spielberg-co-produced animation An American Tail (1986), starring coincidentally, a Russian mouse character named Fievel. The followup film, also Spielberg co-produced (without Bluth), was An American Tail: Fievel Goes West (1991), with James Stewart (in his last film before his death in 1997) as the voice of sheriff Wylie Burp. Other notable Bluth films included The Land Before Time (1988), All Dogs Go to Heaven (1989), Rock-A-Doodle (1992), The Pebble and the Penguin (1995), Anastasia (1997), and Titan A.E. (2000). [In 1983, Bluth was also noted for the development of the first laserdisc animated video-arcade games with Cinematronics, including Dragon's Liar and Space Ace. These titles fused the state of the art in arcade game technology and traditional cell animation.]
Early Claymation and Gumby

Claymation is a type of animation that uses hand-crafted, sculpted plasticine or clay. This form of stop-motion animation was first associated with director Art Clokey's clay-hero character named Gumby for children's TV - a slant-headed bendable figure. (Clokey filmed the animated motion study Gumbasia at USC in the early 1950s. Gumby shorts were inaugurated in the mid-1950s - and the character first debuted on The Howdy Doody Show in 1956.)

Early on, the technique of claymation was mostly associated with the directorial work of Will Vinton - his work was evidenced in the first full-length feature film showcasing claymation titled The Adventures of Mark Twain (1985) (aka Comet Quest), a biography of the US humorist derived from Twain's own Huckleberry Finn sequel Tom Sawyer Abroad. James Whitmore provided the voice of the title character on a transcontinental, riverboat balloon journey to find Haley's Comet. Twain's classic tales were featured in various segments, such as "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" and "The Mysterious Stranger".

Rock-Oriented Animation Favorites

Other pioneering animations in the early 80s relied heavily on rock music, adult themes of sex and violence, and capitalized on the post- Star Wars (1977) sci-fi fantasy boom. They have since become cult favorites for midnight movie fans:

  • Gerald Potterton's uneven, multi-part anthology film Heavy Metal (1981) - based on the 70s fantasy, cyberpunk comic book of the same name, was heavy on adult-oriented content; it was produced by Ivan Reitman (who would soon become famous for directing Ghostbusters (1984)), and one of the stories was contributed by Dan O'Bannon - the screenwriter for Alien (1979); a midnight screening favorite, it featured hallucinatory images and a heavy rock soundtrack by performers Black Sabbath, Blue Oyster Cult, Nazareth, Cheap Trick, Devo, and Grand Funk Railroad [Note: a computer-generated and cel animated sequel that went direct-to-cable TV, Heavy Metal 2000 (2000), featured a tough, buxom heroine named FAKK 2 (who was based upon the B-movie queen Julie Strain), frequent glimpses of cartoon nudity, and a heavy metal soundtrack by Pantera, Monster Magnet, MDFMK, Insane Clown Posse, Billy Idol, Bauhaus and others]
  • Clive Smith's post-apocalyptic animated musical fantasy Rock & Rule (1983) - told about an aging R&R singer named Mok (voice of Don Francks) who searches for eternal life; other voices included singer Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Robin Zander of Cheap Trick, and Deborah Harry of Blondie; [Smith's company Nelvana had earlier produced a 27-minute short The Devil and Daniel Mouse (1978)]
  • Gerald Scarfe's animation in the anti-authoritarian, anti-war Pink Floyd the Wall (1982) presented deeply adult content (on the subjects of sex, drugs, rock and roll, and violence) and psychosexual Freudian imagery