Category Archives: History of Animation

The History of Don Bluth

After writing about the different eras of Animation in general and Disney Animation specifically, I think I should write about some other studios too. Now, technically the history of Don Bluth’s own studio is a rocky one, so it would be kind of wrong to call this “The History of Don Bluth Animation”. Therefore I decided to make this about his body of work, about the movies which are exist because of him and not about the studio.

Which, I think, can be roughly cut in two phases:

The 1980th: The Decade of Defiance

It is impossible to discuss Don Bluth without discussing Disney. To understand what Don Bluth was trying to do in his early movies, we have to take a look at the state of Western Animation during this time. In short, we have to take a look at the Dark Age of Animation, a period in which Disney is the only animation company left which produces regularly big feature films. And let’s be honest here, even they mucked it up. Disney during that time was holding onto old tropes which didn’t really work anymore while at the same time trying to redefine itself without a clue in which direction they should go. At the same time Disney was not really in a hurry to do better because, well, there was no-one else in the market anyway, right?

Wrong! Whatever one might think about Don Bluth bailing on Disney during the production of “The Fox and the Hound” and taking a bunch of animators with him, he did set up a rival for the big studio. He challenged Disney by making movies which had the edginess which was missing from their own work for roughly two decades. Instead of focussing on romance, he made movies about the meaning of family. Instead of creating some sort of clean fairy tale world, he allowed his movies to be scary, to feature smoking and drinking and whatever else he could came up with. For a while, he was outdoing Disney, not necessarily in box office, not even in aniamtion quality (in this the two studios were pretty even during that period), but in story-telling.

I think most people would make the cut after “All Dogs go to heaven” because after it started a era of decline for Don Bluth, while Disney was on the rise again. But that is actually not the reason why I made the cut there. I seriously considered if “Rock-a-Doodle” shouldn’t be counted between his early works, even though it doesn’t have the same level of success. The reason is the subject matter. The focus is still more on family than on romance.  Plus, the early Don Bluth movies were pretty much about experimenting with new storylines, he was trying to do something which Disney wouldn’t do. And “Rock-a-Doodle” still has this experimental spirit (unlike “Thumbelina”).

But when I think of Don Bluth early works, the first thing which comes in mind is “dark” – and I mean that literally. Those movies preferred muted shades and often somewhat gritty scenes. There is still something of this darkness in “Rock-a-Doodle”, but the movie mostly pops off the screen with it’s loud colour scheme.

In addition, Don Bluth’s early movies had really adult subject matters. The Secret of Nimh is in its core the story about a mother who would do everything to protect her dying child. The rats, the magic, all this is just problems thrown in her way. An American Tail is not just the story of Feivel, it also a comment on history. It features how difficult travelling to America truly was, and in which traps immigrants could run in search for a “better life”. The Land before Time is not just about dinosaurs, it is also a discussion of faith. All Dogs Go to Heaven delves into the world of crime, telling the story about a low-life who redeems himself. Rock-a Doodle is about a child who ends up in a fantasy world? If there is some deeper meaning in the story, I don’t see it.

This in mind, I stuck with the popular cut. Don Bluth had one decade in which he broadened the view on animated movies. But it was followed by one decade in which he lost his edge and was speeding towards self-destruction.

Don-Bluth-Dark-Era

The 1990th: The Decade of Decay

In the 1990th, the situation had changed. First Disney rose to greater highs than ever during the Disney Renaissance. And then a lot of other studios recognized that animation could actually make money. A lot of money. So most of them started to produce their only version of the Disney Princess Formula.

As I already mentioned. Rock-a-Doodle is pretty much a transitional movie between two eras. But Thumbelina? That is Don Bluth selling out!. You can put it between a ton of other animated movie like “The Swan Princess”, “Quest for Camelot” and “The King and I” which came out around the time and were very transparent attempts to cash in on Disney’s success. And between all of them, Thumbelina is the most obvious one. Not only did they hire the voice actor of Ariel, it also practically copies the carpet scene from Aladdin.

The problem when a studio follows the lead of another one is that the curse of action makes it difficult to distinguish itself. If you want to get away with it, you still have to bring your own flavour into the movie. And Don Bluth really didn’t…unless you count the stale taste of suck. But the many levels in which Thumbelina fails is an article in itself. In short, it’s main crime is that it creates exactly the kind of helpless heroine Disney movies are always (wrongly) accused to have.

A Troll in Central Park is yet another attempt to cash on a trend, though one not set by Disney. For some reason movies about the environment were really popular during this time, too. Well, I guess Ferngully was moderately successful, but Once upon a Forrest was a box office bomb, so I don’t really get why Don Bluth jumped on the train, but fact is that he went from being the trend-setter in animation to producing knock-off after knock-off. Not only that, but the quality slipped, too. The Pebble and the Penguin is the result of a troubled and rushed production, and it really shows in the animation.

Now, the studio saw success again with Anastasia, which is why some people might be more inclined to say that Don Bluth had three eras, one of good movies, one of bad movies and one of okay movies. And I wouldn’t disagree. If I had to rate his movies, it would look this way:

  • Outstanding: The Secret of Nimh

This is easily his best movie. It has the most to offer visually, plays expertly with the emotions of the audience but above all, it features one of the best and most memorable heroines in film. Not just in animation, but in film in general.

  • Impressive: A Land before Time and An American Tail

Two movies which managed to address overreaching theme in a way which really touched the heart of the audience. Personally I think An American Tail is slightly stronger, but you could make a case for both of them

  • Good: All Dogs go to heaven and  Anastasia

Those are two really good movies, each in a different way though. While All Dogs Go to Heaven is the more challenging of those two, Anastasia has a great soundtrack and top notch animation.

  • Failed: Titan AE and Thumbelina

Titan AE has it’s fans but I think that the story needed some tweaking to really work. Especially the actions of the villain are very muddled. And it might be surprising why I rate Thumbelina so high even though I just came down very hard on it, but honestly, this movie does have a lot of potential. With a better written main character and some tweaks, this could have been a really good movie.

  • Just Plain Awful: Rock-A-Doodle, A Troll in Central Park and The Pebble and the Penguin

Confusing stories, annoying characters, there is really no reason at all to watch any of those movies. It would be a waste of time.

So, yes, I pretty much agree that Don Bluth was getting better after a string of bad movies. But I don’t judge by quality, I judge by content. And even though Anastasia is a very well-done movie which is certainly worth a watch, it is still a Disney knock-off. The only time Don Bluth showed the willingness to follow his own path again is arguably when he created Titan A.E. But since this was his last movie, it never had the chance to start a new era.


So why did Don Bluth’s movie decline that badly after a decade of impressive work? Part of the reason might be that a lot of animators went back to Disney eventually. But there are also certain questionable elements in Don Bluth’s movies which are easy to overlook in the early movies because the themes are so strong, but become more annoying in the later ones because there is nothing which would balance out the problems. One is the voice acting. I always watch Don Bluth movies in the German dubbing, because the English one tends to be fairly mediocre, due to an overreliance on the same set of voice actors. The other is a really episodic story-telling. This is especially obvious in An American Tail, in which Feivel is constantly thrown into new situations, meeting new people which are then just vanish from the story, just to turn up again at random (or not at all). But since it is easy to get emotionally invested in those situations, the audience is inclined to overlook it. In later movies, though, Don Bluth didn’t manage to create that level of investment, which immediately causes annoyance with the way how movies like Rock-a-Doodle or Thumbelina jump from one event to another with no rhyme or reason behind it.

I guess the truth is that Don Bluth is a great animator, but in terms of story he is kind of hit and miss. He most likely needed someone at his side with a sense for plot structure and a layered narrative. And he should have never strayed from his own path. Because the early Don Bluth created some of the greatest animated movies of all time. Movies, which will remain unforgotten.

Don-Bluth-Golden-Era

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By the Book: 101 Dalmatians

Disney usually likes to adapt stories which are already well known. As a result, I often know the books already when I watched the Disney movie, or at the very least I read the book at some point during my childhood and can therefore remember how I experienced it when I still looked at literature with a more uncritical eye. This was not the case with 101 Dalmatians. I read the book just for this article series. Which is in the case of 101 Dalmatians kind of a problem, because I can’t look at it from the perspective of the actual target group. I tried my best not to be overly critical but – well, let’s just dive into this.

 

1. The Setting

Most Disney movies are very vague concerning the time and place in which they are set. But 101 Dalmatians is very current. And with “current” I mean 1961. It is easy to forget because time has given the movie a different vibe. Nowadays it feels like watching a fairy tale like story which just happens to be set in the London during a time long gone bye, but back when the movie first hit the theatres, that was the reality. The TV program which is affectionately spoofed during the movie is the one they watched, their telephones looked like this and that was the kind of music they like to hear.f2f4ddf766aa61272d58e3f6002b7737

 

2. The Animation

101 Dalmatians marks an important milestone in animation. For the better or the worse, this was the first animated movie which used xenography forcing a style on the movies Disney himself didn’t really like. It was a technology born out of the necessity to lower the production costs. Because of this, there is this tendency to look down on the animation of the Impressionist era. In case of 101 Dalmatians, though, it pays off to take a second look, and not just because animating all those puppies was quite an impressive achievement back then. Especially remarkable is the scene at the very beginning, when Pongo is watching the dog owners on the street. They not only have all a very distinctive look, they also all move differently. It’s a fascinating study in animation to compare how much the different movements influence the perception of the characters.

 

3. The Characters

To say it upfront: I have a huge problem with the characters in the book. Mainly, with the way Missus Pongo and Perdita are portrayed. That’s right, Disney merged two character into one, Perdita in the book is not Pongo’s wife, she is taken into the family to help nursing the pups since 15 are simply too much for one mother. What angers me about both characters in the book, but especially about Missus Pongo, is how stupid they both are. In the book it’s constantly pointed out that Pongo is unusual intelligent for a dog. And he constantly talks down to her and acts amused when she says something naïve. This is bad enough, but on their journey (during which is constantly pointed out that females are weaker) they meet other (male) dogs, and on more than one occasion, Pongo and another dog act indulgent about Missus Pongo. It’s aggravating, and honestly destroyed any enjoyment I might have had reading this book.DVD-Cover-101-Dalmatians

The characters in the Disney version are not necessarily layered, but they are more balanced overall. It certainly helps that Disney slimmed down the cast considerably. Two Nanny’s become one, the husband and the cat of Cruella de Vil are omitted, and Lucky become the puppy who nearly did during birth instead of two separate characters. The idea that pets become similar to their owners (or the other way around) is picked up, making Pongo and Perdita mirrors of their human counterparts. And honestly, I quite like Roger and Anita. While it’s never explicitly stated, I always got the impression that Anita is a working woman with her own income, the mind in the relationship, while Roger the musician is the heart and the humour. That is a clever change, too, by the way, in the book they are rich from the get go, in the movie the little side-story with Rogers successful hit not only allows Disney to add some music into the mix, it also gives the human characters their own little arc.

One has to give it to the book: It is obviously written by someone who loves dogs dearly. Their habits are described more realistic than the way the humans act. Again and again it is mentioned that dogs see their humans as their pets. The downside is that there is much care put in the portrayal of the humans. I prefer the more realistic way Disney approached the human characters, and that Pongo and Perdita are equals in every sense of the word, working together to get their puppies back.

 

4. The Plot

I was actually very surprised how much in the movie is based on the book. This might be the most faithful adaptation Disney has ever done. The way Cruella de Vil is designed, the show “What is my crime”, the way the dogs communicate with each other, all that is actually straight from the source. What Disney did was exaggerating at the right places (for example the dogs don’t wake up all the humans when they send the message in the book), tighten the story a little bit (by making the actual travel shorter) and adding a little bit more suspense, more scenes in which the dogs are nearly caught. The scene when they sneak into the truck is slightly adjusted, and done really perfectly in the Disney version. First the suspenseful time until they are all in the relative safety of the truck, than the dangerous chase with Cruella right behind them, it just works.

It is, though, a little bit of a dissatisfying ending for a villain. In the book, the dogs destroy all the furs in Cruella’s house before they go home, hence destroying the business of her husband (who is a fur maker) and forcing them to flee the country to get away from their debt. The Disney version more or less forgets about the villain as soon as her car is destroyed. But all in all, there isn’t much to say about the Plot, neither in the book nor in the movie. It’s a cute little story, one Disney tells with the necessary seriously. But it’s not exactly a big epic. It isn’t supposed to be.

 

5. The Soundtrack

Technically there are three songs in the movie, all of them justified, but only one is designed to move the plot forward. The “Kanine Krunchies Jingle”, which is played on TV, is a nice little dig at advertising and mostly provides some background noise in order to add realism to the scene (as realistic as a TV program for dogs can be), and “Dalmatian Plantation”, which is played by Roger in the end, is only there to say “look, we all have a happy future now” and serves as very short Conclusion Song. The one stand-out song is “Cruella De Vil”, which Roger “makes up on the spot” and later on becomes a successful hit in-universe.

Cruella De Vil is one of Disney’s stand-out villains, which certainly has a lot to do with her memorable design, the two-coloured hair and this giant fur coat which hides a frail body, but nevertheless dominates every scene. But also with the song with introduces her:

Cruella De Vil
Cruella De Vil
If she doesn’t scare you
No evil thing will
To see her is to take a sudden chill
Cruella, Cruella
She’s like a spider waiting for the kill
Look out for Cruella De Vil…
At this point the audience hasn’t seen Cruella, only her car. But the song gives her a proper announcement. The audience is already prepared to dislike this character, and the moment when her shadow turns up at the door is properly chilly. It is clear, whatever comes is not good. And it isn’t. While Roger keeps making music in the attic (beforehand the melody to his singing comes very settled from the off), a scene plays which confirms his assessment of Cruella De Vil. When she leaves, he comes back and comments the scene the audience just witnessed:
At first you think Cruella is the devil
But after time has worn away the shock
You’ve come to realize
You’ve seen her kind of eyes
Watching you from underneath a rock
Interestingly the song verbally depowers Cruella in those lines. It basically says: Yeah, she is terrifying the first moment, but once you really look at her, she isn’t this terrifying overly powerful creature, she is a danger which can be dealt with. There is a slight foreshadowing in those lines because that is exactly what Roger will do, standing up and demonstrating that her power is limited. It goes exactly as far as you allow it to go. The song then concludes with dehumanizing Cruella, making her therefore an acceptable target of everything which will happen to her in the movie (which is, all things considered not much, unlike other villains her punishment is pretty mild).

 

This vampire bat
This inhuman beast
She ‘outta be locked up and never released
The world was such a wholesome place until
Cruella, Cruella De Vil

 

6. The Conclusion

101 Dalmatians is a surprisingly faithful take of the story. It’s not one of the big Disney movies though in my eyes, because it is, like the book, mostly aimed at kids. It’s entertaining but doesn’t even try to be more than that. I like the movie nevertheless. It doesn’t talk down to its intended audience, it’s funny and suspenseful, and just a good pick for a snowy night.


By the Book: Treasure Planet

People who already know me from Fanpop might have read this article series already, but I wanted it over here at wordpress, too, so I’ll move the articles over here, with some adjustments. I’ll take a look at book-based Disney movies, I will discuss how the movie relates to the original source text (or not), what the merits and the weaknesses of the movie are, and (that’s the new part) I’ll take a look at the soundtrack. I will not do this in chronological order, but simply pick what strikes me fancy (I’m open for requests, though). Don’t expect me to do the Lion King, though. For one, the connection to Hamlet is feeble at best, it’s more a case of being inspired by it than a true adaptation, and two, technically Hamlet is a play, not a book. I also will not do the Disney Princess movies, because I plan to do them in another format. Otherwise, I guess I’ll start (again) with the classics. And what better classic to start with than Treasure Island?


1. The World of Spaceport_Treasure_Planet
Treasure Planet

Treasure Island was my favourite book growing up.  So I was really looking forward to the Disney take on it, though also a little bit worried. And not because they decided to set it in space. To get this one out of the way first: Unlike a lot of other reviewers I think the changed setting was the best decision they made for the movie. For three reasons:

1. Treasure Island is one of the most adapted books of all time. I have seen around 30 different movies and TV Shows based on it, including one movie made by Disney in the 1950s. Did we really need another one in a traditional setting? If you want to tackle this, you better find a new angle (though there already was an Italian/German production which also put the story into space called “Der Schatz im All” – one of the better adaptions, too).

2. It allowed Disney to cut down the number of characters they put on the ship – though I personally think they didn’t go far enough with this. I would have preferred even less but in exchange more fleshed out side characters.

3. Above all, it allowed for some really creative imaginary. It would have been great if they had gone even crazier than just reusing the flying whales from Fantasia 2000, but props for the final climax. The action scene is really a sight to see, especially on the big screen. A lot of people are bothered by the mix of traditional clothes with strange devices, other argue that this is simply steampunk. Neither are completely correct in my opinion. For one, it is not really steampunk. The idea behind steampunk is to imagine future technology or styles how someone from the Victorian age might have seen it (thus the use of steam instead of more modern technology). What Treasure Planet does is more the other way around, taking a very modern idea of technology, but instead of going for the more sterile style seen in other space shows and movies, like Star Trek, Star Wars, Babylon 5 and so on, it tries to insert a romantic element by seeking inspiration from the time the original book was published.

In some aspects, it works brilliantly. I love the holographic books, the uniforms with a slight futuristic edge to it, the glider. In other aspects it’s confusing. Jim for example is a perfect blend between a Victorian and a more futuristic boy, his mother on the other hand misses the more modern edge in her design. I love the design of the ship (and the DVD proofs that the animators actually thought about how it works, with way more details than necessary for the movie), but if lack of air is not an issue, what’s the point of the space uniform Dr. Doppler originally wears? The design is very creative, but a little bit uneven in places. Though my solution wouldn’t have been not to do it, but to do it right, to make sure that every piece fits properly together. Thus said, I don’t think that the pieces which don’t fit are really that much of a distraction, unless you have a problem with the idea of setting it in some strange space future from the get go.


2. The CharactersTreasure_Planet_Characters

My biggest worry concerning Treasure Planet was that they would get Long John Silver wrong. The main reason I love the original book so much is this one character. Unapologetic evil, egoistical, but nevertheless so suave that you somehow want him to win, even though you know that he deserves to rot in hell. So would Disney be able to tackle this character without giving him redeeming qualities?

Naturally not. Thus said, the result is not as bad as I feared it would be and at least the design of Long John Silver is really creative. But where Disney really did a good job was with everyone else. As much as I like the original book: Jim Hawkins is one of the most boring protagonists ever, more a stand-in for the reader than a character in its own right. And all the other characters are more stereotypes than layered personalities. The strict captain, the foolish squire, the gentleman doctor and the trust-worthy servants on the one side, the irresponsible, drunken pirates on the other side.

Disney took those templates and turned most of them (the pirates are the exception) in layered characters. Jim is no longer the good boy, he is now the rebellious teenager. Disney is walking a very fine line with this character. It is easy to make the rebel too bratty and ungrateful to be still sympathetic. But Disney manages to portray him as someone who doesn’t really want to be bad or hurt his mother, he is just confused, unsure of himself, and unable to deal with the hurt and anger her feels because his father left him. And this is something unusual in itself: Jim’s father didn’t die, he just didn’t care enough to stick around. How often do we see something like that in a Disney movie? How often do we see a mother trying to reach out to her child and not being able to help, even though she doesn’t really do anything wrong? Tackling this issue is the biggest strength of the movie and the main reason I’m able to excuse the disneyfied version of Long John Silver. It might not be the Long John Silver I adore and expected, but it is the one which fits into the story they are trying to tell.

Captain Amelia is a terrifying take on Captain Smollett. A little bit of a bragger, but competent enough to back it up, overall a really strong female character. Even with a shoulder wound she never comes off as damsel in distress. Dr. Doppler is naturally a mix of Squire Trelawney and Dr. Livesey. For a somewhat cowardly character he is surprisingly likable, mostly because he acts when he really has to, and he actually has picked up some useful knowledge along the way, but not so much that he becomes some sort of walking solution for every problem the group encounters. The pirates are still disappointingly bland, so bland, that I can’t even remember the name of the Scorpion guy who takes over the role of Israel Hands. And then there is B.E.N.

To say it upfront: Never enjoyed the character of Ben Gun in ANY adaptation (nor in the book), and only a few manage to make him not annoying. Therefore it’s hard to blame Disney for this one. I like the idea of a robot without a memory chip, but they really should have toned it down a little bit. The screaming just ruins the suspense in some of the best scenes.


3. The Plottreasure-planet-disneyscreencaps_com-4193

If you read a book again and again, there comes a point at which keep skipping to your favourite parts of the story. Treasure Island basically consists of three acts: Billy Bones last days are the first one, the travel to the island is the second one and the fight on the island is the third one. I always liked the last one the best, the suppressive atmosphere of two groups trapped in an unfriendly place and the strategy involved in them outmanoeuvring each other, all this makes for a suspenseful read.

Treasure Planet is a very unusual take on the story because unlike most adaptations focusses mostly on the second and not on the third act. It manages though, to make the travel much more interesting than it was in the original story. Arrow’s death is even changed in a way that it result in real consequences instead of just being a side-note.

If someone asked me what the best scene of this movie is, my answer would be the “I’m still here” scene. For one, the song is beautiful and has really deep lyrics. But above all, it’s a really well done delve into Jim’s psychology. Seeing little Jim running after his father….that’s right up with some of the most heart-wrenching Disney scenes for me. As impressive as some of the action scenes are, those more quiet moments are the true strength of the movie. All in all I would have wanted more of them and more of Jim and Silver facing off, and a little bit less of the chase scenes through the ship.


4. The Soundtrack

Speaking of “I’m still here”, I already did a very detailed analysis of the song when I discussed the “Montage Song”, and since it is the only song in the movie, there is really not much more to say about it. Concerning the score, it is a perfect fit. I especially like the triumphant undertones in it, which transport a constant feeling of excitement.


5. The Conclusion

Treasure Planet is not the adaption I expected, but it is a really good and above all fresh take on an overdone story. If you allow yourself to get sucked into the world the animators created instead of second guessing everything you see, the imagination put into this is really enjoyable. It’s a little bit a movie for the big screen though, to appreciate the animation and the scale the put into the action scenes. It has its weaknesses, some clunky elements which throw the mood a little bit off-kilter, but none of them are distracting enough to ruin the movie. In the Disney canon, it’s one of the hidden gems, and definitely worth at least one watch.


The History of Western Animation in Film

I have decided to broaden the subject of this blog a little bit. Yes, I know, I have barely started with my lyrics analysis, but I already realized that I feel a little bit limited when it comes to talking about animation. So instead of starting yet another blog (I am barely able to do regular updates for the ones I already have), I have decided to use this one for some serious basic discussions about animated movies – and start with the basics.

When people talk about the History of Animation, most of the time they really talk about the History of American Animation. And if the topic is theatrical movies and not animation in general, that is for once fairly legitimate. Like it or not, but when it comes to animated movies, the US is dominating not only the home but also the European market.

I guess this is the moment I should talk about animes. They naturally have their own history and influences. Let’s concentrate on one side of the earth for now. I intend to illustrate something by doing a small overview over the most important development in animation.

The first theatrical animated movie in the world was – no, not “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” – an Argentinean movie with the title “El Apóstol”. Released in 1917 it utilized cutout animation (basically a special form of stop-motion). The movie is lost, but based on what I read about it, it was a satire which was certainly not geared towards a young audience.

The oldest still surviving animated movie is – no, still not “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” – Lotte Reiniger’s “The Adventure of Prince Achmet”. Released in 1926 in Germany, it is the third animated movie ever made and the first which used the little bit more sophisticated silhouette animation. In fact, Lotte Reiniger was the one who invented this technic. It works similar to shadow puppets, but they are not moved and filmed live, but painstakingly arranged. And let me tell you, the level of detail Lotte Reiniger archived this way in breathtaking. A photo can’t really convey it, but the result looks like this:

31994

The feathers and leaves are already impressive, but it is even more impressive if you see it in motion. As you can see, the movie is tinted. It also has its own “soundtrack”, composed specifically for it. The movie has been restored in 1999. It is now available on DVD and has even shown with life-orchestra from time to time. If you get the chance to see it life – do! It’s a once in a lifetime experience, for multiple reasons.

The first stop-motion movie using puppets is either of Ladislas Starevich’s “The Tale of the Fox” or the Russian movie “The New Gulliver”, depending on if you base it on the end of the production or release date. “The Tale of the Fox” was finished in 1930 in France but released in April 1937. “The New Gulliver” was finished and released in 1935.

The first animated sound film was – nope! Still not “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” – but another lost Argentinian movie, “Peludópolis”, released in 1931. The claim which “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” has to fame is that was it was the first full-length cell-animated feature filmed in three-strip Technicolor, and begin of the rise what we call nowadays traditional animation. Released in 1937, it was the seventh animated movie ever made.

From that point onwards, you can just as well call it the history of Disney. First stereophonic sound? Fantasia (1940). First widescreen format? Lady and the Tramp (1955). First movie using the xerography process? 101 Dalmatians (1961). From 1937 onwards Disney was dominating the market – and then became complacent. Between Walt Disney losing interest in the Animation Studios and the general lack of a proper rival, Disney stopped being the pioneer in animation.

I think Disney left gladly the crown for the first “adult animation” to Ralph Bakshi’s “Fritz the Cat” (1972), but the studio also got beat concerning the first animated feature in Dolby Sound by “Watership Down” in 1978, the honour of being the first animated feature using computer images went to “Rock and Rule” in 1983, and the first feature length clay animation movie was “The Adventures of Mark Twain” in 1985.

Then Disney woke up again, setting a new milestone with “Who framed Roger Rabbit” (1988) and then proceeded to perfect the CAP system. “Rescuers Down Under” (1990) was the first movie produced without a camera and with only digital ink and paint. In 1995 Pixar happened. Toy Story was the first fully computer animated feature film and Toy Story 3 (2010) was the first feature film released theatrically in 7.1 surround sound. Meanwhile there was development in stop-motion, too. Coraline (2009) was the first stop-motion movie which used rapid prototyping.

There are two point I want to illustrate with this: Disney didn’t invent animation (not by far), but it was over long periods the forerunner in traditional animation. Also, the world of movie animation is all in all pretty small.

The most notable Animation companies (read: companies which produced more than two or three animated movies and left their mark on the industry) and figures are:

  1. The Disney Animation Studios – naturally. Forerunner in traditional animation and currently on the top of their game in CGI, too. Also the first animation studio which started making animated movies on this list active since 1937.
  2. Pixar – Forerunner in CGI animation, now naturally part of the Disney Company, but still an independent subsidiary. Active since 1995.
  3. DreamWorks – mostly notable in being currently the biggest rival of the two studios above.
  4. Don Bluth – His movies are a little bit hard to pin down to one studio, because he went bankrupt multiple times. At one point he was working with Steven Spielberg, later Fox Animation (which is nowadays Blue Skies). So, technically not a studio, but a notable body of work, and a player on the field from 1982 to 2000.
  5. Jiří Trnka – A pioneer in stop motion animation. Between 1947 and 1959 he made six critical highly acclaimed movies. The Czechoslovakian was considered by many the “Walt Disney of Eastern Europe” even though his style was very different.
  6. Aardman Animations – specialised on stop-motion and therefore in a niche market the US companies mostly ignored for a long time, this British Studio has been around since the 1970s. Its activity in movie making started in 2000.
  7. Blue Sky Studios – owned by 20th Century Fox this studio pushed into the market in 2002 with Ice Age.
  8. Robert L. Zemeckis – he worked on different projects on different companies, but is mostly notable for being the expert in motion capture, especially since the release of “The Polar Express” in 2004. If this is proper animation or not is disputable, but it certainly goes hand in hand with animation.
  9. Laika Entertainment – founded in 2005 this studio has still a fairly small line-up, but with releases like “Coraline” and “Paranormal”, as well contract work for “Corpse Bride” under its belt, it certainly left its mark already.
  10. Steven Spielberg – It is easy to overlook since he is not an animator, but he has been involved as executive producer to some of the most noteworthy animated movies made since the 1980s (and one or two really forgettable ones). This list includes “An American Tail”, “The Land before time” and “Who framed Roger Rabbit”, though he is currently mostly dabbling in motion capture.
  11. Warner Brothers Animation – despite the “big name” overall fairly unimportant in terms of movie making, since the company mostly concentrates on shorts and Television Series. But it is the only animation studio which has been around just as long as the Disney studios. Since 1993 the studio has been dabbling in movie making, too, and while the Lego Movie is the first one, which has been a true box office success, it does have a few other critical acclaimed pieces in its line-up, including “The Iron Giant”.
  12. Ralph Bakshi – His movies are a little bit out of the realm of the other studios, since he has a different target group at all. Since 1972 he is creating movies with the intent to address the adult audience – with varying success. To be honest, I think if any of the other studios had a true interest to outshine him, they would do so quite easily, there is just nobody else truly interested in doing animation which is exclusively geared towards adults if they can do a way bigger cash grab with movies made for all age groups.

 

 

Roughly, I would sort the phases of Movie Animation in the following eras:

1917 – 1930 : The Silent Age

The early beginning of movie animation. At this point the movie makers from all over the world experimented with different variants of stop-motion. But with only three animated theatrical features overall, animation didn’t really take off in movies – yet.

1931 – 1959: The Golden Age

Even before the rise of Disney, the concept of animated movies notably took off. Aside from the ones I already mentioned above, there were additional movie projects which never got finished and are considered lost. The Golden Age also saw not only the rise of Disney, but above all the rise of traditional animation. Stop motion still continued to thrive in Europe and especially Czechoslovakia, but in the US it was mostly used for shorts, TV shows and above all, special effects in live in live action movies.

1960 – 1981: The Dark Age

A dark time indeed. Disney is more or less the only company out there which is still regularly producing animated movies. There are some smaller projects, some of them certainly remarkable, but overall, the animation landscape has become empty, and Disney is doing just enough to not totally embarrass the studio. This only changes in the 1980s, when Don Bluth starts to challenge the status quo. But not only this. Computer technology changes animation forever.

1982 – current: The Multi Age

Multi, because this is the most diverse era for in animated movies so far. Traditional Animation raised to new heights, stop-motion managed to push its way back on the map, CGI movies stormed the market and motion capture became a thing. And if you look at the list above, most animation companies listed there are active in movie making since the 1990th or 2000th. For the first time ever there is proper competition for Disney.

At this point the Multi Age might have been over already, since CGI keeps pushing other methods, especially traditional animation, out of the picture. We’ll see in a couple of years.

And this concludes my first overview. The history of the most important animation studios is another theme though, which I will discuss separately.