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 Disney Movie Animation

Last time I discussed the history of western animated movies, now let’s take a look how Disney figures in all this. I have decided to follow the examples of some of my fellow bloggers here and forgo most of the usual naming of the eras and instead came up with my own classifications. Note that while I mostly sought inspiration from the usual eras of art and literature, my reasons for picking the names are not always connected to their original meaning.


 

1937- 1942 The Disney Expressionism

It is usually called the “Golden Age”, but if you really think about it, this was the golden age for animation in general and not for Disney specifically. Plus, when it comes to movies, the age was not that “golden” for Disney at all. Yes, they made a ton of money with “Snow White and Seven Dwarves”, but the only other movie which really was a financial success during this time was “Dumbo” – which was originally a short extended to a movie in order to recoup the losses from “Fantasia”. This in mind, it is kind of misleading to talk about a “Golden Age”.

It is the age though, in which most of the Disney staples were established. “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” was the beginning of the fairy tale based movies which are nowadays marketed in the Disney Princess Franchise. “Pinocchio” started the concept of taking well-known literature classics and making them their own. “Bambi” explored the possibilities of telling stories from the perspective of animals. “Fantasia” – well, that is pretty much a category on its own. And “Dumbo” is the prototype of the more child than family oriented movies Disney sometimes produces. The sidekicks, the use of music, the type of villains, the Disney acid sequence, all this was first done back then and has prevailed in Disney movies to this day.

Therefore I did consider “Disney Classic” as name for this era, but it doesn’t really fit the style of the movies, which it has nothing to do with Greek or Roman antique. Unshavedmouse calls it the “Tar and Sugar Era” due to the tendency of the movies to alternate between really, really sweet and really, really dark. Those are the movies which made children literally piss their pants (“Snow White and the Seven Dwarves”), which created villains which actually got away with their every deeds (“Pinocchio”) and which traumatised the audience with the dead of Bambi’s mother. “Fantasia” is to this day the only Disney movie which openly displays breasts – in a close-up nonetheless. It is something we tend to forget nowadays, but those movies were pushing the envelope at every turn.

All the movies of this era are kind of dark – and I mean this literally. The “sweet” moments are colourful and wholesome, but those moments are surrounded by darkness. Especially in “Pinocchio” Gepetto is practically a carrier of light…scenes with him are considerably brighter than the scenes without him. Even the colourful circus world of “Dumbo” is often swallowed by long shadows and darkness.

Expressionism is at its core about causing a reaction, it is not about what is real, but about causing emotional reactions. That can be the colourful world of Franz Marc or the disturbing one of Edvard Munch. In filmmaking, especially the German Expressionism is notable for the use of shadows and the deliberate use of unrealistic settings, and this was a movement which influenced the filmmakers of Hollywood considerably in the 1920s and 1930s.

Now take a good look at this:

snow-white-disneyscreencaps_com-1000

 

And this:

pinocchio-disneyscreencaps_com-6875

And this:

bambi-disneyscreencaps_com-6252

 

It has become some sort of running gag to joke about the transition in “Bambi” from the grief over Bambi’s mother to happily chirping birds, claiming that this is the feeble try to soften the blow. I don’t think so, quite the opposite actually, because that’s exactly what Disney during this time is about. It deliberately creates a roller-coaster of feelings, jumps from the Snow White’s fear in the woods to an inviting meadow with next to no transition, from Dumbo visiting his mother to joking clowns and pink elephants. One moment Bambi is playing in the snow, in the next he is nearly dying of hunger, one moment he is quite literally in the seventh heaven, and the next he has to overcome a rival.

Disney is still good in playing with the emotions of the audience. But the sudden shift from one extreme mood to another, that is typical for this era. As are truly disturbing sequences which tap deep into the emotions of the audience.

In retrospect it makes sense that Disney might have been influenced by the styles which were prevalent in filmmaking during this time, after all, he had to take something as a base for his first animated movies. Movies, no matter if animated or not, are always the product a certain “Zeitgeist”. Most Disney movies are created to be timeless, but they never can totally hide when they were made. Ariel’s bangs and puffy sleeves are just as typical 1980s, as Snow White’s round eyes, long eyelashes and short hair scream 1930s. But I think in no era of animated movies is the connection to the style of live-action movies which were made around the same time as obvious as in the early beginnings.

 


 

Theoretical the next era of Disney is the Package Era….but to be honest, I refuse to consider this really an era of Disney movies. To me it is an era in which Disney was prevented from making movies due to the war and instead threw together mostly unrelated shorts to fill some time, bolstered up with a half-assed frame device. If I sit down and spend an afternoon watching Disney shorts, I still didn’t watch a movie, even if the running time has the proper length. Fantasia is a movie because it has a consistent tone, a consistent theme and a working concept. The only movie from the package era which comes at least tries to have something like this is “Saludos Amigos”, and the running time of this one doesn’t even come close to proper theatre length. It is even shorter than “Dumbo” and in case of “Dumbo” Disney had to fight to classify it as a movie. No, the next real era of movie making starts in 1950.


1950 – 1959 The Disney Romantic

A popular term for this era is the “Silver age”. The “Restoration Age” is also common, especially among people who don’t like the implication that this era was somehow lesser than the “Golden Age”. But I didn’t really like this term either, because while the studio was in a process of financial “Restoration”, the movies actually picked off where they left. Those are projects which were in planning before the war changed everything – consequently “Cinderella” is the logical next step for the fairy tale movies, and “Alice in Wonderland” as well as “Peter Pan” are literally fulfilling a promise “Pinocchio” already made by showing the respective books in a scene.

What is notable different though is the style of animation. I decided to go for “Disney Romantic” because, well

This:

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And this:

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And especially this:

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Soft colours, lush animation, and the overall feel to enter a different, magical world is predominant in the movies from this era. Hell, even an alley full of clothes hanging out to dry is looking like the most romantic place on earth in “Lady and the Tramp”. There is also the influence of Mary Blair, not just in the movies she actually did work on (“Cinderella”, “Alice in Wonderland” and “Peter Pan”), but also in the ones she wasn’t directly involved in (“Lady and the Tramp”, “Sleeping Beauty”). Prevalent for this era is the constant play with perspectives. The big scales of “Cinderella”,

cinderella-disneyscreencaps_com-5733 the unusual angles of “Alice in Wonderland” and, to a lesser degree, “Peter Pan”,

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the constant dog perspective of “Lady and the Tramp” and the especially the painting-like design of “Sleeping Beauty” make every singly movie of this era something special.

Compared to the Disney Expressionism the level of “darkness” is notable toned down, but not gone. If beforehand the world was a dark place with a few bright spots in it, now the world is bright place with some dark spots in it. “Lady and the Tramp” for example has for most of the movie a greeting card vibe, in both tone and drawing style, but especially the scene in the dog pound plunges as deep into darkness as a movie from the Expressionist Era.

Personally I think that neither Disney nor any other studio ever reached the level of artistry which we got during this sadly way too short era. Ironically, none of this movies got the acknowledgement they deserved during their initial release. “Lady and the Tramp” was beloved by the audience, but not by the critics, who actually had the audacity to complain about the quality of the animation. “Sleeping Beauty” got slammed for being too similar to “Cinderella” and especially “Snow White”. Which shows that critics can err, too.

 


 

1960 – 1988   The Disney Impressionism

The Disney Odyssey went for “Modern Era”, and it certainly is a good fit, for multiple reasons. One is the technical aspect, and the keyword is xerography. Up to this point, the movies were hand-inked, which is a slow and expensive process. As a result even successful movies ended up underperforming in the box office in relation to the production costs. Disney had to make a decision to either shut down the studios or to cut down costs by using xerography. He didn’t like it, but he went for the latter option.

The process allowed the animators to print their drawings directly on the cells. But it has its limits. Initially only black lines were possible, which heavily influenced the style of the movies. The Unshavedmouse calls those first years the “Scratchy Era”, based on the harsh looking dark lines in the animation.

Despite all the arguments for “Modern Era”, I feel that “Disney Impressionism” is an even better fit. For one, Impressionism is in a way a countermovement to the Romantic (one can also see it as a culmination of it, but the original thought was to break away from this era). And that is exactly what Disney did during this time, a thematically and stylistic break compared to the movies which came beforehand. Instead of fairy tales and classic stories, most of the movies from this era are based on current books. The settings are less “once upon a time” and more “now”. That is especially evident in the music used. Forget the chorus and the operatic voices, now we have cool beats to offer.

Impressionist paintings are most notable for the artist not trying to hide the brush strokes. And again, that is exactly what Disney did, too. Since they first had to use the black lines, they mostly didn’t even try to hide them but made them part of the style. And if you look at the backgrounds, they are way less detailed than what Disney did beforehand and seeing the way they tend to get blurry in the outside settings, they have quite an Impressionistic feel to it. This is especially evident in “The Aristocats”, due to the movie being set in Paris.

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The scale of the movies are also less “grand” than in the prior eras. This is Disney at its most modest, and it has nothing to do with the chosen themes, but with the approach to them. In “Pinocchio” Disney told an elaborate story about a protagonist learning important live lessons with no less than four villains, but in “The Sword and the Stone” the wizard duel is the sole high point of the movie. If one compares “The Aristocats” with “Lady and the Tramp”, the former seems to be downright pedestrian.

It is hard to consider any of the movies made during this time as one of the “big” Disney movies. It is just too evident that Disney was cutting corners, “Robin Hood” being the worst offender. The sketchy design and the reuse of animation not only from other Disney movies, but also from the movie itself is just too obvious, and it speaks for the skill of the animators that they were able to cobble together a really good movie on their tight budget. But it could have been a great one.

There is one exception, though, and no, it is not the “Jungle Book”. Despite being a big success and a popular movie, I think the crown for the best movie of this era goes to “The Adventures of Winnie the Pooh”. In a way it is captures the spirit of the era perfectly. Impressionism has always a little introverted feel to it, and you can get more introverted than entering the fantasy world of a little boy and reflecting about childhood. It is certainly not a flashy movie, but it is one of the most thoughtful movies Disney ever made.

Otherwise though the usual result during this era is something between “okay” and “good, but it could have been great”. Artistically speaking things were looking up in the 1980s, when xerography was no longer limited to black lines, but at this point the studio was struggling in other regards. First Walt Disney died, and even though he hadn’t really been that involved in the studios during that time with the exception of some pet projects like “The Jungle Book”, the studio had suddenly lost its face and in a way its voice. A big cooperation doesn’t necessarily care for the artistic merit of a movie, but about the money it makes. They don’t tend to be open for experiments. But that was exactly what Walt Disney was about. Projects like “Fantasia”, “Bambi” or “Sleeping Beauty” were not about the bottom line, they were about challenging the audience and offering something new.

In general there was a change of generation going on in the Disney Studios during that time – and a fight between old and young. “Fox and Hound” is somewhat infamous, not just for being the last movie in which the “nine old man” had a hand it, but also for the discussions surrounding it. That Don Bluth “stole away” some of the most talented young animators in the studio during production (thankfully a lot of them decided to come back just in time to create “Beauty and the Beast”), left the studios which animators who created what was at this time Disney’s most embarrassing failure. “The Black Cauldron” has nowadays a fan following and is popular in Asia, but it is still the movie which lost to the Care Bears in the box office, and it is not hard to see why. I counted the 1980s to the Disney Impressionism, but it is more an era of transition, and it is mostly “Oliver and Company” with its sketchy background which made me decide to not do an extra cut for four movies.

 

The next era of greatness didn’t come out of the thin air, it built up for a couple of years, and I think “The Great Mouse Detective” as well as all the talent Disney poached during the production of “Who framed Roger Rabbit” was laying the groundwork for the following era. And when it came, it brought Disney to new highs.

 


 

1989 – 1999 The Disney Renaissance

Every animation fan knows this term, and who am I to argue. It is the fitting word for this era, and not just because Disney went back to its roots. Deciding when it actually started was the harder task. Normally “The Little Mermaid” is considered the first movie of this era, but from a technical point of view, it should be either “The Great Mouse Detective” or “Rescuers Down Under”. The former because this was the first movie which used extensive computer animation, the latter because it was the first movie which used the CAP System (while “The little Mermaid” is in a way the crowning achievement of xerography).

I nevertheless went for “The Little Mermaid”, too, because of thematic reasons. Disney Impressionism was all about telling stories from the perspective of animals. “The Black Cauldron” is the one sole exception, considering that even “The Sword and the Stone” has long passages in which the human characters are turned into animals. “The Little Mermaid” started a string of movies with human characters, “Rescuers Down Under” being the (often forgotten) exception.

“The Little Mermaid” was also the first time Disney went back to their fairy tale movies in twenty years. And it was the first movie which used the Broadway formula. Now there have been movies with Broadway-like music beforehand. But Howard Ashman and Alan Menken perfected this structure to a degree that you can turn most movies made during this era into actual musicals with next to no trouble (which Disney eventually recognized too and did). “The Little Mermaid” was also the first fully animated Disney movie since “Dumbo” which won an Academy Award instead of just getting a nomination, and not just one, but two, in the usual categories “Best Original Score” and “Best Original Song”.

The movie which embodies the spirit of the era the best to me is “Beauty and the Beast”, and not just because it might be the critically most acclaimed movie in the Disney line-up. To be the first animated movie ever nominated for an Academy Award for the Best Picture is already an impressive feat which won’t be topped until an animated movie actually wins. To this day “Beauty and the Beast” is the only animated movie which did it before the number or possible nominations was raised from five to ten and the only traditional animated movie at all which managed this (all the others are Pixar-movies). “Aladdin” and “The Lion King” were unbelievable box-office successes, too.

“Beauty and the Beast” set the standards for this era more than even “The Little Mermaid”, since it not only has Menken and Ashman on the top of their game (not only did they win yet another two Academy Awards, no less than three songs were nominated for “Best Original Song”), it also took full advantage of the CAP system with its bold camera movements. As little bonus, the design of the Beast’s castle is based on the Château de Chambord, meaning on Renaissance architecture.

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The Broadway formula became a blessing and a curse for Disney. A blessing because the studio reached greater highs than ever. A curse because Disney did nothing else as a consequence. Repeating the same structures resulted in a backlash and by the time Pocahontas hit the theatres more or less everyone was joking about Disney doing the same again and again. It didn’t help that Pocahontas, while top notch regarding animation and music, had a mediocre story at best.

Disney reacted by trying to mix the formula up a little bit “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” tried to do what the Classic Disney movies did by pushing the envelope a little bit, but was too inconsistent in tone in the end. “Hercules” tried to repeat the success of “Aladdin”, but ended up being kind of a mess. “Mulan” was a really good movie but not different enough on the surface to distinguish itself. Tarzan was the last attempt to connect to former successes, and the first movie since “Rescuers Down Under” in which the main character doesn’t sing (most of the songs are sung from the off instead). Also the last movie which got an Academy Award (Best Original Song) for a long, long time and that despite the fact that only two years later a new category for “Best Animated Feature” was introduced.

While Disney struggled, Pixar managed to offer the audience something new in both animation style and storytelling, and won one Award after the other. Disney needed a new approach – and nearly ten years to find it.

 


 

2000 – 2009 The Disney Pluralism

It is really hard to find a common theme with Disney movies during this time – or a common style. Some of them look like they could just as well be made during the Disney Renaissance, others are so different, you could easily sell them to be the product of another company.

Most animation companies which are active today were either founded in the late 1990s/early 2000s, or they were around earlier but decided to try their hand in movie making around this time. On top of this, it was the time of the block buster serials. “Lord of the Rings” and “Harry Potter” draw the audience into the theatres, while movies like “Treasure Planet” were overlooked. Disney even made itself concurrence with the Narnia franchise.

“Fantasia 2000” was a pet project of Roy Disney, trying to continue the legacy of “Fantasia”. “Dinosaurs” was the first try in CGI animation, relying heavily on displaying technical achievements in this area instead of creative story-telling. “The Emporer’s New Groove” was a little bit like a marriage between Disney, Pixar and DreamWorks, being a buddy movie (typical Pixar) with a lot of self-referential jokes (that was DeamWorks fad to joke about Disney) build around a redemption story. “Atlantis” and “Treasure Planet” are both non-musical movies with more than a hint of steampunk thrown in. “Lilo and Stitch” falls pretty much in its own category and might be the best attempt to redefine the studio, with his readiness to acknowledge real-life problems and discussing them in a Disney-typical setting. It also is a clear departure from the usual Disney style, which feels somehow more genuine despite being highly stylized.

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“Brother Bear” kind of tried to go in the same direction just grander, but the movie lacks the unpredictability which is so much fun in “Lilo and Stitch”. Plus, at this point the company had already decided to close down the department for traditional animation, with “Home on the Range” concluding an era in a disappointing fashion. I guess, Disney kind of tried to end this era forcefully and starting a new one with CGI movie.

It didn’t really quite work out that way. Changing to CGI did nothing to allow Disney to find its voice again – at least no initially. The studio made one last attempt to relive the “good old times” with “The Princess and the Frog” before finally finding a new approach which worked. And imho it didn’t work because it was CGI, it worked because Disney found its own voice again.

 


 

2010 – current The Disney Rococo

History sometimes repeats itself. It repeats itself so much, I seriously considered calling this era “Neorenaissance”. Again Disney figured out the direction it wanted to take next, but this time it was not about human vs animal characters but about traditional animation vs CGI. Again there were movies which lead up to this new era, again there is a string of successful movies with one forgotten movie (“Winnie the Pooh”) in-between and again Disney is breaking all box office record. If “Hero 6” surpasses “Frozen” the same way “The Lion King” surpassed “Aladdin”, the pattern is complete.

But this isn’t the Disney Renaissance. It is not about repeating the same formula again and again. Oh, they do it with their Disney Princess franchise, but not with their other films. No, what Disney is really doing is building up on the properties they own and redoing old concepts but with a modern twist.

I think the defining movie of this era is “Tangled”, because of the mind-set behind it. CGI movies tend to be to a certain degree not about what you want to do, but about what you can do. But for “Tangled” the animators did their very best to bend CGI in the shape they needed to create a blend of traditional and CGI animation. The movement, the shadowing, the hair – it didn’t matter how much effort it was to write and rewrite software as long as the result looked how the animators wanted it.

Rococo is a very playful and detailed style which is very evident in “Tangled” – not exactly a surprise since the inspiration for the movie was the Rococo painting “The Swing”. But this detailed and playful style carried over to the movies after it, too. One can watch them again and again, and there are still new details to discover.

Just look at this and pay attention to all the details put in the textures:

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The different kinds of fabric structure used for different kinds of clothes paired with flourish ornamentations, little embellishments and hidden jokes in the backgrounds and an overall sense of fun, all this are typical for the current Disney movies. As are one-adjective-titles and DreamWorks-Style trailers.

With Frozen Disney finally managed to produce a critical highly acclaimed movie and to get and Academy Award for “Best Animated Feature”. It took Disney only 13 years (though I personally think they deserved it for “Wreck-it-Ralph” already).

And that concludes my little overview…for now. I will certainly add to it when new movies hit the theatres. But for now it looks like Disney managed to struggle to the top again. I certainly look forward to their next movies.


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:

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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.