Drawn Out

The rise and fall (and rise and fall) of Disney animation

ThehistoryofDisneyanimationisoneofepic triumphs as well as plenty of almost equally epic failures. Looked at one way, it's one of America's great success stories; looked at another way, it's a grim cautionary tale.

Young Walter Elias Disney had an incredibly rocky start in the animation business. He made his first cartoons in a makeshift studio in the garage of his family's Kansas home. By 1923, he was bankrupt, depending on whatever funds his older brother Roy O. Disney could send from a California TB ward. Finally, Walt washed his hands of animation, and, on Roy's suggestion, he journeyed west hoping to make a fresh start. He arrived in Hollywood with a cardboard suitcase and 40 bucks to his name. Walt moved in with an uncle in Hollywood, and Roy, ever devoted to his hapless little brother, paid Walt's rent. Walt spent weeks fruitlessly applying for studio jobs. Finally he was desperate enough to try anything, so he reluctantly went along with Roy's idea to start up another studio, this time in their uncle's garage and with Roy operating the camera. Given Walt's track record and Roy's precarious health, this was a seemingly hopeless enterprise. The old folks at home probably wondered if Walt would ever pull his fool head out of the clouds and get a real job.

It took years of struggling, but eventually Walt dreamed up an honest-to-gosh hit character, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. But that success was all-too-typically short-lived: in 1928, a shady destructor stole the rights to Oswald, along with almost all of the staff Disney had acquired, and damn near put Disney out of business again. Disney hired a new staff, and within months, he'd rebounded (and how) with the creation of Mickey Mouse, the unprecedented success of which led to Disney's increasingly ambitious and successful short films, which eventually led to the first animated feature, 1937's smash hit, SnowWhite.But the string of masterpieces that followed—Pinocchio, Fantasiaand Bambi—wereall huge bombs, nearly destroying the studio. It was a costly, sad end for the studio's era of innovation.

Over the next few decades, Disney withdrew from the creative end of his company and focused his attentions more on business; he succeeded in building an empire, but the Disney name gradually became synonymous with blandly wholesome entertainment. After Disney died in '66, his staff spent the next few decades gamely struggling to carry on as they imagined Walt would have wanted, churning out one cute, inoffensive little disaster after another. By the '80s, the studio was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, and the entertainment papers were full of articles saying that animation itself was a dying art form. And it is here that one Michael Eisner (cue John Williams' Darth Vader theme) enters the tale.

Eisner was a former Paramount big cheese, and he came to Disney with big ideas about how to pull the studio out of its economic and creative doldrums. One of these big ideas was doing away with animated features altogether and concentrating on middle-brow live-action comedies such as Down and Out in Beverly Hills;from day one, you see, Eisner did not give two hollers about cartoons. Luckily, his advisers eventually convinced him to give animation one more chance, and after a few modestly successful pictures (The Great Mouse Detective,etc.), the studio hit gold when it hired composer Alan Menken and lyricist/writer Howard Ashman, the boys behind the long-running stage-musical version of Little Shop of Horrors. Their darkly campy (i.e., gay) sensibilities made them a seemingly unlikely pair of saviors for a studio founded by an arch-conservative Kansas farm boy, but save Disney they did, with the trio of blockbusters The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast,and Aladdin, pictures that mixed the lavish, Disney-style fairy tales of old with a dash of modern irony and a dollop of Broadway schmaltz. By the mid-'90s, the entertainment papers were full of articles about animation's stunning renaissance, and there was the feeling in Hollywood that Disney could do no wrong. And then Howard Ashman had to go and die.

Just as the studio had tried (and failed) to carry on the Walt way after he'd died, so did it now try (and fail) to carry on in the Ashman/Menken style. At first, things must have looked great: 1994's TheLionKingwas the highest-grossing animated film of all time. But the sunny snark of the Aladdindays had turned crass, and it could be argued (and has been, loudly, by me) that we owe the relentless, witless potty humor of today's kiddie entertainment to this picture's flatulent warthog. And then came Pocahontas,the picture that began the Great Slide.

Pocahontaswasn't crap, not really; it was just sort of . . . there. There was no compelling reason why anybody would actually want to see it. At that point, the studio still had enough momentum going to make Pocahontasreasonably successful, and that momentum also made modest hits of Herculesand The Hunchback of Notre Dame. But box-office receipts were dropping fast, and we could all sense something was gravely amiss here. Seriously, a cartoon musical based on Victor Hugo?What was next—Kafka's The Metamorphosis?

Instead of accepting that the movies they were making just weren't very good, Disney concluded the public was sick of musicals and fairytale settings. And so they spent the next few years in an increasingly desperate state, trying everything they could to win audiences back; there were a few mid-sized hits (Tarzan, Lilo & Stitch), but go to your neighborhood Big Lots! right now and you'll find the toy aisles cluttered with dusty TreasurePlanetand Atlantis:TheLostEmpiremerchandise.

In the past few years, Disney's animated features became so bafflingly wrong you had to wonder if anybody within the studio had ever seriously believed they had any chance of success. David Spade, well-past his SNLglory days, as the voice of a wise-cracking Peruvian emperor turned into a llama? Roseanne, well-past her Roseanneglory days, headlining a movie about singing cows? Jesus, it was enough to make you pine for the days of Quasimodo.

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