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The decline of Disney
Maclean's ^ | July 6, 2013 | Jaime Weinman

Posted on 07/07/2013 12:28:33 PM PDT by rickmichaels

When The Lone Ranger came out July 3, it was a rarity: a Walt Disney movie actually produced by the Disney company. The reboot of the classic masked hero, starring Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer, is one of the relatively few Disney movies produced by the company’s own staff. “For the time being, in-house production—content that might be considered ‘pure’ Disney brand—is at a low ebb for the studio,” says Jeff Gomez, a media analyst and CEO of Starlight Runner Entertainment. Instead, the company’s release slate will focus on franchises it bought, such as the Marvel movies, the Pixar animated films, Star Wars, and even the Muppets. Disney’s first priority has to be optimizing its relationships with Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm, Gomez points out. The most distinctive studio in Hollywood, which stood for a certain type of family entertainment, may no longer have a style of its own.

This decline happened only a few years after Disney was announcing a return to the style of its glory days, so suddenly that some staff members went almost instantly from euphoria to unemployment. Frans Vischer, who worked on such Disney hits as Who Framed Roger Rabbit, was one of several animators who rejoined Disney after it merged with Pixar in 2006, believing the company’s proclamations that it was about to bring back its classic brand of hand-drawn animated family movies. “I thought, ‘Okay, now they’re going to become a real animation studio again,’ ” he says. He was one of the animators laid off a few months ago, as the company shut down most of its traditional hand-drawn animated production.

The company still has had a few in-house successes, like this year’s The Great and Powerful Oz and the 3D Wreck-It Ralph. But many of its other projects have been disasters, like the 3D kids movie Mars Needs Moms, or the science fiction adventure John Carter. Seeing the bigger returns from outside projects, the studio has announced that it’s going to be making fewer of its own movies, and has begun cancelling projects. A stop-motion animation project from Henry Selick, director of the studio’s ’90s hit The Nightmare Before Christmas, was axed after a long and expensive development process, leaving the director and producers to try and raise money overseas. “I don’t know what shape that was in,” Vischer says. “They may have had legitimate reasons if it had big story problems. But I just feel like all the variety is going out of Disney.”

It’s a far cry from the optimism of a few years ago. John Lasseter, the founder of Pixar who was placed in charge of both his own studio and Disney’s animation department, announced that he intended to revive the Disney brand with movies like the hand-drawn musical The Princess and the Frog. Vischer says animators were thrilled at the idea of having “Lasseter, who was a filmmaker, in charge.” Instead, Pixar has become more of the corporate behemoth Disney used to be, with more direct-to-video production and more emphasis on easily merchandisable franchise films such as Toy Story and Cars.

It’s not hard to see why the attempt to restore the Disney style fizzled out so quickly. “The large grosses weren’t there,” says Steve Hullett, business representative for the Animation Guild. “Princess and the Frog made $300 million worldwide,” a good total but not much compared to a Pixar movie, and the company’s final hand-drawn production, a new Winnie the Pooh film, “was pretty much a bust. Not hard for Disney to make its choice over which format to use.” Not that computer animation has been a panacea for Disney: its computerized film Tangled had higher grosses, but that film went through so many changes in development, including new directors, that some think it did even worse than the hand-drawn Princess relative to its cost. Even in television, Gomez sees “something of a creative malaise,” with the Disney channel producing few breakout hits. “We’re seeing fewer Disney characters on backpacks and lunchboxes, when last decade schools were flooded with imagery from High School Musical, Hannah Montana and Wizards of Waverly Place.”

Disney may have found that outside franchises are more efficient money-making machines—and it seems disappointed when its in-house films don’t match up. “Any company that goes through a huge boom of success goes through that,” says Tom Bancroft, an animator who worked on The Lion King, who recalls a similar impatience in the ’90s. “There was a disappointment in everything after Lion King, but 10 years before we would have been thrilled with those numbers.”

And the collapse of the home video market means that Disney cartoons no longer have a guaranteed way of making back their costs.

Part of Disney’s problem is that the company may have been too concerned about preserving its historic brand—including the now-fading princess line. Traditional animators had hoped Disney’s return to the format would prove that 2D animation could do something new and exciting. Instead, what we got was The Princess and the Frog, a fairy tale with “princess” right there in its title; not only was the name blamed for driving away male viewers, but it came off to many as a blatant attempt to find something new to merchandise. “I’m sure consumer products wanted a princess to sell the toys,” Vischer says. “I think that’s fine, but you need a film that’s really good on its own before you think about how to sell toys.”

Bancroft adds that The Princess and the Frog didn’t prove the continued viability of classic-style animation: “There were only a few scenes you can look at and say, ‘That’s classic Disney in a good way.’ There was a lot of classic Disney in a bad way.” The end result was the collapse of traditional Disney animation, and a lot of former animators who wished they had been given a chance to take more chances: “I wish that Princess and the Frog had had a bolder look and tried to show the world that this isn’t something you have at home on video or DVD,” Vischer says. “I wish it was a little more daring.” After that disappointment, the company has occasionally paid tributes to its roots; the short cartoon Paperman starred a hero who looked almost exactly like the human star of 101 Dalmatians, and paired him with a woman who looked a bit like the Little Mermaid. But for the most part, Disney now seems to act as if classic Disney style isn’t good box office. Its next animated project is Frozen, a movie with the same fairy-tale style as Tangled and a 3D animation style that apes Pixar and Dreamworks; even Disney movies don’t want to seem too much like Disney.

Still, Gomez points out all this doesn’t necessarily mean the end of a distinctive Disney style. The company’s in-house work might start up again once it has learned to “adjust to a system where a significant amount of content is flowing into the core from newly acquired divisions.” Even hand-drawn animators, the ones with the fewest prospects, see a glimmer of hope from the recent Academy Award for Paperman, which used new computer techniques to replicate the style of hand-drawn animation. Vischer, one of the traditional animators who did some work on the film, says it proved you can “create new styles that are different both from CG and from what 2D has done in the past,” and it showed how the old Disney style could be replicated in the computer world.

Even if Disney winds up as a distribution house, it might not be out of line with tradition: it’s similar to the status Disney had in its ’30s and ’40s prime, when movies like Dumbo were released through big studios that had nothing to do with the product.

But some people will miss the tradition that Walt Disney created—people who have animated for Disney, and people who aspire to. “I feel like the latest news of layoffs has shaken up a lot of animators, especially students,” says Bobby Chiu, founder of Toronto’s Imaginism Studios. “They’re all a little nervous.” And of course so will some fans. While a future dominated by Star Wars and Iron Man might make Disney more profitable, it could also mean a future where Disney releases movies that could have been made by any studio—and in many cases, used to be made by other studios. In the Lion King era, Disney was the studio that every company tried in vain to rip off. But today, “the average person can’t tell the difference between a Disney movie and a DreamWorks movie, or even a Sony movie,” says Bancroft. “I think it’s a nice place to work,” Vischer now says when asked if Disney has its own special qualities. “It’s comfortable and all that. But it’s probably very similar to other studios.”

TOPICS: Business/Economy

1 posted on 07/07/2013 12:28:33 PM PDT by rickmichaels
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To: rickmichaels
One flop and "it' all over, man!" gee, hyperbole much?


2 posted on 07/07/2013 12:37:13 PM PDT by Celtic Conservative (tease not the dragon for thou art crunchy when roasted and taste good with ketchup)
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To: rickmichaels

3 posted on 07/07/2013 1:03:02 PM PDT by shineon
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To: rickmichaels

I can still remember when Disney first tried to really step out of the traditional Disney movie genre back in the late 70’s with a bizarre (but enjoyable) little sci-fi flick called The Black Hole. It was a strange one, in that you had a mish-mash of very typical Disney G-rated elements and some stuff that bordered on R-rating (Anthony Perkins’ fate comes to mind). And that ending - whoa!

As for Disney today...meh. I doubt Walt would have approved of much they they have done in the past decade (at least), so I’m not really sure there’s that much of the “original” Disney culture left to lose. I do admit I lament the decline of traditional animation, though. I just don’t go for the Pixar-type stuff. Each to their own, but I like the older hand-drawn stuff when it comes to animating.

4 posted on 07/07/2013 1:13:39 PM PDT by DemforBush (Bring me the head of Alfredo Garcia!)
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To: DemforBush

I quite enjoyed Oz- I think more films like that would turn them around.

5 posted on 07/07/2013 1:21:31 PM PDT by Squawk 8888 (I'd give up chocolate but I'm no quitter)
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To: Squawk 8888

“I quite enjoyed Oz- I think more films like that would turn them around.”

Old as I am, I liked it too. That porcelain doll was absolutely magical and I noticed something different about it - the reason why is on the DVD “Extras”.

6 posted on 07/07/2013 1:30:38 PM PDT by The Antiyuppie ("When small men cast long shadows, then it is very late in the day.")
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To: rickmichaels
Movies and TV are merging and soon will be indistinguishable from one another. Already, many TV series like "Mad Men", "Boardwalk Empire", "Sopranos", "Lost" and "Breaking Bad" are more like extended movies then TV series and they reflect the future of video entertainment. Even children prefer adult-oriented entertainment like the aforementioned series to the likes of what Disney is currently throwing at them. With video quality at home quickly becoming superior to that found in the big-screen cinemas, it will be a short matter of time before cinemas close their doors for good. All that is keeping them in business right now is overpriced soda and popcorn.

What a shame about Pixar, their brand was destroyed when they allowed themselves to be sold to Disney.

7 posted on 07/07/2013 1:34:54 PM PDT by SamAdams76
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To: rickmichaels

How many moviegoers under 45 even know who The Lone Ranger and Tonto were?? Not many, I would think. These characters would need to be re-introduced for today and somehow be connected to the superheroes or anti heroes of today for it to ever work.

8 posted on 07/07/2013 1:47:55 PM PDT by lee martell
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To: rickmichaels

Disney’s decline is due to going homo. It can all be traced back to that. All the lack of talent, all the lack of ideas, it cna all be traced back to putting a pro-homo agenda in place.

9 posted on 07/07/2013 2:41:09 PM PDT by Secret Agent Man (Gone Galt; Not averse to Going Bronson.)
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To: rickmichaels

In future, if Disney wants to cut its losses, it needs to rethink how it produces movies. To start with, it should make a “storyboard movie”, for say, $10m. Disney actually created the modern form of graphic storyboard, as a group of pictures that show plot development; but they need to take it further.

Get stand-ins for the big budget actors, and do green screen shoots of the most important scenes. At the end you will have a low budget approximation of your movie. This helps to judge timing, pacing, dialogue, and other critical elements. A test audience could actually watch it and point out turn-ons and turn-offs, so they wouldn’t have to rely on biased opinions.

10 posted on 07/07/2013 3:34:00 PM PDT by yefragetuwrabrumuy (Best WoT news at
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To: rickmichaels

I think Fantasia was the high water mark for Disney animation. Now Disney just seems tired and out of ideas.

11 posted on 07/07/2013 3:46:57 PM PDT by count-your-change (you don't have to be brilliant, not being stupid is enough)
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To: rickmichaels
Movie goers desperately need something like the original Disney concept. Enjoyable movies that everyone likes, that stimulate the imagination, and tell a nice story.

They've gone for the over-stimulating, over-priced BS that just isn't as much fun. That's why TV shows such as "Leverage", "Psych" and the old "McGyver" are so popular for DVD season purchases....they're clever and they're fun.

12 posted on 07/07/2013 3:57:37 PM PDT by grania
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To: rickmichaels

The people who run Disney have none of Walt’s imagination or sense of beauty or storytelling, nor his common sense. And they are totally opposite his political views. Is it any wonder it’s not the Disney we remember?

13 posted on 07/07/2013 4:02:39 PM PDT by TBP (Obama lies, Granny dies.)
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To: shineon

Classic Disney comedy — along with the original Absent-Minded Professor and the original Shaggy Dog. Among others. The Happiest Millionaire, a Sherman Brothers musical, is also wonderful Disneyrama.

They need to get the Disney family back in charge.

14 posted on 07/07/2013 4:04:04 PM PDT by TBP (Obama lies, Granny dies.)
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To: The Antiyuppie

I thought Oz was the best Disney movie in years ... I rented the DVD and didn’t view the “extra’s” ,,, what’s the secret?

15 posted on 07/07/2013 4:36:03 PM PDT by Neidermeyer (I used to be disgusted , now I try to be amused.)
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To: rickmichaels

The opening scene in THE LITTLE MERMAID took my breath away when watched on the big screen. It was all up hill from there. I remember thinking Disney has gone back to their roots. Beautiful movie. I love old fashioned animation...and TLM certainly filled that bill. The musical score was a delight too.

16 posted on 07/07/2013 7:23:21 PM PDT by Conservative4Ever (I'm going Galt)
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To: count-your-change

Fantasia is one of my favorites...I thought SLEEPING BEAUTY was beautifully done.

17 posted on 07/07/2013 7:25:26 PM PDT by Conservative4Ever (I'm going Galt)
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To: rickmichaels
The Disney Princess genre needs to evolve. Girls today relate much more the headstrong Merida from Brave than to the (relatively speaking) pious Cinderella or Snow White. And boys, oh my gosh, they need something strong and forceful to relate to. What does Disney offer them? In our PC-obsessed, anti-gun world, how many boys even know who the Lone Ranger is?!?!
18 posted on 07/07/2013 7:36:44 PM PDT by workerbee (The President of the United States is DOMESTIC ENEMY #1)
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To: Conservative4Ever

Agreed. Great quality never goes out of style.

19 posted on 07/07/2013 10:27:45 PM PDT by count-your-change (you don't have to be brilliant, not being stupid is enough)
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To: Neidermeyer

“I thought Oz was the best Disney movie in years ... I rented the DVD and didn’t view the “extra’s” ,,, what’s the secret?”

The doll was not “CGI’d in” entirely, the doll was actually a marionette designed and operated by a marionette artist, and its movements were then duplicated in CGI...than, the girl doing the voice actually had her mouth movements filmed with the movie and that was also the model for CGI. So, the actors weren’t interacting with empty space (not easy even for a professional), they were actually interacting with a very well-operated lifelike marionette...and then, I thought that the modeling of physical(marionette) and mouth (human) movements to CGI was interesting.

20 posted on 07/07/2013 10:45:30 PM PDT by The Antiyuppie ("When small men cast long shadows, then it is very late in the day.")
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