Animators face extinction
Computer-generated films outdraw traditional cartoons

By Renee Graham
Boston Globe
Dec. 13, 2002

Whither Mickey?

Like eight-track players, penny candy and the Backstreet Boys, traditional animation may be heading down that lonely road to extinction.

At least that's the viewpoint of industry analysts who have been sounding the death knell since Disney's Treasure Planet landed with a thud in multiplexes a few weeks ago.

Disney execs, touting it as a cross between Star Wars and Treasure Island, were predicting a blockbuster opening. Instead, it took in about $17 million over the extended Wednesday to Sunday Thanksgiving weekend.

Hardly a pittance, but then this was a film reported to have cost $110 million to $140 million. After the movie's disappointing opening, the studio had to revise its projected earnings for the first quarter of 2003.

"All it says is that, for this particular Thanksgiving weekend, this movie didn't perform as well as we'd anticipated," Richard Cook, Disney's studio chairman, told the Los Angeles Times recently. "For whatever reason, we did not make it look appealing enough."

Certainly it's possible that middling reviews could have kept away potential customers, and there was solid competition from other family fare, such as Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and The Santa Clause 2.

But it's also as simple as this: In the age of Shrek, Ice Age and Monsters, Inc., traditional animation just isn't the sure-fire draw it once was. Except for Disney's summertime hit Lilo & Stitch, which made nearly $150 million domestically, few animated films that aren't computer-generated crack $100 million.

Gone are the days when the success of an animated Disney film was assured and assumed. For about a decade, starting in the late 1980s, Disney boasted a Barry Bonds-like batting average for its animated films with such giants as The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King and Tarzan.

But these days it's a different tale, and not just for Disney. With a $75 million budget, 2000's Titan A.E., released by 20th Century Fox, grossed only $22 million. Disney's Atlantis: The Lost Empire cost $90 million and earned $84 million. This past summer, DreamWorks' Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, with an $80 million budget, earned about $73 million.

Shrek, on the other hand, did $267 million, Monsters, Inc. $255 million and Ice Age $177 million.

Given such statistics, studios have been cutting back on their hand-drawn animated films. Computer-animated films are reaping bigger dividends, and an industry analyst suggested to the Los Angeles Times, "Maybe it's time for (Disney) to rest a bit in animation, pull back and wait for the next wave."

Disney may have discovered the next wave, although few people probably realized it. A few months ago, the studio released Spirited Away, by Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki. Already the top grossing film in Japan - its $234 million topped the take of Titanic there - the film slipped into American theaters with little fanfare, but with some of the most enthusiastic reviews of the year.

It was yet another attempt to introduce mainstream U.S. audiences to Japanese animation, but Disney was low-key about the release.

That was a missed opportunity not only for filmgoers, but for Disney to prove that its eyes are cast toward the future. If done with more attention to creative daring than fast-food tie-ins, traditional animation can still be as compelling and involving as computer animation.

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