This summer, animation takes a giant step away from the futuristic world of computerized images to the traditional landscape of drawings.
With DreamWorks' "Spirit: Wild Stallion of the Cimarron" (opening May 24) and Disney's "Lilo & Stitch" (June 21), the two premier animation studios are hoping to breathe new life into an art form that is older than the movies. Later this year, audiences will get to see more drawn animation with Disney's "Treasure Planet," Klasky Csupo's "The Wild Thornberrys Movie" and the award-winning Japanese film "Spirited Away," which will be released by Disney. The success or failure of these films may well determine whether traditional animation has much of a future.
The runaway success of the computer animated "Shrek," "Monsters, Inc." and "Ice Age" (and before that the "Toy Story" movies), coupled with the disappointing performances of recent drawn features, have led some to proclaim the imminent demise of traditional animation. Despite the call for last rites, drawn animation remains alive, though clearly in need of new energy.
Children have come to expect the hyper-realistic look of computer animation in feature films. Endless tracking shots in depth, vehicles that move in perfect perspective and landscapes filled with meticulously rendered leaves, flowers, clouds and water have become standard elements in the computer-animated vocabulary.
Traditional animators need to remind audiences of the special magic only hand-drawn characters possess: They may look less realistic, but their warmth and humanity remain unmatched. That may be an uphill fight.
"The Little Mermaid" (1989) launched an unprecedented string of drawn, or 2-D, animated hits from the Walt Disney Studios that climaxed in 1994 with "The Lion King." Commentators spoke of a new golden age, and other studios attempted to duplicate Disney's success. But in recent years, drawn animation hasn't fared as well at the box office: "The Emperor's New Groove" ($89.3 million), "Atlantis" ($84 million), "The Road to El Dorado" ($50.9 million), "Osmosis Jones" ($13.6 million). By comparison, "Aladdin" grossed $215 million in 1992--with lower ticket prices.
DreamWorks co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg, who headed up animation at Disney during the studio's recent golden age, dismisses the tendency to blame the medium for the disappointing returns: "I don't think the movies have been very good. All of us making 2-D films in the past several years have relied too much on formulaic ideas. There's a cookie-cutter feeling to these movies; they're no longer exceptional and surprising.
"We haven't done a very good job of picking stories," Katzenberg adds, "and we've told the stories in ways we've used before. It's not that the technique is flawed. I would argue that hand-drawn animation still much more effectively fulfills the definition of 'animate': to bring life to. There is something beautiful and intimate and personal about a line an artist draws by hand, just as a personal note conveys emotions in ways an e-mail doesn't."
Tom Schumacher, president of Walt Disney Feature Animation, is also a defender of traditional animation. "I don't think it's true that CG [computer-generated animation] has always beaten drawn animation," he says. "'Tarzan' did bigger box office than 'A Bug's Life' [$171.1 million versus $162.8 million]. You have the four back-to-back hits 'Toy Story 2,' 'Shrek,' 'Monsters, Inc.' and 'Ice Age,' but 'Atlantis' and 'New Groove' out-grossed the CG film 'Final Fantasy.'"
In the animation community, the consensus is that the success of recent computer-animated films has more to do with the stories and storytelling than with the medium itself, and they complain about executives and critics who confuse technique with content. Eric Goldberg, who left Disney to direct a CG feature based on Maurice Sendak's "Where the Wild things Are" at Universal, notes, "It still comes down to whether or not you have a great story and great characters that determines whether or not these films reach an audience."
Katzenberg hopes to begin the reversal of fortune for drawn animation with "Spirit: Wild Stallion of the Cimarron," which he describes as "an adventure story about a horse going out into a changing world and confronting the challenges that civilization puts in his path."
For animators, the challenge was more down to earth but no less daunting: drawing believable-looking horses that capture equine power and grace.
"Horses are notoriously difficult to draw, and a lot of people know how they look and move, so it's obvious if you make a mistake," says James Baxter, supervising animator of the title stallion. "Trying to create some of the actions in the movie and give them enough power was tricky."