Comments by John Cawley
July & August 2003
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Death of A Character(s)
I just heard that Warner Bros is concerned many of their classic characters are starting to fall out of the mainstream. It seems the "q" rating (a recognition/popularity scale) on such folks as Bugs Bunny and Porky Pig are beginning to drop. Warners is now falling into the same problem Disney has had for decades.
In the early 1970s Disney discovered the awareness of Mickey Mouse was beginning to wane. As one exec noted, if you didn't go to Disneyland, you didn't "see" Mickey. That was why Disney created THE MOUSE FACTORY, re-issued black and white shorts to theatres and, in general, tried to build up interest in the Mouse. Oddly, it was Mickey's 50th Birthday that put the Mouse back on top. But that was a long time ago. Such projects as MICKEY'S CHRISTMAS CAROL and MICKEY'S PRINCE AND THE PAUPER (and more recently HOUSE OF MOUSE) were attempts to keep the Mouse in the public's eye.
No doubt Warners is using the same "in their face" plan for Bugs and company. Why else would there suddenly be the new BACK IN ACTION feature and DUCK DODGERS series? Even BABY LOONEY TUNES is attempting to re-invent and re-introduce these classic characters.
Not to sound sacrilegious, but perhaps it is time to let them go. I am not advocating the "forgetting" of the characters, only the "release" of them from life-support. Cartoon characters, like their breathing counterparts, all have life spans. As much as we do not want to lose such greats as Charlie Chaplin, Humphrey Bogart, Elvis or John Belushi, we know that their times had come. Of course death for these personalities is not really an end. Their following continues through their past works. Even cartoon characters may be mortal... at least in their popularity.
It may be hard to imagine a world without Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse or Mr. Magoo being well known. But for every Charlie Chaplin there are Harold Lloyds and Harry Langdons. For each Humphrey Bogart there are Dick Powells and Gary Coopers. For every Elvis there are Rudy Vallees and Glen Millers. In other words, there are successful stars of an era that don't remain at the top for eternity. I'll even bet such greats as Chaplin and Bogart are on the downslide of recognition with the general public.
The fact that Bugs and Mickey have outlasted other classic cartoon characters, does not mean they will continue to do so. Newer audiences look for characters they can identify with as their own. Let the Bugs and Mickeys join the ranks of Pogo, Little Nemo, Krazy Kat, Gertie and other illustrated icons in the halls of history and not be continually dragged through the mud in search of corporate profits.
The best way to sum up this process is the phrase "all things must pass." Even the most popular actors, characters, films, personalities or tv series do not remain on top (or even remembered) forever. Perhaps the "bright side" of this (to some) would be that even Scooby Doo, Barney and Pokemon will eventually pass.
The "death" of traditional/hand/whatever animation is getting lots of press coverage and discussion on websites and gatherings. Though it is definitely a major topic, part of me wonders if folks are missing a point. In fact, I must admit to being a bit split.
Obviously, I am saddened by the huge loss of jobs amongst colleagues in the feature end. However, the situation is not much different than it was for all of those who lost their jobs after the recent boom went bust. And if one wants to get historical, similar job decreases have followed the switch from theatrical shorts to TV, from ink and paint to Xerography, and from full in-house production to overseas. Even the pre-cgi digital revolution is a sore point to many a cel painter and camera person. The fact is, technology and entertainment move on.
When the silent picture era ended, critics and creators cursed the new "sound" monster. Many tried to remain silent, like Chaplin, only to be dragged kicking and screaming into the new medium. Some even thought adding color, wide screen and 3-D were affronts to the cinematic art form. When old time radio passed away, many complained that a classic medium was being sacrificed for the newer, trashy TV.
When Jack Benny, a superstar of radio and early TV once remarked to an interviewer that his transition to TV was good, the writer was astounded. The interviewer stated Benny was the only classic radio star to consider TV an advantage. Benny responded by stating that in one way it was fun. Benny likened it to going back to his roots on the vaudeville stage. He spoke fondly of his radio years then bluntly asked, "What would be the point?" Benny then went on to state how TV was the new medium and one had better move ahead with what the public wanted or be left behind.
Many stage actors initially refused to appear in movies, because films were considered "low class" entertainment. This allowed many a new face to enter acting. Decades later, many major film stars avoided TV for the same reason. Again, this opened the door for new faces and ultimately new stars. Similarly, when cgi began entering the mainstream in the 90s, many veteran animators swore never to trade their pencil for a tablet and pen. The vacancies in cgi created by such refusals were filled with new talent not as fixed in their ways.
If the future plays out similarly to other entertainment technologies, we can expect many more years of hand animation. It will just diminish in its percentage of animation production. Just as there are still black and white movies made and radio shows produced, traditional animation will always be a small piece of the art of animation.
Will the world mourn the loss of hand animation? As one Beatle said after the group broke up, if the fans want to hear the Beatles, "they just need to put on one of our records". If someone wishes to see the skill, labor and love in hand animation, there are hundreds of excellent examples. There just won't be many new ones. Is this a bad thing? No. It is merely a fact of media evolution.
It is time to move on.
Still Disney's King
The Disney press machine has joined the chorus of those announcing that FINDING NEMO has become the highest grossing animated feature by beating out THE LION KING. Like so many others, Disney is pleased at the performance (ie profit) of the fish tale.
Of course what isn't being touted quite so highly is that LION KING held that position for nearly ten years. Some have pointed out that inflation would still make LION KING #1. Even so, the film remains in the top ten grossing films of all time. In fact, for those of us who like animated animal tales, it is a quiet "I told you so" to all those fairy tale fanatics and princess pointers. No matter how much animation dinosaurs want to return to the world of princesses and elves, the two highest grossing animated features in history are animal stories.
Also of note, despite Disney's name stuck to NEMO, the film is actually from Pixar. (Much as Warner Bros top grossing animated feature is still POKEMON.) So, in reality, Disney's highest grossing film is still THE LION KING. Not bad for a film that the studio initially looked down on as a "quickie" with mostly "b" talent. The studio was too busy making more important films like POCAHONTAS and HUNCHBACK. In fact, prior to the film's release, Jeffrey Katzenberg publicly expressed his doubt in the film and said if it even made $50 million at the box office the studio would be pleased. He told folks they would finally make a profit through toys and video.
Of course the film opened with a roar, making over $50 million it's first week! It continued to break records, including becoming the best selling Disney soundtrack since MARY POPPINS. It led an enormous merchadising campaign, became one of Disneyland's most popular parades and eventually a crowd pleasing stage show at Disney's Animal Kingdom. Then there was the box office smash and Tony winning Broadway musical. The feature spawned two direct to video sequels and an animated TV series. It also enticed other studios to try again at animation starting the animated feature boom of the late 1990s.
Yes, NEMO has claimed the crown for biggest box-office. But it will be some time before another animated feature is truely King of the Animated Jungle.
I, for one, get tired of those who use the clarity of hindsight to whine about how "executives" (and on a rare occasion, a creator) are responsible for ruining a production.
In film making, and particularly in animation due to it's length of time in production, there are a great many forces at work. Creators, marketers, department heads, executives and more are able to give input. Placing blame or (in the case of success) credit on any one or ones is nothing more than fodder for Monday Morning Quarterbacks.
Recently, executive decision makers were accused of making "wrong" decisions on Disney's ATLANTIS: THE LOST CONTINENT. These might be the same executives who said THE LION KING needed more heart and less dark, moving the film more towards romance and friendship. Or it could be the group that upon seeing creators making scene after scene of dancing furniture asked if the film was BEAUTY AND THE BEAST or "Beauty and the furniture", causing the story to center back on Belle and the Beast.
Having worked in the animation business for several decades (on both sides), no single decision or entity could normally sink a picture. Like the Titanic, or any famed disaster, it took a line of decisions, big and small. Yes, the disaster could have been averted, but similarly not by one decision.
In fact, some reasons for success or failure have little to do with the team behind them. A production can be a hit or failure simply due to when it comes out or the time slot it is given. Press and/or audience expectations can raise or sink a production. Sometimes it is just dumb luck.
One animation wag used to state everything that happened in animation was an accident. Even when a film became a hit, he would state it had done so by accident.
That is as good a reason as any.
Who Needs To Make Animated Features?
When the animated feature boom of the 70s came and went, and was followed by the animated feature boom of the 80s and then 90s, one thing was almost certain. When the dust had settle, I knew Disney would be there. I had a good reason to believe so. It was a simple case of "need".
Every decade, after an animated feature did well at the box office, studios would decide it was time they got a piece of the animated feature gold mine. These studios bought features. They co-financed features. Some even (*gasp*) started their own studios, often offering Disney animators big bucks to leave. These studios had everything necessary to become animated feature wizards except one: the need.
These Disney-wanna-bes would come out with a film and, quite often, it wouldn't make as much money as hoped. The result was that the studio would write off the idea of doing animated features. They would go back to other films until, as seemed always the case, they would again be bitten by the animated bug.
Disney was different. If Disney had a feature that didn't perform as hoped (SLEEPING BEAUTY, THE BLACK CAULDRON, etc.) the studio would simply pull a DUMBO and go back to less difficult, less (financially) demanding fare. But they would go back. Why? Because if Disney didn't have new animated features, it wouldn't be Disney. Animated features were as key a part of the Disney image as Mickey Mouse and theme parks. Besides, the studio had utlized the financial power of their parks and live action films to subsidize any animated money short comings.
But that was the 70s; the 80s; the 90s. Now we are in a new century. A new die has been cast.
The new Disney decided to try cgi features. They built a whole studio to produce cgi features. The first feature (DINOSAURS) came out and did not perform well. Disney wrote off the idea of doing cgi features and closed the cgi studio. The new Disney had a string of under-performing hand drawn animated features. Disney wrote off the idea of doing hand drawn animated features and, essentially, closed the hand drawn studio. Disney had evolved into a standard studio. What happened to the need?
Disney still had "the need". They just no longer felt the obligation to do it themselves. They found purchasing features, or having them produced overseas was a more cost effective way. Their library of characters allowed for multiple direct-to-video or minor theatrical sequel releases. Add to that their deal with Pixar, it appeared to many as if Disney was still in the animated feature business.
Now that Disney has joined the ranks of other studios that don't need to make animated features, who is left? Oddly, it is the studio that some claim is the next Disney - Pixar. Just like Disney in the 1930s and 40s, Pixar's only revenue comes from animated features. At this point they have not branched off to live action movies or theme parks. If Pixar stops making animated features, Pixar would not exist to the public.
When Walt Disney first moved to California, he planned to get into live action films. He felt, at the time, the animation business was already too crowded. It was his need for work that drove him back into animation. The animation field is once again crowded. However, this time there is no Walt at Disney who needs to go back into animation. The empire Walt built now has new needs.
"That's three quotes? Add another quote and make it a gallon." - Groucho Marx
Another in a series of "great" quotes from the world of animation.
"It's a contemporary, classic cartoon full of madness from famed creator John Kricfalusi (The Jetsons, The New Adventures of Mighty Mouse and The Ripping Friends)." - TNN Press Release, June 2003
Now I'll understand why, when I do a google search for creator of Jetsons, John Kricfalusi comes up. I'll also understand how such a statement will work its way through various websites and publications eventually becoming a "fact".
The quote is, of course, about the debut of the new Ren and Stimpy cartoons on TNN. But it is an example of the typical looseness with facts we now find so prevalent in the press, and the world in general. One "benefit" of the current Presidential administration is the growing ability to say anything with no worry of reprecussion from the media about the truth. But sadly, this "say anything" attitude has long been a staple of the Hollywood press release.
For many years, Disney proclaimed SNOW WHITE as the first animated feature. When historians began to dig up other, earlier, examples (such as 1926's THE ADVENTURES OF PRINCE ACHMED) Disney politely side stepped the issue by stating SNOW WHITE was the first Technicolor animated feature. But by the late 1980s, under the Eisner regime, the studio went Hollywood and dropped the clarification, and returned it to the "first" status. No doubt they felt it was as "true" as THE JAZZ SINGER being the first talking picture. The sad thing was, no one in the media spoke up to correct them.
As an author of articles and books, I am always careful of hard declarations such as "first", "most" and "created by". I am bothered by how cavalier some authors and studios treat them. Such terms can often be highly debated. It might be easy to assume something is the "first" or "most", but, as in the case of animated features, further study may reveal a different answer. The most irritating aspect of this is how easily it can be avoided with such phrases as "may be", or "is considered" which soften the effect and allow for future information.
The most dangerous, and in some ways most cruel of the group, is "created by". In the world of entertainment, there are so many influences, claiming singular creation can be tricky. Very few films or film characters are "created" solely by an individual. It is sad when one party involved is given full credit for a creation in the media. It is worse when someone with no claim to the creation gets that credit.
The media's glaring errors and omissions about animation are sad. Studio press departments who deceive in the rush to add historical importance to their own production are plain criminal. Whether error or deception, once these false facts appear on paper or websites, they gain an equal weight to the truth.
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