The Internet and nostalgia go together like peanut butter and jelly, barbecue chicken and the Fourth of July, and other appropriate food-related metaphors. A day doesn’t seem to go by anymore without Buzzfeed or another clickbait-centric website publishing an article about some piece of popular culture from the 1980s or 1990s, something you’d forgotten over time but are reminded of with a few well-placed GIFs. The power of this kind of nostalgia has revived countless toys into movies, or old properties into new ones designed to appeal as much to adults as to their kids; it’s both enveloping and somewhat corrosive. This isn’t to say that nostalgia in general is a bad thing; the problem is that the Internet has allowed such wistfulness to go unchecked and run rampant.
However, nostalgia is inextricably linked with the animation of yesteryear, in part because no amount of nostalgia for films like The Little Mermaid or The Lion King, no amount of re-releases or Blu-ray unveilings, no amount of Internet memes has revived hand-drawn animation in the mainstream. Animation as a whole is arguably more powerful and financially popular now than it ever was during the Disney Renaissance or back when Walt Disney himself was overseeing projects like Pinocchio or Fantasia. As a random example, Frozen (remember Frozen? Of course you do) continues to make money in Japanese theaters, where it’s grossed almost $250 million. Its gross in Japan alone makes it a higher-grossing film than all but two domestic releases in 2014. Though Frozen is something of an outlier, most animated movies these days are guaranteed to make gobs of money internationally, much more so than they do in the States.
So computer animation, at least, is not in trouble. But it’s awfully difficult not to wonder what might have been, especially when stories like these break. It is indeed fun to imagine what Frozen might have looked like had it been a hand-drawn animated film instead of a computer-animated one. You might be equally curious to know what Tangled or Bolt or any number of films from Walt Disney Animation Studios in the last decade might have looked like had they not been created by computer. Too often, in fact, these movies—quality aside—look like hand-drawn animated films unceremoniously upgraded to computer animation less because of story demands and more because the trend in the 21st century is to make animated films by computer. And inadvertently, the core of the problem is located in Emeryville, California.
It’s been nearly 20 years since Pixar Animation Studios arrived in mainstream animation, and in that period, all surrounding competition has learned the wrong lesson. Toy Story was a lightning bolt in the animation industry as much as it was in all of Hollywood. Not all such films were created via hand-drawn animation, but in the mid-1990s, something like The Nightmare Before Christmas was an extraordinarily rare exception. (Even now, stop-motion films are very infrequent, in part because of how much more time they take to create.) After Toy Story became the highest-grossing film of 1995 in the United States, one thing was clear to the industry: audiences had embraced computer animation. At least for that movie, American families as well as critics agreed that feature animation had wider boundaries than previously imagined. Three years would go by before Pixar or its immediate rival, DreamWorks Animation, would release another computer-animated film, but there were no other jolts in animation quite like Toy Story in the interim.
And in many respects, there have been no other jolts to the system since 1995. Yes, there are worldwide phenomena like Frozen or Finding Nemo, films that break the bank to an unexpected degree. But there has arguably been no more influential film in the American studio system since Toy Story. Outside of Pixar, which has continued to make mostly exceptional films since that opening salvo, places like DreamWorks, Sony Animation, or even Walt Disney Animation Studios have chosen to focus more and more on making movies that look like Toy Story instead of movies that feel like Toy Story. There are definitely exceptions from the competition, movies that are as memorable for their stories and characters as they are for hopefully photorealistic visuals. Unfortunately, How to Train Your Dragon, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, and Frozen are just that: exceptions. (It’s also up for debate how many of these exceptions equal Pixar’s best. To this writer, only Cloudy comes close.)
Pixar can’t legitimately be blamed for this renaissance of computer animation; men like Jeffrey Katzenberg, Michael Eisner, and Robert Iger have simply followed the money. The late-1990s weren’t a great financial period for traditional animation, especially at Disney; unlike previous fallow periods in the 1970s and 1980s, Disney no longer had to sit by and wait for a potentially good idea to emerge. Now, they and their competition could simply tell stories in a different way; the medium was generally the same, but the creation was wildly different. More to the point, Disney had to jump into computer animation lest they be seen as a fossil of the old guard. This is how we got Chicken Little, for example. It’s a story that doesn’t feel like it needed to be told; it’s a product that feels like it needed to be sold. Pixar’s films, in general, do not have this issue. They don’t feel like they exist solely to make money, but because the men and women behind these projects had to tell these stories. (Cars 2, as ever, is the exception that proves the rule.)
Hand-drawn animation has not gone away entirely, but it has migrated almost wholly to the global market. Obviously, such animation exists on television, but in terms of features, you have to go to foreign films like The Wind Rises or Ernest & Celestine. The former, which should’ve won last year’s Best Animated Feature Oscar, isn’t a child-friendly affair; it’s a biography of sorts of Jiro Horikoshi, the man who built aircraft used by the Japanese in World War II. But Ernest & Celestine is a delightful and family-friendly affair that proves how artful and lush hand-drawn animation can be. The English dub, featuring the voices of Forest Whitaker, Paul Giamatti, and William H. Macy, is equally delightful and is one of the few recent examples of a dub where the actors act instead of simply recite their dialogue. There’s little doubt that a lighthearted, sweet, and clever film like this could’ve been made by Disney. Instead, we’re given more and more computer-animated films.
Computer animation can be beautiful, but it’s rare to find a still from any computer-animated film, even those classics from Pixar, that rivals the aching beauty of a still from Bambi or Beauty and the Beast or even something as flawed as Pocahontas. All the way up to 2011, Disney could still deliver colorful and warm hand-drawn animated films like The Princess and the Frog and Winnie the Pooh. The “Friends on the Other Side” sequence from the former and Pooh’s honey-tinged hallucination in the latter are proof alone of the value of hand-drawn animation. For a brief moment, it seemed like John Lasseter, now Disney’s chief creative officer, would take hand-drawn animation away from the brink and give it another big platform. But The Princess and the Frog had the ill fortune of going up against Avatar in the holiday season of 2009, and Winnie the Pooh was released in the States on the same day as a little film called Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2. And so, for now, those are the last two remnants of hand-drawn animation at Disney.
It may be easy to blame Pixar or even Lasseter, both for the general influence the studio has had on the industry and for Lasseter’s shift back to computer animation. But the problem is less that Pixar relies on computer animation or that John Lasseter chose to put hand-drawn animation on a seemingly permanent back burner. The problem is that the diversity of creation offered by Pixar in the mid-1990s was ignored in favor of something shiny and new. Toy Story, on a basic level, is less about proving that computer animation is the best and only way to make animation going forward, and more about proving that computer animation is yet another option. Not every animated film should be created by hand, nor by computer software. Great animation can be created with Claymation (Chicken Run, for example), or by stop-motion animation (Coraline or Fantastic Mr. Fox). On one hand, the majority of recent stop-motion animated or hand-drawn animated films have been good, if not outright excellent. Thus, those few times when we get a new film in these formats, it’s not wrong to have high hopes. (The Boxtrolls, opening this fall, could be another gem from Laika.)
But there is no reason for Disney, or any other studio aside from Pixar, to ignore hand-drawn animation. If nostalgia is one of the most driving forces on the Internet, it’s hard to imagine a hand-drawn animated film not getting some level of interest simply because adults remember what it was like to see Ariel or Simba or Bambi or Peter Pan or any number of older characters on the big screen without the aid of a computer. Studio executives presume, no doubt, that audiences are responding to films like Toy Story or Frozen or How to Train Your Dragon because they’re created with cutting-edge technology of the time, as well as because they offer memorable characters. The truth is different: audiences aren’t unwilling to engage with less current technology. They may sometimes flock to the big, loud, and technologically messy, but a good story attached to the Disney name is almost always guaranteed to do well. (Frozen isn’t a massive hit because it’s computer-animated.) Disney, if not other studios, need to take a chance once more on the traditional. The results may surprise them.