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Hollywood Animation: The Renaissance

1988 to present

By the mid-1980s, the American animation industry had sunk to a decrepit state. Toy commercials masquerading as entertainment dominated the afternoon cartoon shows and Saturday morning cartoons, with the only experimentation and development in animation taking place in small, independent animated cartoons. Animated feature films still appeared occasionally in theaters, but the glory days of old had disappeared. Even giant Disney, which barely fought off a corporate takeover[?] attempt in the 1980s, was considering abandoning the production of feature-length animated films.

Film fans, audiences, critics, and animators alike were all taken by surprise when the long-awaited renaissance of animation began with the most ancient, conservative, and mainstream cartoon producer: Disney.

Disney underwent a company shakeup in the 1980s, and new chairman Michael Eisner got the company back on its feet by returning the company to its roots and revitalizing its movie studios. With great fanfare, in 1988 the studio collaborated with Steven Spielberg and produced the animated feature film Who Framed Roger Rabbit, directed by Robert Zemeckis. The movie was a runaway box-office smash, and it provided the shot in the arm to the animation industry that was so desperately needed at the time. Not only did Roger Rabbit make a pile of money for Disney, it also sparked a popularization of classical animation that continues to the present day. The history of animation suddenly became a subject for serious scholarly inquiry (as well as animation fandom). Several aging legends in the business such as Chuck Jones and Friz Freleng suddenly found themselves the center of attention, receiving acclaim and accolades after decades of being virtually ignored by audiences and industry professionals alike.

Disney followed up Who Framed Roger Rabbit with The Little Mermaid, the first of a series of new animated feature films that seemed to re-capture the magic of the golden days of Walt Disney himself. The studio invested heavily in the new technology of computer animation to beef up its animation, producing animated extravaganzas such as Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin that drew in audiences of the sort not seen in decades, while providing a feast for the eyes unmatched since the 1940s. The peak of Disney's success was in 1994 when their film, The Lion King, surpassed the wildest hopes of the studio to become one of the most successful films of all time.

Disney also made new inroads in the long-neglected area of TV animated series. With the success of its TV cartoon series The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh and Gummi Bears, the "new" Disney made its mark in TV cartoons as well with Duck Tales. This was the first animated TV series to invest a lot of money and make it back through syndication and repeats, thus affording high-quality animation for TV.

But while Disney was bringing new life to the state of animation, Steven Spielberg was making his own inroads as well. A lifelong animation fan, Spielberg was also interested in producing high-quality animation, and he also worked with rival animation producer Don Bluth[?] to produce An American Tail. The box-office success of this movie, and Bluth's subsequent followup The Land Before Time made Hollywood realize that Disney did not have a monopoly on profitable animated feature films. The other Hollywood studios began producing their own animated feature films once again, though they still fell for the trap of trying to imitate Disney.

Spielberg, meanwhile, turned to TV animation and worked with the Warner Bros. animation studio to produce Tiny Toon Adventures, a high-quality animated series that paid homage to the great Warner Bros. cartoons of Termite Terrace[?]. Tiny Toon Adventures scored big with young TV viewers, inspiring Warner Bros. to ressurect its moribund animation studio and become a contender once again in the field of animated cartoons. Tiny Toon Adventures was followed by Steven Spielberg Presents Animaniacs and Batman: The Animated Series. Not only did these cartoons bring in new viewers to Warner Bros., they also captured the attention of older viewers (teenagers and adults).

Animated cartoons had been seen solely as "children's entertainment" from the earliest days of the cinema. This perception continues to the current day, but the 1990s saw the beginnings of a new wave of animated series intendend primarily for adults. The Simpsons, based on a short animated cartoon segment of The Tracy Ullman Show, was the first prime-time animated series since The Flintstones to capture a sizable viewing audience. It was the first major hit series for the fledgling Fox TV network, and it caused a minor sensation, entering popular culture and gaining wide acceptance.

Other TV networks also experimented with adult-oriented animation. MTV produced several animated series especially for its audience of teenagers, including Liquid Television[?] and Beavis and Butthead. Even USA Network found a cult following with its Duckman show. But the most successful adult-oriented animated series of the 1990s was South Park, which saw its beginnings in 1996 as a pirated Internet cartoon.

Teenage viewers (especially male teenagers) also embraced the growing number of anime series being imported from Japan. The growing anime home video market catered to the teenage and college crowd, translating a large number of Japanese animated series into English and making them available in mainstream video outlets, music stores, and malls. Because animation had mainstream acceptance in Japan, it's resulting wide range of subject matter from children's fare to adult entertainment offered material that North American animation was not ready to touch.

After being nearly comatose for over two decades, the American animation industry experienced a sudden surge of growth in the 1990s. A number of new, risk-taking animation studios arose, and they found a wide number of markets to peddle their talents to. In addition to animated TV series, animation of all sorts was used in TV commercials, video games, and music videos. Newer, smaller animation studios arose to challenge the dominance of Hanna-Barbera Productions for the TV animation market.

Indeed, Hanna-Barbera found itself unable to compete in the new, varied market for cartoons. During the days when they had dominated the entire spectrum of Saturday morning cartoons, Hanna-Barbera had virtually no competition; this caused the quality of their series in general to deteriorate. Now in the 90s, the studio could only offer retreads such as A Pup Named Scooby-Doo and C.O.W.boys of Moo Mesa[?] to compete with the Fox Kids Network[?] shows and Warner Bros.' new WB Network[?]. Hanna-Barbera lagged behind, and found itself being bought outright by Turner Networks[?].

Not only did Hanna-Barbera have trouble adapting to the changes sweeping across television. The "Big Three" networks (ABC, NBC, and CBS) all found their once-loyal audiences being eroded by competition from the newer networks, including newer cable TV networks such as Nickelodeon, the Disney Channel, and the Cartoon Network. Video games and movies available on video also helped to change the market, to the point where for a while NBC abandoned showing cartoons completely. ABC was purchased by Disney, and Disney transformed its Saturday schedule into a series of Disney-produced animated cartoons.

While animated series on the major networks seemed lackluster, the cable television cartoons gave rise to a number of hits. Nickelodeon gave birth to the cult hits Ren and Stimpy, Rugrats, and Spongebob Squarepants. Meanwhile, Hanna-Barbera's new owners Time Warner focused the studio on the creation of new cartoons for the Cartoon Network. Hanna-Barbera saw an infusion of new blood, and a new generation of Hanna-Barbera cartoons was born with Dexter's Laboratory and The Powerpuff Girls.

Still, not every new piece of animation struck gold. Disney's animated feature films began to suffer in quality in the late 1990s, after producer Jeff Katzenberg[?] left the studio and teamed up with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen[?] to form the Dreamworks[?] studio. Likewise, a number of animated feature films released during the 1990s tried to imitate the success of Disney, but just as in the 1930s and 1940s, the animated feature offerings from 20th Century Fox and Warner Bros. failed to capture a sizable segement of Disney's feature film dominance of the market. Warners in particular had a string of failures as its animated features Cats Don't Dance[?], Quest for Camelot[?] and The Iron Giant[?] (the last being praised by critics and audiences, but virtually ignored by the public at large) died at the box office. Warners also tried to re-create Roger Rabbit's success with Space Jam[?], an attempt to combine the popularity of Bugs Bunny with basketball superstar Michael Jordan.

In addition, the kiddie-marketing trend continued throughout the 1990s, even if it wasn't quite as pervasive as it had been a decade earlier. Two major toy phenomena dominated most of the weekday-afternoon kid-oriented TV programming: Mighty Morphin Power Rangers in the mid-1990s, and Pokémon in the later half of the decade. Even as animation underwent a new rebirth in this decade, a great deal of attention (and consumer dollars) continued to be funneled into merchandising.

The rise of computer animation

Yet another wild card was added to this crowded, competitive atmosphere with the rise of a new wave of computer animation. The decade of the 1990s saw exponential improvement in the use of computer technology to enhance both animated sequences and live-action special effects, allowing lavish computer-animated sequences to dominate both. This new form of animation soon dominated the world of Hollywood special effects (the movies Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Jurassic Park included stunning computer-animated sequences), and it was only a matter of time before a full-length feature film would be produced entirely with computers. Once again it was Disney that led the pack in this area. Disney's use of computer effects to enhance its animated feature films had paid off handsomely, and they teamed up with Pixar to produce Toy Story in 1995. The movie was a phenomenal success, and it created yet another wild Hollywood bandwagon, as other studios looked into producing their own computer-animated (or CGI) films.

Perhaps because it was developed first as a new method for creating special effects, computer animation was not seen primarily as a form of "children's entertainment." After decades of existing as related but separate industries, the barrier between "animation" and "special effects" was shattered by the popularization of computerized special effects, to the point where computer enhancement of Hollywood feature films became second-nature. The best special effects were often so subtle that they were completely unnoticed. The Academy Award-winning Forrest Gump (1994) depended heavily on computerized special effects to create the illusion of realism, even to the point where actor Tom Hanks was seen shaking hands with President John F. Kennedy. The film Titanic used computer imagery to enhance nearly every scene in its three-hours length, and this produced a level of realism that helped propel the film to become the biggest box-office smash of all time.

In 2001, Final Fantasy The Spirits Within became the first film to attempt realistic computer-generated human characters. CGI special effects increased to the point where the 2002 science fiction film Star Wars: Attack of the Clones was considered by its director, George Lucas, to be primarily an animated film that used real-life actors. Indeed, CGI effects had become so lifelike that it was difficult to tell computer animation from real life. A growing number of family-oriented films began to use entirely computer-generated characters that interacted on the screen with live-action counterparts, such as Jar-Jar Binks in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, Gollum in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and The Incredible Hulk in The Hulk.

Computer animation also made inroads into television. The Saturday morning animated series ReBoot won a large cult following among adults, and this was the first of a number of CGI-generated animated series, including Transformers[?], War Planets, and Roughnecks. The quality of the computer animation improved considerably with each successive series. Many live-action TV series (especially science fiction TV series such as Babylon 5) invested heavily in CGI production, producing high-quality special effects that their lower-budgeted predecessors could only dream of.

Other studios besides Disney tried their hand with computer animated feature films, and here they found what appeared to be a chink in the armor of Disney's near-monopoly on animated box office success. While Dreamworks' Antz and Small Soldiers paled in comparison with the Disney-Pixar releases A Bug's Life and Toy Story 2, they finally succeeded in scoring big with Shrek in 2001. Shrek was a gigantic box-office hit, pulling in audiences and overpowering Disney's summer release for that year, Atlantis. Even 20th-Century Fox[?] struck gold when it released a CGI animated feature in early 2002 entitled Ice Age.

But the true star of the CGI revolution seemed to be Pixar. Even before Toy Story, the studio had made a name for itself by producing stunning computer-animated short films (their short Tin Toy[?] won an Oscar); and when Disney tried to create a CGI feature film of its own without Pixar (Dinosaur), the result was noticeably lackluster.

Animation had become so widely accepted by the beginning of the 21st Century that in 2001, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences introduced a new Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. The two major contenders for this award were both CGI feature films: Shrek and Monsters Inc. Despite a major campaign for the award, few industry watchers were surprised to see Disney fail to win the Oscar for the field it had pioneered and dominated (animated feature films); the award went to Dreamworks for Shrek. However, there were complaints that the award seemed to be oriented to family films since a relatively minor, albiet praised, animated film, Jimmy Neutron, was the third nominee and not the acclaimed innovative adult oriented film, Waking Life.

As of 2002, the use of computer animation on both the big screen and the small was so pervasive and so successful, there was talk of major animation studios abandoning traditional cel-drawn animation altogether and focusing solely on computer animation. Disney seemed poised to lead the pack in cutting back on hand-drawn animation; despite the box office success of Lilo & Stitch, the holiday failure of their much-hyped Treasure Planet[?] seemed to all but ensure that there would be major cutbacks at Disney's animation studio. Disney's loss was further undercut when the 2002 oscar for Animated Feature Film went to Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away, giving Disney its second loss in a row at the Academy Awards.

Hollywood Animation: The Silent Period[?]
Hollywood Animation: The Golden Age
Hollywood Animation: The TV Era
Hollywood Animation: The Renaissance

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