February 27, 2006
Ever since the nominees were announced for this year's Best Animated Feature Film, various commentators have remarked that, considering that audiences are supposed to be flocking to 3D CGI, it's significant that none of the nominees use the technique.
It's true that it's significant. It's also significant that Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, the nominee that pulled the most boxoffice dollars, is the most obviously old-fashioned of the three. So much for the "newer is better" theory.
But what's equally important is that none of the nominees were produced by Disney—the third time this has happened since the category made its debut in 2001. This despite the fact that Walt Disney himself won the first ever Oscar for an animated feature, a special award in recognition of the achievement of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. This despite the fact that Beauty and the Beast was the first animated feature to be nominated for Best Picture.
It's obvious that Disney has been in a slide ever since 1995's Pocahontas; so obvious I don't even need to provide examples. If you're reading this, you most likely agree with me. So why do we—fans, writers, animators—continue to look to Disney as the bellwether of feature animation? It's not like they've earned that status recently.
Get away from the Oscars for a moment and look at what the average North American filmgoer watches and responds to. Sarcastic wink-to-the-audience films like Shrek, Madagascar and (to a lesser degree) Ice Age have done well; Wallace and Gromit are recognized and loved; and while Miyazaki still isn't quite a household name, his studio's influence runs deep in the filmmaking community, which in turn affects how films are made. We've already felt some of that influence in Pixar movies like Toy Story and A Bug's Life. Nods to Miyazaki have also popped up in TV shows like Batman Beyond, Samurai Jack and The Powerpuff Girls.
In fact, television and the home video markets are also responsible for a shift away from the Disney influence. TV shows like Rugrats, Teacher's Pet (yes, I know it's a Disney show) and Powerpuff Girls have spawned feature films that have done respectably at the boxoffice, each one sporting very different graphic sensibilities. And, most important in my book, today's kids and teenagers are growing up surrounded by anime, and that includes feature-length anime on DVD.
Disney has the advantage of being the only feature animation studio with a decades-long history and the only one tightly wedded to a worldwide media empire. But at the same time, it's no longer dictating the present or future of feature animation. Even John Lasseter's seizing of the reins won't change that—in fact, Pixar's history indicates a shift to director-driven features, something Disney has historically shied away from.
The animated feature market is going through some tremendous and exhilarating changes right now. Let's acknowledge that and stop giving Disney more credit than it's due.