Up! Where They Belong – Disney, Pixar, and the New Golden Age of Animation

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The nomination of the Disney/Pixar film “UP” in the Best Picture category of the 2010 Academy Awards returns Disney to its rightful position as undisputed king of animated film, a throne it has occupied for most of the past 100 years. Putting aside arguments as to what constitutes an animated film (some claim this appellation for Up’s co-nominee Avatar), this marks only the second time an animated feature has been nominated for the award (the first was another Disney film – Beauty and the Beast, of 1991, which somewhat ironically lost out to The Silence of the Lambs, which, it could be argued, resembled Beauty and the Beast in more ways than one.)

Although popular opinion has Avatar as the front runner to win Best Picture, the mere fact of Up’s nomination is a vindication of Disney’s purchase of the company in 2006 and testament to the courage and commitment of Pixar chairman and CEO Steve Jobs, and creative genius John Lassetter, now Chief Creative Officer of Pixar, and also of Disney Animation Studios.

Disney’s wisdom not only in recognising the financial worth of Pixar, but also the artistic worth of its creative team, brings the company back almost full circle to the very earliest days of animation, when founder Walt Disney very quickly realised that he would not be able to achieve his creative and business ambitions single-handedly, and set about employing the very best artists and writers that were available.

His first major collaboration was with friend and former workmate Ub Iwerks, with whom Disney had worked at the Pesmen-Rubin Commercial Art Studio in Kansas City. Although Iwerks was not the only animator with whom Disney worked, he was the most influential on the early films, most notably in his development of the now iconic Mickey Mouse from an earlier Disney character Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, rights to which he had lost in a contractual dispute. Using Iwerks’ new character, Disney took the risky step of investing in the new film technology of sound, introduced the previous year in The Jazz Singer.

Although Steamboat Willie of 1928, starring Mickey Mouse in his third appearance, is often cited as the first synchronised sound cartoon, it was in fact preceded in 1926 by Max and Dave Fleischer’s My Old Kentucky Home, and in 1928 by Dinner Time, created by Paul Terry, later founder of Terrytoons. Neither of these predecessors were successful at the box office, but Steamboat Willie was a sensation. With it, Disney moved into the big time, and embarked on a hugely productive phase in which several Mickey Mouse cartoons (including his first two – Plane Crazy, and The Gallopin’ Gaucho – remade with sound) were released each year, along with a number of other titles featuring a growing stable of popular characters.

Disney had combined technical superiority with artistic excellence and business acumen, and this combination of attributes earned him and his company’s place at the forefront of the animation industry, a position he cemented four years later when he signed Technicolor to a two year contract for his exclusive use of their new colour processing technique for cartoons.

By the end of the 1930s, Walt Disney was ambitious to develop animation even further. He took the risky, but ultimately profitable leap into animated feature films with the vastly popular and successful Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1938, a film which began several decades of box office domination for Disney, with such iconic films as Bambi (1942), Song of the South (1946), and Cinderella (1950) joining modern classics like The Little Mermaid of 1989, and Beauty and the Beast (1991), in the pantheon of great films – animated and otherwise.

It is no surprise then, that the Disney company recognised the potential of the groundbreaking new medium of computer animation when Pixar made its first feature film Toy Story in 1995. Disney and Pixar entered into a distribution partnership for Toy Story and subsequent Pixar output which, although not without the occasional contractual disputes and personality clashes, eventually led to Disney’s purchase of a majority share in Pixar. True to the history of both of these leaders in film animation, the quality of Pixar’s work has steadily progressed, and with the appointment of John Lassiter (also a one time Disney animator) as creative director of both companies, there is no reason to doubt that this will continue. It can only be a matter of time until a Disney/Pixar film is given the recognition and respect that this often underrated art form has deserved since the early days of animation.

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