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The End of an Era: Disney After The Renaissance

There is perhaps no animation studio as well known or as well regarded as Walt Disney Animation. While the studio had experienced several periods of blockbuster success throughout its history, the early 2000’s was a weird time for the studio. The Disney Renaissance of the 90’s—one of the most stunning and successful turnarounds of a film studio in history—was over; computer animation was steadily gaining favorability over the hand-drawn animation that had been the studio’s bread and butter; and rival studios such as Dreamworks and Fox had been steadily rising to prominence and were starting to present some serious competition.

Looking back at Disney Animation’s output from this particular timeframe, it’s clear that the studio was in the process of trying to figure out a course for their future, looking for a balance between the studio’s own identity and a shift in audience tastes towards heavier use of computer-generated animation. The result? One of the most fascinating two-year periods in the studio’s history, with a wildly eclectic batch of films as the studio explored novel ways to make use of computer-based animation while trying to modernize their more traditionally animated features. 

Fantasia 2000

Starting off the decade, Fantasia 2000 served as part sequel, part re-imagining of the original Fantasia, using the same concept of animated sequences set to pieces of classical music, ranging from Rhapsody in Blue to Symphony No. 5. The film is more of an animation showcase than a traditional feature film, with each segment being handled by a different director and varying in tone from the abstract (Symphony No. 5) to comedic (Pomp and Circumstance) to even having miniature narratives in their own right (Rhapsody in Blue). Each segment featured an introduction from a different celebrity guest, including Steve Martin, James Earl Jones, and Penn & Teller.

The film’s release schedule was a fairly ambitious undertaking: it originally premiered in December of 1999 at Carnegie Hall, where the animation sequences were shown on a screen above the stage and an orchestra performed each particular piece of music live in time to the animation. Additional performances would be held at the Royal Albert Hall in London, the Theater des Champs-Elysees in Paris, the Orchard Hall in Tokyo, and the Pasadena Civic Auditorium in California. 

The Spring Sprite, from the "Firebird" sequence of Fantasia 2000
The Spring Sprite, from “The Firebird Suite”

Following the initial concert tour, the film was then released exclusively in IMAX theaters worldwide from January to April of 2000, the first animated feature film to be released in that format, before finally having a general release in June of that year. Ultimately, Fantasia 2000 would wind up being a precursor of what to expect from the rest of the non-traditional films that the studio would make over the next couple of years: ambitious, innovative—and often wildly expensive, even coming to be referred to as “Roy Disney’s Folly” by some.

Dinosaur

Next came Dinosaur, what would be one of the studio’s most visually ambitious films at the time. While the studio had made use of computer-generated imagery as far back as the 1980s, the technique was mostly used for background work and as a means to augment the 2D animation that remained at the front and center of their films. Dinosaur was the first film from the studio to really put computer-generated animation front and center while making use of a unique (and expensive) idea: getting the footage for the backgrounds on location from parts of North America, South America, and Asia, then enhance them with CGI. 

A mostly burned landscape covered in smoke

Unfortunately, the film’s story is its weakest point, feeling very similar to the already popular The Land Before Time, but the visuals were widely praised as being near-photorealistic for the time period and showcasing the possibilities of the future of computer animation. The film’s opening sequence received particular praise, following the egg that would eventually hatch into the film’s protagonist through a series of stunning, panoramic shots that make the film’s world truly feel alive. One could almost think of Dinosaur as a precursor to James Cameron’s Avatar: a visually impressive tech demo, tied to a less-than-memorable story. 

The Emperor’s New Groove

The Emperor’s New Groove was the first traditionally animated feature of the early 2000’s Post-Renaissance period but with some stark differences between it and the Renaissance era films. After some slightly underwhelming box-office returns for Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the film was heavily reworked in production from a more dramatic musical into a more lighthearted comedy in a style meant to evoke the Chuck Jones style of cartoons.

Kuzco standing in front of a bridge

Musical numbers—a hallmark of nearly every Renaissance-era Disney film—were completely absent from the film, and the film overall had a zanier, more “modern” feel. The box office return for The Emperor’s New Groove would again be underwhelming, but it would find much more success following its release on DVD.

This is probably the biggest part of The Emperor’s New Groove’s legacy, as the early 2000s would see the controversial “direct-to-DVD” period of just about every classic Disney film getting a cheaply made sequel released directly to DVD really kick into high gear once the studio found out how profitable they could be.

Atlantis: The Lost Empire

Loosely inspired by Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea, Atlantis: The Lost Empire is one of the most striking films in Disney’s long history—and is a personal favorite of mine. Not only did it serve as the theme for my eighth birthday party, but my parents would also wind up buying an excessive amount of Kellogg’s cereals in pursuit of the full set of toys released as tie-ins to the film. 

Kida, from Atlantis The Lost Empire

Visually, Atlantis was a stunning blend of traditional hand-drawn 2D animation and computer-generated 3D animation, with computer programs used to blend the two and a virtual camera for more complicated shots. The film’s visual style was heavily based on that of Mike Mignola—the comics artist who created Hellboy and was one of the production designers who worked on the film—giving it a distinctive, angular look that separates it from the studio’s previous animated features. 

Thematically, Atlantis was an almost complete 180-degree reversal from The Emperor’s New Groove: a more mature feeling and action-adventure heavy film that felt reminiscent of old pulp novels while exploring themes like anticapitalism and anticolonialism. While Atlantis didn’t find much success upon initial release, the film has found a cult following in recent years. Particular praise has been given towards its culturally diverse and well-written cast of characters—to this day I still see much of myself in Milo, the film’s bookish, socially awkward, yet passionate protagonist, and Princess Kida is one of the most capable and confident heroines that Disney has ever brought to life (along with being an early crush for a young yours truly)—and has come to be regarded by many as a “lost classic” of the Disney canon.

Lilo & Stitch

The second of three films primarily produced at Disney’s Florida-based animation studio—the other two being Mulan and Brother BearLilo & Stitch wound up becoming one of the more successful films from this period. The irony of the film’s success is that while a large part of the Post-Renaissance period saw Disney trying to find creative ways to make use of computer-generated animation, Lilo & Stitch contained probably the least CGI out of all the films made in this period—the animation team simply wasn’t given enough of a budget to make use of it.

The film’s visuals eschewed the traditional Disney house style in favor of one based on director Chris Sanders’ personal animation style, and the backgrounds made use of watercolor technique instead of the more commonly used gouache technique. Much of the film’s style was also in part due to the tight budget the team was working on—details such as pockets on clothes had to be avoided, and most of the film takes place in the shade in order to save shadows for important scenes.

Stitch, flying through the windshield of Ganyu's spaceship

Despite these budgetary limitations, Lilo & Stitch‘s story of found family and a fish-out-of-water alien would lead to it becoming the scrappy underdog that beat the odds, going on to have three more movies, an animated television series, and a pair of Japan-exclusive anime spinoffs. Meanwhile, Stitch remains one of Disney’s most popular characters to this day, frequently appearing on lists of the top ten.

Treasure Planet and the End of an Era

Finally, there’s Treasure Planet, one of the most ambitious projects undertaken by Disney Animation and to this day is the most expensive traditionally animated feature ever made. An adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island set in space, the film made use of a novel technique of hand-drawn 2D animation set atop 3D computer animation along with a visual style inspired by classic storybook illustrations.

An 18th century style ship, sailing through a field of stars and solar clouds

To this day, Treasure Planet is one of the most visually breathtaking films the studio has ever produced. Despite being set in space, the film actually feels more in line with old-school adventure films. The animation team stuck to what they dubbed the “70/30 rule,” wherein the film’s visual and audio design would be 70% traditional and 30% sci-fi, resulting in a warm, retro-futuristic look with an impressive sense of scale rarely seen in an animated film.

 

Unfortunately, Treasure Planet would prove to be the last hurrah of this ambitious Post-Renaissance era: the film turned out to be a box office bomb, ultimately losing $30 million compared to its budget and seemingly forcing the studio to scale back on its ambitions for future films. The studio would make only two more hand-drawn films over the next two years, and afterwards would fully make the jump to computer-generated animation, only to occasionally return to hand-drawn techniques before basically gutting their hand-drawn animation division by 2013. 

Disney’s films of the early 2000s might not be as universally beloved as those from the legendary Renaissance era (although Atlantis and Treasure Planet have developed solid cult followings over the years) but they make up one of the most fascinating segments of the studio’s long history. Not only are they a fascinating look at a time when the studio was willing to take risks and experiment with novel ways of combining hand-drawn animation with the wider range of possibilities offered by computer animation, but they would at the same time ultimately represent the end of an era for the studio. Hand-drawn animation would ultimately fall by the wayside, and while computer-generated animation would allow for more technically impressive and inventive worlds, one can’t help but feel that the studio—and mainstream animation as a whole—has ultimately lost something truly special along the way.

Written by Timothy Glaraton

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