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Digital Media FX - The Power of Imagination

Editorial: The Greed Age of Animation
by Joe Tracy, Publisher of Digital Media FX Magazine

"Relive the magic of Disney's all time classic as Walt Disney Home Video presents Snow White 2: When Will My Prince Come? Coming to video on April 1, this classic follows the adventure of Snow White's daughter as she searches for her prince. And if you thought that the evil queen in the original classic fell to her death, think again. We'll show you what really happened as the evil queen returns to seek her vengeance on Snow White, her daughter, the Prince, and the Seven Dwarfs. Featuring none of the original talent, this direct to video sequel is sure to be magical for Disney's pocketbook."

It's a scary thought that Disney would desecrate such a classic as Snow White with a poorly produced sequel, but why not? Disney seems bent on mining all the classics in order to turn "magic" into "mula". Right now Snow White II is just a bad "April Fool's joke", but what's scary is that it could become a reality. In fact, there's a nightmare rumor that Disney started pre-production on Snow White II earlier this month!

Disney animated movies used to be about quality family entertainment that was original, creative, and fascinating. However, as Earth progresses through different ages, so does the Disney Empire. Right now Disney seems to be in the Greed Age, where money is the motive for all decisions. Disney has discovered a gold mine during the Greed Age known as "the animated sequel" and in some cases "the animated sequel to the animated sequel."

What does this mean? It means that beloved classic animated movies are being butchered in sequels that lack originality and vision. In fact, a formula seems to have emerged for the Disney sequel consisting of two main ideas:

1) Bring back the same villain (or a very close relative that looks the same) even if that villain "died" in the original.

2) Give the main characters children that face the same type of obstacles as their parents did.

No sacred animated movie is safe from the sequel treatment because Disney sequels make a lot of money going direct to video. Take, for example, Cinderella II: Dreams Come True, which is stirring a lot of controversy in the animation industry (click here for a Digital Media FX discussion on this subject). The promo for Cinderella II says, "The Magic didn't end at midnight." It may not have ended for Cinderella, but it seems to have ended for Disney.

Let's just take a quick look at the list of animated sequels Disney has released over the past several years or will be releasing in the next few months (links point to Amazon.com listing):

Aladdin: Return of Jafar
Aladdin and the King of Thieves
Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas
The Little Mermaid: Return to the Sea
Lion King II: Simba's Pride
Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World
Cinderella II: Dreams Come True
The Hunchback of Notre Dame II
Lady and the Tramp 2: Scamp's Adventure
Peter Pan: Return to Neverland (Theatrical Release: February 15, 2002)

There's even more Disney animated sequels currently in production for future release:

Tarzan 2
Mulan 2
Dumbo 2
Hercules 2
Snow White 2 (unconfirmed)

If you clicked through on the Amazon.com links you'll notice the terrible reviews many of the sequels receive, which only reflects on Disney animation as a whole. Take for example, Aladdin. Amazon.com reviewers give the original Aladdin 5 out of 5 stars. Yet the sequel, The Return of Jafar averages 2 out of 5 stars.

The animated sequel business for Disney is so huge that it even has the following question as part of the Disney site FAQ:

"Where can I find information about one of your new movie sequels to a classic Disney animated feature?"

Disney's answer is to simply link to the site's DVD/Video home page (which isn't very helpful). The question is an indication at how big the market is for Disney and how Disney has become a master of "animation dilution".

What is animation dilution? Well, theme parks and many fast food joints learned years ago that they could make more money from selling soft drinks if they added a lot of ice to the drinks when giving them to a customer. Ice is virtually free and by conditioning people to believe they need ice to keep drinks cold, these places were successfully diluting the soda to make more money. That's why I always get my soda without ice (and it's just as cold as the soda fountains are refrigerated). Disney has mastered the same concept with its direct to video animated sequels. It is diluting its own marketplace to make an extra buck. The movies are more watered down and without substance but as long as the public doesn't care, Disney will continue to do it. Disney's ultimate goal would be to create a brand image where people expect (and perhaps even want) an animated sequel… just like many people come to expect ice with their soft drink.

So when will this all end? Well, we already know that Disney does not care about its image during the Greed Age; it cares only about money. And this isn't just in its animated sequels. Take a look at its theme parks. How many years has it been since Disneyland was given a new ride? Yet Disney continues to shut down rides and attractions while not opening new ones. Disney has also cut out customer service perks like Early Bird Entry for resort guests. Disney's California Adventure was built more like an elaborate fair than a magical Disney destination. Disney is cutting corners to make a fast buck with no care about what it is doing to its image. The Greed Age trickles through the whole company, not just animation. But animation is one of the most visual mediums of this injustice.

Even the press is getting sick of the continual Disney animated sequels. Earlier this month the Star Tribune said the following in a detailed opinion column titled, "Sequels Don't Fuel Kids Imaginations":

"…This is what we've come to, as far as imagination stretches these days. Kids, and we parents, are being played for chumps. Disney wants us to believe that somewhere in the Magic Kingdom, there's a magical turnip from which it can wring nostalgic water at will. And only a sour old adult would call it drivel… Such entertainments are made for children young enough to accept them at face value and not realize that they are warmed-over retreads. Or maybe, just maybe, they will -- and there's the tragedy…"

A tragedy indeed.

A further tragedy is Disney trying to force its partners to churn out sequels. In public statements, Disney is trying to force the idea that part of Pixar's contract with the studio is to create two sequels (in addition to Toy Story 2) of its movies. Pixar has found itself in a position of having to issue corrections to such statements. Just late last month, Pixar issued the following statement in response to Michael Eisner saying they were owed three more movies and two sequels by Pixar:

"In response to questions arising from a comment made by Disney CEO Michael Eisner during Disney's quarterly earnings call today, Pixar CEO Steve Jobs issued the following clarification, 'Pixar has only three pictures left to deliver under its current deal with Disney, and all three of these pictures are currently in some stage of production. While Pixar has the right of first refusal to make sequels of its films, it has no obligation to do so. Pixar enjoys a very successful relationship with Disney and we look forward to completing the remaining three pictures of our current deal.'"

Issues like Disney trying to force Pixar to do a Toy Story 3 only damage future chances of the companies working together. But in the Greed Age that doesn't matter because the company is only thinking of now and not what the future consequences will be to its current actions. When Disney built a cheap Disney's California Adventure theme park (and there are exceptions like the beautiful Imagineered Animation building) it didn't think of the possibility that people wouldn't like it. Now tens of millions of dollars is having to be spent to fix the problems so that people will start going to the new park in numbers needed to make the park profitable.

Walt Disney, the man, was a true visionary that cared more about being true to the public than about the bottom line (trivia question: how many animation sequels did Walt Disney the man make? Zero? Why?). And through focusing on originality, vision, and service he was able to build the Disney Empire during "The Visionary Age". Walt cared about the experience and because he made the experience great for all - without cutting corners - he was rewarded with huge success. The future of Disney was always secure when Walt was in charge of the company because he knew how to generate loyalty.

During the 2000 Animatasia Awards, many people were shocked that Disney Feature Animation was not one of the three companies nominated for the "Best Animation Studio of the Year" award. This is not the fault of the excellent Disney animators or artists, but rather corporate decisions that are leading its animation division down the wrong path. It's no wonder that Pixar, DreamWorks, and Aardman are now held in higher regard than Disney Feature Animation. By choosing a path of destruction, Disney Feature Animation is shaping up to be The Emperor's Last Groove.

The purpose of this opinion column is not to demoralize what has become of Disney Feature Animation (even though it may seem that way). The purpose is to show Disney that it needs to reconsider the path it is going down and to learn from companies like Pixar. Disney has always been The Lion King of animation and it is saddening to see them Scarred by their decisions. Michael Eisner would be wise to form "The Animation Knights of the Round Table" of creative Disney greats still at the studio (i.e. Don Hahn, Glen Keane) and begin to truly tackle the issue of what it will take to bring the magic back to life -- to recapture The Power of Imagination. A good starting point would be to cancel any perceived plans of Snow White 2 and to invent new, interesting, and original animated stories with strong characters and execution. Disney should hire someone to write a biography on John Lasseter, then read it multiple times and learn.

It's time to get back to the basics:

Originality + Imagination = Current and Future Financial Strength and Viewer Loyalty.

I'd love to be writing an editorial two years from now on another new Disney Age - "The Animation Imagination New Age Movement". After all, animation is about The Power of Imagination and not the ability to recreate the same story in sequel form. Please, Disney, let Snow White and her prince live happily ever after so that we may live happily ever after too.


Click here to discuss this story in the Digital Media FX Forums.

Joe Tracy is the publisher of Digital Media FX, author of four books and former editor of the visual effects print magazine, NewTekniques. He is also a visual effects columnist for The Hollywood Forum.

Additional Point:

Disney's Greed Age can be compared to many online companies. As soon as hard times hit online many companies started doing annoying things like adding pop up banners to their Websites and annoying users with flashing ads, gambling ads, and ads that open in front and behind of a user's browser. Some companies like Digital Media FX and Google resisted these efforts. Others, like Yahoo! and ABC News embraced this type of annoying behavior without regard to their customers. So while Google receives praise from the media and users, Yahoo! is being hammered with negative publicity. But Yahoo's bottom line has increased so they don't care what their visitors think. And that's where Yahoo has lost the loyalty of a visitor and Google has gained it. People respect Google for its stand against Website SPAM methods and as a result Google will be a much stronger company in the future.

All editorialized columns, including this one, that appear in Digital Media FX are not necessarily reflective of the opinions of Digital Media FX, its partner sites, and its advertisers.

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