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From Agrabah’s slums to Pride Rock and back again

Cassie Belek | Friday, October 6, 2006

Walt Disney 2-D animation has risen, fallen, risen and fallen again. The promising rebirth of animation that “The Little Mermaid” made possible in 1989 lasted only a decade. Walt Disney Feature Animation made its last traditional animated feature in 2004 with the easily forgettable “Home on the Range,” a movie that elicits zero Disney magic but does evoke amazement because it was created by the same company who crafted the masterful 1950 classic “Cinderella.”

Traditional Disney animation has not recovered from this dark period that began in the late 1990s. While Disney-Pixar films have all proven to be enormously popular, the creativity that draws audiences to these computer animated films is nonexistent in Disney’s most recent 2-D animated films. With the exception of “Lilo & Stitch,” these films have achieved little success since 1999’s “Tarzan.” However, it should be said Disney has survived dark days before.

Walt Disney struck animation gold in the early 1930s with the introduction of Mickey Mouse and later, his pals Goofy and Donald Duck. However, Disney wished to break further ground in animation and in 1938 he released “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” – the first animated feature film in English and Technicolor. The wild success of “Snow White” sparked the company’s golden age of animation that, despite a few bumps during World War II, continued until Disney’s death from lung cancer in 1966. Before Disney’s death, Walt Disney Feature Animation had completed 18 animated films.

During his tenure, Disney looked for new ways to experiment in animation. His third animated feature was the 1940 masterpiece “Fantasia”- a beautiful synthesis of classical music and mesmerizing animation. The result of this synthesis was an instant critical success, but only slowly gained a public following over the years.

1959’s “Sleeping Beauty” – the last of the fairy tale features until “The Little Mermaid” – was a successful stylistic experiment. It was the last of Disney’s animated features to use hand-inked cells and its elaborate paintings resembled a moving tapestry. Eyvind Earle painted most of the backgrounds himself and each painting took him seven to 10 days to complete – seven times the amount of time in previous features. Initially, “Sleeping Beauty” was a box-office failure because of its slow pace, but like “Fantasia” it has gained a following over the years and is now heralded as one of Disney’s best and most beautiful animated films.

After Disney’s death, the animation studio seemed lost without his direction. From his death until the release of “Mermaid” in 1989, Walt Disney Feature Animation produced only nine animated features, the most memorable being “The Jungle Book” – released the year after Disney’s death – and “Robin Hood.”

After years of honing the craft of young, new animators, the animation studio finally found a new life in the animated musical “The Little Mermaid.” Returning to Disney’s successful musical format, “Mermaid” won the Academy Awards for Best Original Score and Best Original Song for “Under the Sea.” The film was a box-office success and ushered in a new era of Disney musical animated features.

Disney’s successes only marched forward after “Mermaid.” In 1991, “Beauty and the Beast” became the only animated film to ever be nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Picture category. It lost to “Silence of the Lambs,” but won the Academy Awards for Best Original Score and Best Original Song for the titular song.

“Aladdin” followed in 1992 and “The Lion King” kept pace in 1994. Although extremely popular among females, both movies have been cited as favorite among males as well. Both musicals feature a male protagonist, a change from the two Disney princesses that preceded them.

1998’s “Mulan” and 1999’s “Tarzan” were Disney’s last two traditional animated successes. Since then, Disney has produced flops that lack the beautiful animation details of their predecessors. Disney’s recent lack of quality in its feature films has been coupled with its shameful direct-to-DVD animated sequels. Instead of producing well-thought out and well-animated feature sequels, Disney distributes hackneyed shadows of its original animated masterpieces in order to make a buck.

These recent inferior features and sequels do not evoke the same enchantment that Disney animated features have for years. “Magical” is the only way to describe a beloved Disney animated feature. With former CEO Michael Eisner gone, Walt Disney Feature Animation has announced plans to return to the traditional animation that it abandoned with “Chicken Little.” Disney is currently developing “The Frog Princess,” which will return to the musical format of the early 1990s. Like “The Little Mermaid,” the public will look to this feature to return traditional Disney animation back to glory. If “The Frog Princess” can successfully capture the famed Disney magic, 2-D animation has a chance of making yet another triumphant return.