The Moviehunter

Pulp Culture
Disney loses first
Oscar given for
animated feature


March 28, 2002
By Franklin Harris

The Academy Awards made history Sunday night, and not just because Denzel Washington and Halle Berry took home the Oscars for, respectively, best actor and best actress.

This year was the first that there was an award for best animated feature film.

And Disney, the company that has dominated feature-film animation in the United States for the past 50 years, didn't win it.

To make matters worse, Disney's nominee, "Monsters, Inc.," lost to "Shrek," and "Shrek" is a production of Disney's hated rival, DreamWorks SKG.

The "K" in DreamWorks SKG stands for Katzenberg, as in Jeffrey Katzenberg, the former Disney executive responsible for Disney's biggest hit, "The Lion King."

Disney's animation division has fallen on hard times. Its biggest moneymakers have all been co-productions with Pixar: "Toy Story," "Toy Story 2," "A Bug's Life" and "Monsters, Inc." Disney's in-house animators struck out last year with "Atlantis: The Lost Empire," and last week, Disney announced it will lay off 250 animators this year.

You can sense the desperation when Disney pushes a made-for-video quickie like "Return to Neverland" into theaters just to make a fast buck.

Some industry observers think Disney's problem is that traditional animation techniques are giving way to computer animation, and Disney, apart from its Pixar partnership, hasn't kept up with the times. (All three nominees for this year's animation Oscar were computer animated.) But the growing mainstream popularity of Japanese animation (anime), created the old-fashioned way, suggests that Disney's problem is more complex than that.

Disney is the victim of its own success.

For decades, Disney ruled the box office, and all of its animated features followed a formula of catchy songs, talking animals and plucky heroes and heroines. Variety was a no-no.

Now audiences want more than the Disney formula, but Disney is in no position to deliver, at least not without outside help.

This is exactly how Disney drove ABC into the ratings gutter. Wall-to-wall "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" doesn't leave much room to develop new programming. So, when the "Millionaire" bubble burst, ABC was left with one new hit show, "Alias," and nothing else.

Of course, what is bad for Disney may be good for feature animation in general.

Disney is again turning to outside help. ScreenDaily.com reports that Disney has acquired the North American rights to "Spirited Away," the newest film from Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki.

"Spirited Away" is the highest grossing film in Japanese history, and it recently won the Golden Bear award at the Berlin Film Festival.

This isn't the first time that Disney has attempted to bring a Miyazaki film to American screens, but Disney's Miramax division so botched the release of "Princess Mononoke" that some of Miyazaki's American fans believe it was deliberately sabotaged. (I tend to blame incompetence rather than malice.)

But Disney seems to have learned from its "Mononoke" experience. It is pushing to release "Spirited Away" as soon as July, and Pixar's John Lasseter will oversee the film's translation into English.

Disney has its own, in-house film, "Treasure Planet," scheduled for release in November, but I'm betting, come Oscar time, Disney will submit the film it thinks has the best chance of winning, even if that means going with a Japanese import that Disney only dubbed and distributed.

I doubt Disney Chairman Michael Eisner can stomach losing to his former underling Jeffrey twice in a row.

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