With Walt Disney Studios announcing their plans to create a live-action Lion King universe, the future of animation is looking bleak—and not just for Disney, but one of its largest franchises too. Now more than ever, it seems like the studio’s best shot for redeeming itself amid a string of poorly-received live-action remakes is by exploring animation, which in contrast, is doing better than ever.
A Brief History of Disney Animation
Many forget that Walt Disney himself started his career in animation with the Kansas City Film Ad Company in Missouri in 1920. Disney and his friend Ub Iwerks, a gifted animator, founded the Laugh-O-gram Films studio, where they began producing a series of cartoons like 1923’s Alice in Cartoonland, laying the foundation for what would eventually become the Walt Disney Company.
In 1927, Disney released his first series of fully animated, hand-drawn films featuring the character Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, who would eventually be swapped out for Mickey Mouse. The iconic Steamboat Willie (1928) was a product of this era, and the creation of Mickey’s pals, including Donald Duck, Pluto, and Goofy, would follow shortly after.
This period of animation was an exceedingly tedious, time-consuming process. Still, it awed audiences with heavily stylized characters, lighthearted comedy, and technological advancements, including the three-colour Technicolor process. Disney would win multiple Academy Awards for his efforts, leading to the classic fables we all know and love, such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and Fantasia (1940).
Over the years, 2D animation has more or less been taken over by 3D, but the passion remains the same. Making movies or TV shows in this medium is still an incredibly demanding process, especially with the introduction of CGI. Animators today continue to push creative boundaries, mixing preexisting styles and experimenting with new forms to create some genuinely captivating visual spectacles.
Why is Animation Not Taken Seriously?
Last year, Disney’s animated adventure-comedy, Strange World (2022), was deemed a colossal box office “flop,” losing the studio over $200 million. Despite having a stacked cast including Jake Gyllenhaal, Dennis Quaid, and Lucy Liu, it failed to draw much attention at all, even though its reviews were largely positive, if not neutral. This begs the question: do audiences even care about animation anymore?
Historically, critics and amateur cinephiles have considered animation a “lower” art form. This is due in part to animation’s perceived audience, children. From Tom & Jerry to The Jetsons, cartoons are traditionally geared toward kids. But this isn’t to say that adults don’t enjoy watching animated content—much the opposite, in fact. With short runtimes and colorful, easy-to-grasp stories, animated flicks have always been a sort of “comfort watch,” even to older audiences.
Take Disney’s Renaissance era of 2D animation. 1991’s Beauty and the Beast was the first animated movie nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, while Aladdin (1992) became an instant cult classic upon release—both of which raked in millions at the worldwide box office. With Pocahontas (1995),The Lion King (1994), and Tarzan (1999) all following suit, one thing became clear: people didn’t just like animated movies; they loved them—regardless of their age. A nine-year-old and a 90-year-old could both learn a lesson or two from Finding Nemo (2000) because these stories are intended to appeal to everyone.
Still, despite their brilliance, animation continues to be looked down upon in Hollywood. At last year’s Oscars, one member of the Academy flat-out admitted that he “didn’t really give a s**t” about the animation category, abstaining from watching any nominees or voting. Animated filmmakers have long denounced the awards ceremony, but it continues to indicate how some people view animation. Pixar’s Encanto (2021) predictably snagged the win for Best Animated Picture that year, setting a precedent that its sister company, Disney, is simply unable to follow despite having abundant talent, money, and resources.
Disney seems to have a strange animosity towards its own animated stories. Take Moana (2017), for instance, which, instead of receiving an animated sequel, will be adapted to live-action, starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Why does a movie have to be rebooted to live-action to be truly “justified” by Disney?
Pixar aside, Disney’s Turning Red (2022), though well-reviewed by critics, failed to gain much viewership thanks to the company’s decision to release directly to Disney+ in favor of a theatrical run. And now, with Strange World failing to deliver despite being screened in thousands of movie theaters worldwide, it looks like Disney is thinking with their wallet instead of their hearts, moving away from animation in favor of more live-action remakes. Still, hope prevails for the upcoming Wish (2023), which might rekindle interest in Disney’s whimsical 2D animation—as long as they actually market it.
Disney and Marvel’s Future Lies in Animation
Box office success of Spider-Verse and The Super Mario Bros. Movie
Recently, Universal’s release of Nintendo/Illumination’s The Super Mario Bros. Movie (2023) made headlines after officially dethroning Disney’s Frozen (2013) as the second highest-grossing animated movie of all time. And now, it looks like Marvel/Sony’s Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse (2023) is on track to follow, with an impressive $120.6 million opening weekend.
In the DreamWorks camp, Puss in Boots: The Last Wish (2022) became an unexpected box office hit, raking in overwhelmingly positive reviews, with many citing its fluid animation style as one of their primary reasons.
With Spider-Verse well on its way to becoming the biggest box office hit ever for Sony Pictures Animation, Disney Animation, and Marvel need to start taking notes. By contrast, Strange World grossed just $73.6 million total. Clearly, demand for new and innovative animated content is at an all-time high. And if the company plays its cards right, it might just make itself a pretty penny while also saving its reputation.
Live-Action remake fatigue
It seems like Walt Disney Studios is churning out one live-action remake after the other, and understandably, audiences have had enough. Even though they might be box office darlings, movies like 2019’s Dumbo and 2022’s Pinocchio remain some of the studio’s worst-rated projects to date. The worst part? They don’t seem on slowing down anytime soon.
The recent release of director Rob Marshall’s The Little Mermaid (2023) has reignited discourse about Disney’s persistence in adapting all their animated classics to live-action—and for a good reason. Over the years, Disney’s “refreshed” takes on timeless tales like Mulan and The Lion King don’t actually feel—or look—”refreshed” at all. As a matter of fact, many viewers have complained about these movies’ dreary, dull color pallets and flat character expressions—something that animation thrives in bringing to life.
In a sea of live-action remakes, now is the time to dazzle weary audiences with an exciting new animated IP that will hold young viewers’ attention while still providing a heartwarming story for the adults. Disney Animation has the potential to really stand out, as its competitors, like Universal/DreamWorks, are starting to branch into live-action remakes of their own.
Animation has worked before with Star Wars
Take a look at Disney’s other leading franchise: Star Wars. Lucasfilm has long been a champion of exploring new technology, and the studio’s numerous animated releases are a mark of that. Lucasfilm has always been at the cutting edge of animation, from the animated 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special to Genndy Tartakovsky’s 2003 Star Wars: The Clone Wars miniseries. And for the most part, it’s paid off.
Dave Filoni’s 2008 Star Wars: The Clone Wars and his subsequent Star Wars Rebels inspired a new appreciation for the Prequel Trilogy. Its domino effect has not gone unnoticed, and it’s safe to say that Disney+’s Obi-Wan Kenobi wouldn’t have generated enough interest to stand on its own. The upcoming Ahsoka show wouldn’t have even existed if not for animation.
If Disney and Marvel applied this same logic to their projects, they could find themselves back on top of the animation box office, marking a new and exciting era that’s sorely needed in an age of washed-out remakes. Maybe Disney Animation could take a page from Star Wars books and finally figure out how to make a fun sci-fi adventure that captivates audiences.
Artists need creative freedom
The ongoing WGA strike is currently bringing most film and TV productions to a screeching halt until writers can work out a deal with the major Hollywood studios. One of the union’s biggest complaints is studios’ overreliance on recycling IPs, driving out a need for new and original ideas since familiar stories tend to generate the most box office revenue.
Directors, writers, and other artists have long spoken about the importance of giving creatives full rein when executing their visions on screen. And with animation still being somewhat uncharted territory, there’s endless potential for visual effects artists to flex their creative muscle with animation. Considering Disney’s resources—and its plummeting stock—maybe, it’s time to take a chance on a new story and let an eager creator go wild on making an animated film that will bring people back to the brand.
Marvel’s animated projects are really good, actually
Pre-Disney acquisition, Marvel’s film and TV presence was limited to a handful of divisive early 2000s superhero movies and several cartoon series. Now, with Kevin Feige at the helm, Marvel is easily the most successful superhero studio in the game—but it’s largely failed to deliver on the animation front.
In June 2021, Marvel Studios executive Victoria Alonso said the studio’s expansion to animation with the series What If…?, which debuted on Disney+ in 2021, was an opportunity to make the MCU more diverse, and the medium of animation allowed the studio to work with new companies around the world. The show was met with overwhelming praise from audiences, featuring alternate realities with fan-favorite MCU characters with a gorgeous animation style.
At the time, Marvel Studios was creating an “animation branch and mini studio” known as Marvel Studios Animation to focus on more animated content beyond What If…?. Marvel was initially looking to hire around 300 new staff for production roles on a slate of Disney+ animated series, but not surprisingly, the studio hasn’t been eager to kickstart that initiative.
Brad Winderbaum, who directed What If…?, said the studio would only tell stories that they felt needed to be told in animated form, adding that Marvel was open to working with corporate siblings Pixar Animation and Walt Disney Animation on MCU content “under the right circumstances.” So, where are these new projects?
As per usual, animation is being kept on the back burner, with Disney and Marvel deeming it “nonessential” to the company’s future. Instead of integrating more stories like Sony’s ultra-popular Spider-Verse into the MCU, animation is considered a fun side project by studio heads, as opposed to a serious storytelling medium. But Spider-Verse‘s success is telling enough—it’s time to try something new, especially considering the lukewarm reception to Marvel’s Phase Four.