How four films — and one TV show — saved animation from the brink of extinction

The Secret of NIMH
The Secret of NIMH

I got much of the information for this blog post from the excellent and entertaining “The World History of Animation.” I highly recommend it. It’s a really informative and entertaining read.

Today, animation is a multi-billion dollar world industry via film, television and DVDs. After the mega-successes of Frozen (2014, $1.28 billion worldwide gross), Minions (2015, $1.16 billion gross) and Inside Out (2015, $857 million gross), animation on both the big screen and on television is a thriving mega-billion dollar industry. The industry has never been healthier and more vibrant and creative.

But, believe it or not, for a period in the 1980s, the entire industry nearly collapsed, utterly and totally. Four films — and one television show — helped bring this century-old art form back from the brink of the dead.

Beginning with a somewhat obscure movie:

1) The Secret of NIMH, 1982

I first saw the Secret of NIMH when I was perhaps six or seven. This movie came out in 1982 at the absolute nadir of the animation industry; in the industry, it’s actually known as the “Dark Ages.” It actually flopped at the box office, but slowly became a cult favourite, much like other early ’80s kids’ movies like The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth. It’s now considered a deeply beloved classic and I believe one of the most important animated films ever made.

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A child has pneumonia in The Secret of NIMH

This was an especially bleak period for animation. Disney was the only major studio putting out animation and its last so-called “classic” animated film was in 1967 with The Jungle Book. Disney’s big golden era was from 1937-1967, but the magic started wearing off, mostly because of increasingly weak scripts and mediocre animation. Disney put out a series of flops and forgettable films such as Robin Hood, The Rescuers and the Fox and the Hound. Hardly Snow White or Dumbo or Pinocchio. After Star Wars and Superman, animation just didn’t “wow” kids anymore.

One of the biggest factors in the disintegration of American animation was Hanna-Barbera. Hanna-Barbera is well-known for creating a lot of famous characters on television, from Fred Flintstone to Huckleberry Hound, Top Cat, Yogi Bear, Snagglepuss, Scooby Doo, etc. Hanna-Barbera managed to completely dominate the television animation market, mostly with its Saturday morning lineup. Two other studios — Rankin-Bass (ThunderCats) and Filmation (Masters of the Universe) — tried to compete with and mostly copy Hanna-Barbera’s destructive and lazy business model (Rankin-Bass to its credit actually tried to do some decent animation in TV specials, but the studio also put out a lot of lousy Saturday morning fare.). One of the reasons Hanna-Barbera became so influential is that Warner Brothers, which made a lot of classic cartoons and famous characters from the 1930s to the 1960s, completely bowed out of animation in 1969. When Warner Brothers dropped out, that opened the door for Hanna-Barbera to wreak havoc, and boy that awful studio did.

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Goober and the Ghost Chasers, one of several annoying Scooby Doo clones put out by Hanna-Barbera.

Hanna-Barbera actually started out in the late 50s and 1960s making decent cartoons and memorable characters people recognise to this day. Probably due mostly to its ridiculous monopoly, Hanna-Barbera cartoons really started to deteriorate around 1970. Basically, the whole point of Hanna-Barbera cartoons was simply to sell sugary cereal — nothing more. The Hanna-Barbera shows became incredibly lazy and derivative — with a total of SIX shows copied DIRECTLY from Scooby Doo– Josie and the Pussycats,  The Funky Phantom, Speed Buggy, Goober and the Ghost Chasers, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kids and Jabberjaw. Seriously, these six Hanna-Barbera shows are all exactly alike. Dumb, lame, lazy, cookie-cutter copycats of Scooby Doo with fake, annoying teenagers and some annoying goofy animal character, be it a Great Dane or a shark or a talking car, solving the same lame mysteries in every show. Again, quality wasn’t emphasised in the slightest by Hanna-Barbera, the whole point was quantity — and to do it cheaply as possible and to sell Cocoa Puffs and Trix. The cereal companies really powered these shows.

Scripts were tedious, written by committee and repeated from other H-B shows. The animation became lazier, too, featuring static background and static characters simply standing still while their mouths moved. Often times, the same exact backgrounds showed up in a bunch of different Hanna-Barbera shows. The pay and working conditions were terrible. Animators often made less than $20,000 a year. Creativity was completely stifled. The work was dull and repetitive and most animators, especially the good ones, quit in frustration or disgust. Hanna-Barbera was the biggest employer in the animation world for a time and when you combine it with the equally awful work from Filmation, the industry simply collapsed — and dragged Disney down with it.

Disney for some reason likewise lost its creative edge, probably beginning way back after Sleeping Beauty (1959). It had one more big hit with The Jungle Book in 1967, but then Disney fell into the same morass of forgettable work as Hanna-Barbera  began to dominate the industry. Disney severely cut back its animation department in the 1970s and many of those animators ended up at H-B or Filmation.

And along came Don Bluth and The Secret of NIMH to help save the day. Don Bluth was the lead animator at Disney through much of the ’70s. He quit the company in frustration with its cost-cutting ways and started up his own studio, bringing 11 Disney animators with him. Their first feature film was The Secret of NIMH, a very dark and frightening movie involving a child with pneumonia, animal experimentation, death and torture (Believe it or not, The Secret of NIMH was rated “G.” It was tame by today’s standards, but very grim for a G movie in 1982.) Disney refused to make The Secret of NIMH because of its dark content, but Bluth jumped at the story.

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Yes, the Secret of NIMH was rated “G.”

The Secret of NIMH actually lost money at the box office, mostly because United Artists did a terrible job of marketing it. The studio had no confidence in animated films and it wasn’t sure how to handle such a dark kids’ movie. However, Disney executives were blown away by it and it definitely got their attention. They saw that Bluth was a genius and that he and his team knew what they were doing. In some ways, the Secret of NIMH is slightly overrated (the movie is full of plot holes), but the movie to this day has a charm that has stood the test of time. It is a genuine classic that has deservedly gained a big cult following over the decades. It cannot be overstated how influential this little movie was.

Bluth followed this film with An American Tail, Land Before Time and All Dogs Go To Heaven, all of which made huge sums of money and scared the bejeesus out of Disney. Disney put out a couple of forgettable movies in the 1980s, called The Black Cauldron (a somewhat dark movie kind of stealing from The Secret of NIMH) and The Great Mouse Detective. Bluth’s movies out-grossed Disney’s … by a bunch. The Black Cauldron (1985), while an interesting attempt by Disney to do something different, had a number of production and script problems and ended up a weird and  pretty charmless ripoff of Ralph Bakshi’s “Wizards.” (1976). The Black Cauldron was such a flop critically and financially, Disney nearly shut down its animation department for good.

Bluth was a trailblazer often overlooked today. He made several more movies, but never matched the success he found in the 1980s. He made millions and more importantly in the long run, he woke up a sleeping giant at Disney. Disney roared back with an incredible vengeance in the late 1980s.

2) Who Framed Roger Rabbit, 1987

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Who Framed Roger Rabbit was Disney’s first huge hit in decades

The period after 1987 became known as “Disney’s Renaissance” or the “Renaissance Era” of animation in general. It is truly remarkable how this studio came back from the dead. Literally. After the the Black Cauldron debacle, Disney chairman Michael Eisner put Walt Disney’s nephew in charge of the animation department (Roy Disney Jr.). Roy Jr. was determined to return the Disney animation studio to its glory days. At the time, Disney was making most of its box office off Touchstone Films. Not only did he arguably save Disney, but he may have saved animation in America.

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The first major film made under Roy Disney’s stewardship was Who Framed Roger Rabbit, which was a half-animation, half-live action film. However, the animation and characters were goofy, funny as heck and were a hit with kids and adults alike. This was the first clue in a long time to studios that adults liked animation, too. The movie was an homage to great cartoons from the 1930s and 1940s and included a lot of animated characters from the past. Hollywood discovered, whether it meant to or not, that people were really nostalgic for those old cartoons. Who Framed Roger Rabbit was both a technical and commercial success. The movie grossed $330 million — a LOT for 1987 — and won three Academy Awards for technical achievement, including an award for best visual effects. Disney was back and was just getting started.

But, first, perhaps one of the most important and influential films ever made.

3) Akira, 1988

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Akira … one of the tamer scenes

This is simply put, to this day, 28 years later, one of the most amazing, mind-blowing, genuinely awe-inspiring films ever made. It’s like Japan’s Star Wars and 2001: A Space Odyssey rolled into one.

Akira is a grueling, 130-minute-long monster that completely blew world audiences away. No one had seen anything like it before (and honestly, I’m not sure anyone has seen anything like it since. A lot of 1980s anime is pretty dated, but it’s amazing how well Akira stands up to the test of time.). It became a cult hit in America, despite a very poor original English dub (A vastly superior English dub was added 20 years later, thankfully.). It was also a big hit in Europe.

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Akira,

A bit of background on Japanese animation. While the American animation industry was dying, Japan’s animation industry was rolling right along in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. In the 1960s, there were hit series such as Kimba the White Lion, Speed Racer and Astro Boy. Into the 70s, the hits continued with Lupin III and Captain Harlock.

Famed animator Hiyao Miyazaki had some big hits in Japan with Castle of Cagliostro, Nausicaa and the Valley of the Wind, and the Castle in the Sky, but after a cheap and half-hearted cut and English dub of Nausicaa, he refused to have his films released in America for roughly a decade. People in the West didn’t really start seeing his movies until the 1990s.

But, first came Akira. Akira woke up Western audiences in both America and Europe to the amazing animation happening in Japan. This gore-soaked, ultra-violent, hard-R, cyberpunk classic  opened up a floodgate of interest in anime worldwide that is thriving to this day. After Akira, Miyazaki was convinced (By John Lasseter from Pixar) to allow his films to be released in America, and his Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service were big hits in America, especially on DVD and VHS. Then, Cowboy Bebop became a big hit on American television, followed by Fooly Cooly, Attack on Titan and many others. Miyazaki’s Spirited Away (which won an Academy Award for best animated film) and Howl’s Moving Castle continued the worldwide success of anime.

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Miyazaki’s “My Neighbour Totoro”

Today, anime is an incredibly influential and thriving industry worldwide. An interesting phenomenon about anime is it very heavily borrowed from Western films and animation, but then Western animators and filmmakers started copying anime (American or European cartoons such as Totally Spies, Powerpuff Girls, Samurai Jack, My Little Ponies and even Batman all copied anime techniques). The Matrix is essentially a live-action anime film that borrows heavily from Akira. Two upcoming major motion pictures, The Ghost in the Machine and Attack on Titan, are based on animes. Simply put, anime is a heck of a lot more influential than a lot of people realise. And Akira really drove the genre to new heights.

Speaking of television animation.

4) The Simpsons, 1989    733328f7e9488393ff28bbdfefd03ce20615664280628f73f589d4de66bfb7bc

 

The Simpsons premiered as its own show in 1989. It’s hard to believe it’s been around for 27 years. And so, so much has grown from the Simpsons. The Simpsons took the formula from Who Framed Roger Rabbit to create prime time adult and kids’ entertainment on television. The Simpsons helped lead to so many other prime-time adult shows such as South Park, Family Guy, American Dad, Bob’s Burgers, The Venture Brothers, Metalocalypse, Rick & Morty, Archer, Robot Chicken, etc., etc. It turns out animation was a perfect venue for adult humour, parody, satire and social commentary.

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Rick and Morty

Meanwhile, the malevolent Hanna-Barbera studio finally went out of business (Ironically, H-B brands are now owned by Turner Broadcasting, which has produced a number of shows parodying, at times ruthlessly, these awful Hanna-Barbera cartoons. I wondered for years how Turner got away with that before learning Turner now owns H-B.), and Filmation and Rankin-Bass likewise evaporated. What jumped into the vacuum were a bunch of independently produced and syndicated cartoons, which could be made easily and cheaply by a small number of people via computer animation. However, being independent of big studios, with two or three networks dedicated to showing animated series, these cartoons for both kids and adults were and continue to be both funny and creative. There’s simply too many of these shows to name — Home Movies, Doug, SpongeBob Squarepants, The Wild Thornberrys, Adventure Time, Ren and Stimpy, etc., etc. I know I missed a few. The shows are countless. There’s several I’ve never seen. And most of them are quite cute and educational for kids. None of that half-arsed Scooby Doo copycat crap, anymore. The Simpsons helped lead the way for all of this. All of these shows owe The Simpsons a thank you.

And now, the movie that changed an industry for over a quarter-century.

5) The Little Mermaid, 1989

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The Little Mermaid

The Little Mermaid was the second all-animation feature put out by Disney after Roy Disney Jr. took over the animation department (the first was The Great Mouse Detective, which did OK financially but is pretty forgettable.). It was considered Disney’s best film in decades and was a smash hit, grossing over $200 million. I don’t think this is Disney’s best film, but it was easily its best one since Jungle Book. One thing interesting about The Little Mermaid is that Disney was definitely paying attention to anime, which still wasn’t really hitting its stride in the West, and copied many anime techniques in this film.

The Little Mermaid reminded Disney that animated movies once made a ton of money for the studio and could again. After The Little Mermaid came other giant smash hits for Disney — The Beauty and the Beast ($400 million gross), Aladdin ($504 million), the Lion King ($968 million). Disney’s big five animated films (including Roger Rabbit and The Little Mermaid) from 1987 to 1994 grossed a staggering $2.42 billion … and that’s in late 1980s and early 1990s dollars. The studio that had languished for 20 years was now a powerhouse.

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The Beauty and the Beast

After The Lion King, Disney purchased Pixar and became an even bigger behemoth. Pixar was a leader in a new art form — computer animation rather than hand-drawn. Today, nearly all American animation is computer animation (even animation that appears to be hand-drawn is actually created on computers today). Even Japan is abandoning hand-drawn animation for less-manpower-intensive computer art, though at a much slower rate. It’s sad to see a century-old art form fade away, but the fact is, computer animation is simply much, much more practical, and computer animation helped drive Hanna-Barbera and Filmation out of the industry. And much of it is gorgeous.

Pixar’s first big hit for Disney was Toy Story in 1995, which grossed $360 million. Meanwhile, Disney continued to put out big, critically acclaimed hits through traditional animation, such as Hercules and Mulan. Pixar showed it wasn’t a one-hit wonder with Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo and The Incredibles. Both the computer and hand-drawn units at Pixar and Disney were raking in billions every year from box office and DVD sales and rentals. Disney and Pixar’s formula relied on strong spare-no-expense animation, attention to detail and perhaps most importantly, likable characters and good, well-written and thought-out scripts. Kids liked the movies and parents liked taking their kids to these movies. It’s like people actually figured out after the Death Valley of the 1970s and 1980s, “if we put out a quality product, people will actually pay for it!” So unlike the decades of painfully awful, cheap, charmless drek from Hanna-Barbera, Filmation and even Disney. The art form became both a financial juggernaut and a showcase for artistic talent.

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Toy Story was Pixar’s first big hit

While Disney and Pixar were off to the races, Dreamworks Animation actually provided some fairly serious competition. Dreamworks had a number of pretty big hits itself, from Shrek to Madagascar, How to Train Your Dragon, Kung Fu Panda and The Croods. Some of Dreamworks’ movies are good, too, but Dreamworks seems a little more geared as a pure money-making machine, relying a little more heavily on franchises than Pixar and Disney, making multiple sequels to most of its hits. Meanwhile, Universal Animation came out with the adorable Despicable Me and Minions (which grossed $1.1 billion in 2015). Even stop-animation cartoons, long a neglected art form, made a big comeback with hits such as The Nightmare Before Christmas, Corpse Bride, Coraline and Wallace & Gromit.

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Frozen grossed an incredible $1.28 billion at the box office

The Renaissance Era is over for animation and has now entered what is considered the Millennium Era. Billion-dollar grossing animated films are not unusual today. In 2015, Western animated films grossed over $3 billion at the box office worldwide. By comparison, Western animated movies in 1985 (not counting reissues) grossed about $80 million total in 1985. The industry’s revenues had grown 40-fold in 30 years.

It’s hard to believe this thriving art form was all but dead in the West in the 1980s.

3 thoughts on “How four films — and one TV show — saved animation from the brink of extinction”

  1. Well-written and researched as always. Cartoons went from art to mass produced pablum. The late 30s and 40s WB and MGM stuff, along with Disney’s features of that era, set the standard which hasn’t been reached by anything since, IMHO.

    1. I think there’s two “classic” periods, Steve. The first classic period is from the 1930s to about 1963, when WB ended Looney Tunes. And the second classic period is from about 1988 to present. I think people 50-100 years from now will consider the current era a classic period.

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