‘Borrowed Time’ and Frustration…

Borrowed Time

Borrowed Time has been shown at various film festivals since October of last year. It was directed by Andrew Coats and Lou Hamou-Lhadj, two Pixarians who made the short through one of the company’s special programs that allowed them to use their pipeline. Five years in the making, Coats, Lhadj and a team that included several Pixar artisans worked on this when not working on the features that were in production at the time. In a way, it is kind of a Pixar short.

It’s not dissimilar to Don Bluth’s 1979 short film Banjo the Woodpile Cat. Don pitched it to Disney in the mid-1970s, the brass rejected it. Bluth was infamously frustrated with the way Disney was run in the first decade following Walt Disney’s passing, and wanted the studio to return to the brilliance of the Golden Age. Don and the small crew worked on Banjo in his own garage when not at the studio, then of course Bluth and many of those disillusioned young animators left the house of mouse in September 1979. Banjo was released in 1979 and felt more classic Disney than something like The Fox and the Hound did. Bluth went on to become a worthy rival of the mouse, his work in many ways helped the troubled studio regain its mojo.

Unlike Banjo, this was a Pixar-pushed project. Borrowed Time is a grizzled and somber six-minute Western about a man revisiting a cliff where a tragic accident had happened, through flashbacks we see why it truly pains him so much. He and his father, when he was younger, rode away from a villainous gang. The chase lead them to the cliff, which resulted in the son accidentally killing his father while attempting to save him. The action set-piece is thrilling and later nerve-wracking, and it doesn’t shy away from the shocking conclusion. This is something you would not see in a mainline Pixar film, or anything from one of the big animation studios.

Coats and Hamou-Lhadj made this short dark because they, like pretty much every animation fan out there, are frustrated with the situation here in America. Ever since the 1960s, animation had to be for kids. The successes of all those Hays Code-era films combined with the dominating “kidvid” Saturday morning cartoons cemented this belief, and without a Walt-like figure to take animation to exciting new places on a regular basis in the late 1960s/early 1970s, the medium was stuck. Things like Yellow Submarine and Ralph Bakshi’s first two films were one-shots, while in Europe and other parts of the world, bold works that reached a wide variety of audiences were being made. This continues today. American feature animation is roughly 95% family entertainment, Europe and elsewhere? Far more diverse.

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There’s nothing wrong with the family film format, as Pixar, Walt Disney Animation Studios, and other talented folk have shown. My gripe for years, however, has been this: Why “just” the family film? It is very true that some animated family films have pulled in enormous box office grosses, and have been doing so for years. I think, in many ways, the mid-to-late 1980s set a precedent. Who were ruling animation by the year 1988, excepting the success of the hybrid Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Disney… And Don Bluth. What kinds of films did Disney and Don Bluth put out in the late 80s? Family films. The Great Mouse Detective, An American Tail, Oliver & Company, The Land Before Time, The Little Mermaid, and All Dogs Go to Heaven were all rated G. They were all pretty similar in some ways, too.

Roger Rabbit‘s runaway success didn’t lead to more great, adult-skewing PG/PG-13 animated movies, and remember, this was back when the PG rating meant something. When you got a PG in the late 1980s, you *earned* it. None of the frights of An American Tail or Oliver & Company‘s pretty violent subway chase were enough for a rating of that caliber. Nowadays? They’d be PG for “some action” and “scary images”. Bakshi’s success in adults-only animation lead to spineless imitations, and it didn’t help that Bakshi briefly transitioned into making PG-rated high fantasy pictures. His last feature-length film – Cool World – was butchered by the studio and disappeared swiftly. That was in 1992, no less.

Ever since then, the most “adult” we ever really got in mainstream feature animation was “edgy” PG fare that was more for animation-avoiding 12-year-olds than anything. Films that truly weren’t “mature”. Even bold, actually mature films like Rango and LAIKA’s Coraline, didn’t break PG despite pushing it. In the 1980s, those would’ve gotten PGs, easily. The G rating is nearly extinct today, as the PG is given to 95% of animated features made today, no matter how kiddie or candy-coated some of them may be. PG is the limit. In smaller cases, we get works that are extremely raunchy. The funny though obviously juvenile Sausage Party is one of the only R-rated animated films to get a wide theatrical release in this day and age. Let that sink in. It’s the first wide-release R-rated animated film, not counting TV show-based fare like South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, in decades.

American animation either has to be family-friendly, or ridiculously inappropriate for younger viewers. That plays into the continuing stigmas that have affected animation since the 1960s. There’s that novelty of seeing cartoon characters swearing and doing inappropriate, naughty things. It’s fun when you’re 12 and you’re at that age when you get a kick out of that stuff. Sausage Party made me laugh quite a bit, but *not* because cartoon characters were cursing in it. The writing was what made it work, not dissimilar to Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s live-action comedies. How the story plays with the idea of food coming to life was what made it funny, not the because “cartoons” were being “adult”. Sausage Party is for adults only, but it is not mature. The PG-rated Zootopia is far more thoughtful, without needing any of that film’s violence, sex, and swearing.

So… Where is the thoughtful PG-13/R rated animated movie? In other countries, you’ll find them. Here? Not now, not for a while it seems.

I recently found out that Borrowed Time wasn’t quite… Well, looked at in a good light by the brass. Pixar supported this project, as it came from their Co-op programs, but guess who wasn’t pleased by its existence?

The Walt Disney Company, under CEO Bob Iger’s rule, is what former Disney story man Steve Hulett calls “The Berkshire-Hathaway of entertainment conglomerates”. In another post of his on the Animation Guild blog, he sums it up nicely: “They’re a conglomerate, not a Renaissance Art factory.” Pixar, while given creative freedom on their stories, still have to stay within the PG limits. From what I’ve heard from a friend and a reputable source who is in the know, Disney gave Pixar a lot of guff over the program and Borrowed Time. Good money going into a short film that wasn’t going to be some wide commercial thing, and a short that was decidedly darker and much more adult-oriented.

I also found out, through an animator friend of mine who attended a Henry Selick speech at Cal-Arts, that Pixar was forced to cancel a darker stop-motion tale that was going to be directed by the Nightmare Before Christmas director himself. Selick joined forces with Pixar to do this film called The Shadow King, which would’ve been – to my understanding – some sort of side-project, not dissimilar to Pixar’s failed attempts to get into live-action with 1906. In around August of 2012, after Alan Horn replaced Rich Ross as Chairman of Walt Disney Pictures, The Shadow King was canceled. While many reports told us that Disney allowed Selick to shop the picture elsewhere, it turns out… Disney kept the rights, so Selick simply can’t make this film elsewhere. When it was pulled, nearly half of the story was done, and we got the PR-friendly “he was behind schedule” bull as an answer.

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Why did they cancel it? Too dark.

How dark?

Does Disney remember that Henry Selick directed a darker, PG-rated (remember, we’re talking early 90s PG here – when it meant something) film for them back in the early 1990s that had Tim Burton’s weirdo-macabre aesthetic all over it? Did they forget that the very film was a good-sized success when it came out and then erupted into a cult favorite? The Nightmare Before Christmas, for the longest time, was a Touchstone title. Disney wouldn’t release it with their name because they felt it wasn’t quite a family film. Ever since its 3D re-issue in 2006, it’s now a mainline Walt Disney Pictures title – the following home video editions replaced the Touchstone logo in the opening sequence with the Disney logo.

It probably wasn’t a question of how dark it was, I think it actually had more to do with Disney not having any use for a film that would make Coraline numbers at best. Later that year, Disney released Tim Burton’s stop-motion Frankenweenie. Like The Nightmare Before Christmas, this was a full-blown expanding of a shorter story Burton had conceived years and years ago. Burton actually did it as a live-action short in 1984. Backed by ineffective marketing, the little feature – which got critical raves and was a frotrunner for the 2012 Best Animated Feature Oscar – flopped. Also, Touchstone is dead, four years ago it was dying a slow death.

There’s simply no room for an off-kilter, Nightmare Before Christmas-esque experiment in the Mouse House these days. With Marvel and Lucasfilm under the tree, everything *has* to be a tentpole picture that will make over $500 million at the worldwide box office. Disney only seems to make exceptions for microbudgeted sports dramas (i.e. MacFarland USA, Queen of Katwe), though those are probably made because of ESPN. Anything else? Nada. Walt Disney Animation Studios or Pixar making a PG-13 feature through another name and/or Touchstone is a no-go. If it ever happens, it’ll go forward because of a CEO that has artistic ambition. It’s easy to see why a dark short like Borrowed Time would rankle them, or why they’d torpedo a dark, halfway-through-production stop-motion film like The Shadow King.

It keeps animation in the kids’ corner. The live-action wing can get away with making violent, dark PG-13 films like Pirates of the Caribbean. Marvel can get away with making violent, dark PG-13 films. Lucasfilm can, too. Those aren’t really “family friendly” brands, even though Marvel and Lucasfilm’s output is merchandised out the wazoo. Star Wars is beloved by tons of kids around the world, kids love Marvel superheroes. The Guardians of the Galaxy film has violence, a high body count, lots of inappropriate language… And yet there’s toys for it everywhere. Why can’t animation see a PG-13 lift like that? “Oh, but the public won’t see an animated movie that isn’t for families, yet isn’t hyper-raunchy…” they say.

You know, at one time, they thought animated features weren’t ever going to make blockbuster numbers again.

You know, at one time, Disney thought that audiences gave up on fairy tales. Now Disney can’t enough out of them!

Conventional wisdom… There’s nothing wise about it. It’s generalizations and inaccuracy stew that ignores context. Conventional wisdom said pirate movies were dead after Cutthroat Island in 1995, but look what happened in 2003. Disney’s pirate movie risk paid off with Pirates of the Caribbean, a huge smash all around the world that spawned a multi-billion dollar franchise! Yes, the same Disney took a big risk. Disney today wouldn’t ever dream of doing such a thing! Conventional wisdom is responsible for traditional animation’s demise in America, and it’s why the medium is still locked out of the house that is American feature animation.

Despite sugary PR statements like “2D is still alive here! It’s just that the directors chose to do their films in CGI!”, hand-drawn animation is only a minor thing at Walt Disney Animation Studios, being used for shorts and little things in feature films. Moana was pitched as a 2D film, it became a CG film. No matter what the filmmakers say, I bet the reason was because the brass got cold feet. The closest we’ll get to a 2D film from WDAS is a Paperman or Feast-like hybrid, and Moana was rumored to be just that. It isn’t. Gigantic might be, but I wouldn’t get my hopes up. Executives in the animation industry are steadfastly against traditional animation, and that’s a hard cold fact. It’s “done”, it’s “no longer liked”, everything needs to be “realistic”/done in CG…

Now this year was, I’d argue, kind of a great one for the medium. Zootopia was a high point for Disney Animation, due to its strong writing, timely themes, and creative worldbuilding. Finding Dory explored disabilities and was a satisfying follow-up adventure to a Pixar classic. Kubo and the Two Strings was a visual masterpiece, and a heartfelt story that challenges young audiences. Kung Fu Panda 3 continued the action and fun of the series, but did lose a chunk of the bite that made its predecessors so great. The Secret Life of Pets and Storks were plain entertaining, and everything else wasn’t as good, but the amount of tossaways seems minuscule this year for some reason. It gave me hope, though next year seems to be littered with regressive family comedies, 2018 looks to be sequel-heavy, the industry will stay the course.

But something has to change. Animation, like the film world, can change. It did so in the mid 1980s, it did so in the mid 1990s, it did so in the early 2000s, it can do it again. The future may be in the smaller side of things (Netflix, Amazon, et al.), or right in front of us (Storks cost $70 million, is doing okayish at the box office, it’ll still make its money back), but something has to change. Some studios are being smart by not blowing over $80 million on features, because they should realize (well, they should’ve known by now) that not every single animated movie is meant to make over $200-300 million at the worldwide box office. Illumination, Sony Animation, and Warner Animation Group so far seem to get it. Smaller houses like Reel FX, they get it too. Reel FX’s The Book of Life was one of the most exciting things to come out of mainstream feature animation in the last 5 years.

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To reiterate… Family films aren’t bad. I love what many modern animated family films are doing. (Disney Animation and Pixar, in particular, know how to gut-punch the heck out of me while making me smile and laugh for 90 minutes!) But that shouldn’t be the only thing in mainstream American feature animation. Maybe I myself am part of the problem by supporting a good many of these films, but if we don’t, what happens to feature animation? Less features? Less work for highly talented folk? I’m a very the-more-the-merrier type, but when a lot of that “more” isn’t really diverse or exciting, then I get antsy. I also question the fact that I get hyped when a sequel to an animated film I really love gets announced, or something similar. I question why I get hyped over a ton of animated family films dominating the box office. Again… Am I part of the problem?

We’re also in a day and age where hyper-real VFX can now do what only caricature animated features could do for decades. (See Disney’s new Jungle Book for a scary, troubling example of this.) What’s going to happen when real life-looking VFX can tell all the stories animation should tell? It’s time to push boundaries in the visual department, as I detailed in an older post. Animation needs to be freed from this “you must be hyper-real” cage, and be the art form it should be. TV animation does it, independent animation does it, now it’s American feature animation’s turn.

Unfortunately, the animation industry has to do all the hard work because the public is and has been conditioned to see animation as a lesser art form, as mere “cartoons” that aren’t legitimate motion pictures… Even though a good many people are moved by these so-called, second-best movies. We’re in a much better state than we were a decade ago, a time when only one studio was making good film after good film. The 90s? Outside of Disney’s Renaissance and the early Pixar films? Those times weren’t very good. The mid 1980s and before? Need I say more?

I feel right now that American feature animation is standing in the doorway. In the room behind them is what’s going on now, and beyond is the untapped potential. It’s standing there, something isn’t allowing it to leave the room, to explore, to open more doors in the house, or heck… Leave the house! It’s time! It’s not the 1940s and 1950s when there was a strict Hays Code telling you what you can or can’t put in movies. Not every movie is meant to be a blockbuster. Scale down and make an experimental film for Pete’s sake, there will be an audience there to make it profitable! You have to find it, get them interested, and so on…

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But here, animation is an industry first and foremost. Animation is not a genre, but an “animation genre” – the family comedy/adventure – is perceived to be the only surefire way to make money with the medium.

All of this frustration came flying back when I had seen Borrowed Time and heard about the situations that went on during its making… Situations that remind you why animation is currently stuck in that room that it should leave…

Borrowed Time shockingly reminded me of a Western that I have in the works right now, one I’ve been writing since roughly 2008. Its protagonist, like the one in Borrowed Time, must come to terms with something horrible that he’s responsible for. The tone isn’t the same, it’s mostly a rousing action-adventure set in the West with the occasional dark and sad moments, but if Borrowed Time were a feature, it would be a PG-13. So would this story of mine. I think long and hard about my projects, what they aim to do for animation, and the way the industry is heading right now. It’s all frustrating, but also full of hope.

For me, being optimistic means assessing the current situation and knowing the problems within, and how to work with them. Naivety would be assuming everything will magically fall into place, it’ll take much more than that. I don’t like to fall prey to cynicism, even if I completely understand where others may be coming from. I have hope for the medium I love, and I’ll continue to beat the drum: Keep moving forward, try new things, experiment, explore…

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