Summer 2013… Much like what I do now, I was clawing in the dirt for animation news and the word on the street. Walt Disney Animation Studios seemed to be on some kind of cusp, this was months before the release of Frozen. The Burbank studio only had two legitimate box office hits under their belt in the post-Eisner years. The first three films released when Lasseter was in charge – Meet The Robinsons, Bolt, and The Princess and the Frog – unfortunately underperformed. Terrible marketing and unfortunate circumstances took the wind out of their sails, they were actually well-made films.
Tangled would be the reborn studio’s first big hit at the box office, taking in a fantastic $200 million in North America and over $590 million worldwide. That was also coupled with very strong critical reception. The temporary pin in the balloon was 2011’s Winnie the Pooh, which upper Disney brass ignorantly dumped. It was also the final nail in the traditional animation coffin, jettisoning any future 2D Disney animated film. (Moana began life as a 2D film, and you can guess why it became a CG film.) I worried about how their next was going to perform. Would it be another Bolt? Or would it be successful like Tangled? That next feature we were looking at was risky. Wreck-It Ralph, with its video game-set adventure story, seemed to recall the botched likes of Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Treasure Planet. Two attempts to show audiences what kind of genres Disney’s animation can reach out to, both were undercut by the poison that Eisner brought to the animation department back in those days. Audiences backed away because of this.
Would audiences show up for a possibly-good experiment that was similar to those two mishaps?
Wreck-It Ralph was not as big as Tangled, but it was much more profitable given its costs, and it pocketed quite a bit of coin. Disney must have been happy with that gross, because a sequel is on a fast track to the spring of 2018. After Ralph did well, you heard talk about the studio doing more films like this, and these claims were supported by leaks saying that Disney Animation was going to adapt the manga-inspired sci-fi Marvel comic Big Hero 6. By mid-2013, Big Hero 6 was penciled in for fall 2014 while Frozen was right around the corner. In fact, a work of test animation for Big Hero 6 officially debuted before *any* completed animation for Frozen did.
Excited, Disney then locked four dates for untitled, undetermined pictures. Their slate reached out to the fall of 2018, five years ahead!
At the time, there was a blog running… It was called Blue Sky Disney, and it was run by one Honor Hunter. A top-notch writer who always dosed on optimism, he knew a thing or two about what was going on in the house of mouse. In fact, he was the first one to reveal to the world that Disney Animation was going to make Big Hero 6. He hinted at it several times before revealing it, saying things like “they’re working on a marvelous project”. Right after Disney Animation locked all their 2016-2018 dates, he let us know what could possibly fill those slots…
He said Zootopia was aiming for the spring of 2016, and it ultimately did make it to that slot. Everything else played out a little differently. Moana is currently rolling in cinemas, but back then, we thought we had to wait till March of 2018 to see this Oceanic odyssey! Then what was set for this autumn? Gigantic… But back then the movie was going to be called Giants. That film is now set for fall 2018. What originally filled the fall 2018 slot? A space racing movie that was going to be directed by long-time animation man/Tick Tock Tale director Dean Wellins.
Disney was quiet on these developments for a long, long time. In October of 2014, they finally revealed the release dates for Zootopia and Moana. Until then, I had actually caught wind of Giants/Gigantic running into a wall, and being in a very bad state. When the plot synopsis for Gigantic was revealed at the 2015 D23 Expo, it shared some character names with the leaked 2013 drafts (brought to us by Bleeding Cool), but it was a lot different. Gone were things like a love triangle between Jack and an upper crust rival, gone was the girlfriend, gone was a tomboyish wannabe-warrior, gone were a lot of things. It’s as if “Giants” died, and Gigantic replaced it.
Dirty little secret, Disney seemed to have little confidence in Frozen. Chris Buck’s new take on The Snow Queen began life as a traditionally-animated film in 2008, but it was shelved right after Princess and the Frog‘s box office performance in late 2009. After Tangled proved the brass wrong about fairy tales being passe, Frozen immediately went back into development in 2011 and was fast-tracked for the vacant fall 2013 window. So many rewrites, and so many changes, even at the last minute. Disney was looking to get out of this one unscathed, having little faith and thinking it would do Tangled numbers at best. When it became a huge phenomenon out of nowhere, they quickly followed along.
Around that time, Honor packed it up. There hasn’t been a post on Blue Sky Disney since December of 2013, just a month after Frozen‘s debut. Last we heard, the space movie set for fall 2018 was slipping into development hell, and other projects were moving ahead of it in the pipeline. After Big Hero 6‘s release, story man Paul Briggs mentioned that he’s working with Wellins on a new project. According to hearsay, it’s definitely not “space race”.
What if we never knew, as animation fans, that Disney Animation was really considering doing a “tonal” (as Honor put it) science fiction story? Should that movie not happen, it’ll be really disappointing, even though this is nothing new in animationland. Maybe it would’ve been better had we not known, Dean Wellins makes his new non-sci-fi movie and gets it out by 2020, and then later we learn “At first he was going to do a sci-fi movie.”
Walt Disney Animation Studios, according to the Bancroft brothers themselves, has everything planned out for the next ten years. A whole, decade-spanning pipeline of features. Us outsiders only got a mere lick of that: Frozen 2, Dean Wellins’ film, a new project from Winnie the Pooh and Meet The Robinsons director Stephen J. Anderson, and a recently-announced collaboration between Zootopia director Byron Howard and Moana music man Lin-Manuel Miranda. The studio currently has 11/27/2019 and 11/25/2020 reserved for untitled movies, and that’s four undated projects we knew about so far.
While Frozen seemed to really restore the studio’s lost confidence, I strongly believe that Wreck-It Ralph and Big Hero 6 laid some major groundwork. For the first time in the post-Renaissance landscape, we saw more than one genre picture do well. Back in the early 2000s, only Lilo & Stitch took off while similar experiments like Atlantis and Treasure Planet were sadly mishandled and then shuffled out of sight. Ralph and Big Hero 6 felt like they were kind of making up for those losses, while proving this kind of picture can indeed fly at Disney. If these films were made in, say, 2002 and 2004, they probably would’ve been terrible or very, very uneven.
Then along came Zootopia, which took the ambitions of Wreck-It Ralph and Big Hero 6, and applied them to a story that was risky and timely. Zootopia was showered with praise, and is currently one of the best-reviewed Disney animated features. I think it’s a real high point for the studio, not just now, but in general. Zootopia channels Walt, it’s almost mesmerizing in a way. It soared above and beyond those two films… It’s the studio’s second highest-grossing film of all-time behind Frozen. Cracked a billion at the worldwide box office, and it’s not even based on any pre-existing IP! It showed people in the post-Walt age of animation that the medium can explore deep themes, it can touch on social issues, and then some. If Pixar already didn’t prove that during Disney Animation’s Eisner years. If Disney themselves didn’t already prove that with their Renaissance-era hits.
A film like Zootopia, to me, is a family film that’s of the “made for adults, but suitable for kids” variety. Basically, the kind of film Walt Disney made throughout most of his life. I think that’s a peak for now, in terms of the genre pictures. The other set of new films are what I like to call the “comfort food” films, the “menu favorites”: Tangled, Frozen, and Moana. They’re either big musicals or princess stories or fairy tale adaptations, and are in the 90s Renaissance vein. We’ve seen some strong developments there. Moana is a rock-solid film, and a menu favorite served up in a way that keeps the tropes fresh and exciting. Moana, not the uneven Frozen, should be the film to set the precedent for the future menu favorites.
So now here we are… Frozen and Zootopia are the top dogs of the current Disney Animation crop of films, while everything else did well. The game plan going forward is something we don’t know, but I assume that the bare basics are this: 90s-style films and genre pictures. That’s a routine I can dig… But how? Where? So much to ask. What is Disney Animation to do now that the sky is the limit? It isn’t the 90s anymore where executives without a clear vision say “stay the course!” We have folks like John Lasseter running things, people who care about the medium.
Which brings me back to the seemingly-canceled space picture. Why the hesitation to go ahead and make it work? It seemed like the project had major story troubles. From what has been said, it just seems like the story couldn’t be cracked, and that the project just wasn’t what the creative team was aiming for. That being said, will Disney attempt a similarly risky and “daring” film? Wreck-It Ralph, Big Hero 6, and Zootopia are like the steps towards this kind of film, so… What’s next? Will we get our proverbial “space race” film one day? I’d say so, the top of the mountain is in sight…
For the time being, I’d rather be kept in the dark and wait as it all officially unravels. As much as I miss Blue Sky Disney, I will not miss hearing hints of great things that may not ever happen. Sometimes I wonder, what if I never read about that space movie? Or the other things that have been cancelled or put on ice?
We can extend this to Pixar as well. Do we all remember when Pixar uncharacteristically unveiled a huge slate back in 2008, one that included an ill-fated movie called Newt? Does anyone remember when an edgier film directed by Teddy Newton (Day & Night) was teased, only to never happen? (Teddy left Pixar for Paramount.) DreamWorks has done this several times, promising movies like Bollywood Superstar Monkey and Alma either got cancelled or drifted further away from being definite things. Consequently, after a couple of collapses, DreamWorks is quiet about what’s on the horizon.
The quieter, the less we know, the less possible disappointments…