Once upon a time, not too long ago, mere mention the name ‘Disney’ evoked blissful memories and rapturous emotion for viewers young and old. Films like Bambi and Dumbo have forever etched their names into the lore of immortal cinema, and the company’s entire enterprise is a great example of an utterly cornered market. Granted, there are other companies who have spawned fantastic animations over the past few decades, but the original is still widely considered the best. Over the years we’ve seen over fifty features, from the unforgettable Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs way back in the late 30’s to last year’s Oscar-nominated Wreck-it Ralph. The company finds itself firmly in the top century of the fortune 500, and looks set to continue popping out classics left, right and centre.
It wasn’t all plain sailing, of course. Though the original hand-drawn fairy tales (so earnest and endearing to a wide audience) had endeared the company to generations, they soon fell out of favour, and the good people at Disney were forced to look elsewhere for inspiration. Executives’ attempts to craft a new image for Disney fell somewhat flat, with films like 2000’s The Emperor’s New Groove and the (excellent by criminally under-watched) Atlantis: The Lost Empire failing to impress an audience that had become accustomed to continued brilliance. The turn of the millennium was the worst possible time for an identity crisis, with DreamWorks and Pixar filling the void with modern family entertainment in the shape of films like Shrek and Toy Story. It seemed like a no-brainer to snatch up the brightest young starlets from the budding Pixar well of talent and grant them the task of forging a new look for Disney – from the ground up.
Disney Animation President Ed Catmull and Chief Creative Officer John Lasseter are the brains behind the new era. Arriving seven years ago, together they’ve overseen the development of fantastic films such as 2010’s Tangled, a reimagining of the classic tale of trapped Princess Rapunzel, and a recent black-and-white short entitled Paperman which went on to win an Academy Award. ‘Success breeds autonomy’, said Lasseter recently, with the implication being that these men don’t simply want to make films, they pledge to develop a dynasty. They’re an unusual pair with an unusual team behind them: upon being lured to the company in order to direct Wreck-it Ralph, ex-Simpsons alumnus Rich Moore was shocked by the ‘freshness and tenacity’ of such an old and (by now) enormous company. The hat-shaped office in which all the movie magic happens (sorry) is just one example of the enchanting oddity which has come to define this particular arrow in Disney’s already-bulging quiver.
It’s not all about Catmull and Lasseter, of course. The company boasts impressive directors across the board, and behind the scenes things only get more star-studded. A great example of Disney’s sheer depth can be seen through a look at the team behind their latest project, entitled simply Frozen. Jennifer Lee will become the first woman to direct a feature at the studio, with The Book of Mormon composer Robert Lopez supplying the music. Frozen is a triumph of the Lasseter-Catmull ‘story trust’, a group modelled on the original Pixar ‘brain trust’ where high-ups are invited to sit down together and discuss potential issues with character, storyline, tone, etc. The film promises to be all the better as a result, with the group also allowing Catmull and Lasseter to see promise in their employees, earmarking them for later consideration.
Disney-Pixar stories are shaped by the animators – that’s a key part of their philosophy. The film develops more complex storylines as a result, says Lee, and takes on a new identity. As films enter the latter stages of production, the filmmakers meet weekly with Lasseter – a far cry from the more insulated reps of other well-known corporations. It’s the Disney way now to be involved, passionate and ever so slightly wacky. With the takeover of Marvel presenting animators a wealth of exciting properties, including one particularly exciting opportunity in the shape of Big Hero 6, a little-known Japanese hero series with whopping potential. With films like these on the horizon, and a star-studded cast of animators in the wings, the future looks very bright for this revitalised and reenergised company.
PHOTO/ Joey Paur, FeverofFate, ohmyghost