Animation and Disney have always been synonymous with kids, princesses, and heroes. Starting from the beginnings of Disney with features such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, they have always had an affinity for putting in our heads that the world works much like the movies. Enter 1989 and The Little Mermaid where while we were given a princess character still, the animators decided to show some care in the art around the princess and not just give kids a story to look up to.
Next was 1991 and The Beauty and The Beast. The animation was blown up even more as this film was regarded for its immense beauty and how well the animators were able to create this world and make it so lively and lifelike with creatures that were not in any way realistic. The characters still possessed that damsel in distress quality that had become so closely related to Disney but the fact that the animation was so breathtaking made you forget that Belle, a highly intelligent and capable character, was rushed into the arms of the Beast for the sake of plot.
Next enter 1994 and The Lion King. With this feature, audiences were invested into characters and torn apart through heartache and other toils as the lead characters struggled with real problems, even if they were animals. How relatable was it for viewers to see Simba lose his father, while not everyone had a traitorous uncle, they still could relate to the little lion as he put his arms around the dead body and wept. The Lion King introduced emotion into the landscape of animation that was later refined by…
1995 and Toy Story. Okay, that was just a year but look what this film brought. Not only are you tackling topics such as abandonment but you are introducing characters that would soon grow up with a generation and continue to deal with issues relatable to viewers. The animation never rivaled that of the two previous films but it was an introduction to Pixar Studios that would later define this golden age.
These examples may be a large “duh” in the minds of those who have sat and watched these. I could’ve gone on and listed every Pixar film (The Incredibles, Finding Nemo, Up) or looked at Studio Ghibli films from this time period (Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle) or even looked at outside studios that entered the fray (How to Train Your Dragon, Shrek, The Iron Giant) but that would take a long time. What is really interesting is just what happened to this golden age. I would classify it from about 1988 when Little Mermaid came out and concluded when Toy Story 3 came out in 2010.
I define this period as a golden age because it was a time in which animation was being pushed unlike any previous time. It was much more than the princess stories that I mentioned at the beginning and became about using a medium to world build, tell stories, and create a different experience than live action. It was more than just pretty colors for kids to see while their parents didn’t feel like dealing with them but a revolution of films that gave those kids an outlet to see issues that they dealt with worked out in a setting that seemed unlike their own. It also gave creative minds a canvas to work on and push the limits of art in film.
You still were getting that cinematic experience that directors had established in live actions years before but now they were moving them to a different medium and executing them just as well. Directors like Brad Bird, Hayao Miyazaki, John Lasseter, and Andrew Stanton were pushing the envelope and making animation something not just for kids but a medium that adults could watch and get an experience that differed from their kids.
This golden age ended, in my opinion, when Toy Story 3 was released in 2010. Since then, the creative wheel that is Pixar has faltered from where it was with sub-par efforts such as Cars 2 and Brave. Not to say that these films are bad in any regard but stack them up to any other Pixar movie, the Disney movies I have mentioned, and most any other animated film from the golden age and you can see the difference. They have returned to dumbing down the plot for us and spoon feeding us a story without any layered lessons that we can relate to.
There are a few bright spots lately with entries such as Despicable Me and ParaNorman which show that there are still creative minds that can give us great animated films but they are hidden and not yet in the limelight like giants such as Bird or Lasseter were during the golden age. But what I ask is can this trend come back? Can we return to the golden age or are we stuck with half-hearted sequels and money churners (Planes, Turbo) that don’t seem like any effort was put into making them.
This is the question that will pester me for the next few years as I watch the animated feature category nominate sub-par films, see legends like Miyazaki retire, and giants like Bird move on to live action. In my humble opinion, while those minds may be leaving, it should open up for new even better minds to take their place. Hopefully we can return to the golden age of animation soon but for right now we will just have to be nostalgic for the films from 1988-2010.