‘Zootopia’ Box Office Success Proof of Disney Animation Renaissance

ZOOTOPIA
Courtesy of Disney

With its back to a wall, the Walt Disney Company shelled out $7.6 billion in 2006 to buy Pixar, the animation powerhouse behind “Toy Story” and “Finding Nemo.”

This weekend, the smashing success of “Zootopia” confirmed the wisdom of that decade-old acquisition. It continues a string of box office hits such as “Tangled,” “Big Hero 6,” “Wreck-It Ralph” and “Frozen” that might not have been possible had Disney not absorbed Pixar and its brain trust.

Although they were released under the Walt Disney Animation Studios banner, Pixar’s DNA — a double helix of artistic daring and technological innovation — is evident in all of these films. That makes sense given that as part of the Pixar purchase, the company’s leaders Ed Catmull and John Lasseter assumed responsibility for all of Disney’s animated output.

“What they have focused on in each of these films is having an original voice and an original story, all set in an original world,” said Dave Hollis, Disney’s distribution chief, who dubbed Walt Disney Animation Studios a “momentum machine.”

It wasn’t always clear that the bet would pay off. Some on Wall Street questioned whether Pixar was worth the astronomical purchase price, but the fact remained that the house that Mickey Mouse built was in need of some renovation, and Disney didn’t have much choice other than to pony up. It had surrendered its dominant position in the animation market to a gang of computer wizards who had an uncanny ability to create a new generation of animation icons. From Buzz Lightyear to Mr. Incredible, the Pixar heroes were every bit the equal of Peter Pan, Cinderella, Simba and other staples of Disney’s family friendly empire.

Related

ZOOTOPIA

Box Office: Disney’s ‘Zootopia’ Opens Big With $73.7 Million Debut

In the process, Pixar had supplanted Disney’s feature animation arm. As Pixar thrived, Walt Disney Animation Studios spent the late ’90s and early aughts mired in a creative and commercial torpor. “Home on the Range,” “Atlantis: The Lost Empire,” “Treasure Planet” and “Brother Bear” failed to stir the imagination, floundering at the box office and making the glory days of “The Lion King” and “Beauty and the Beast” seem very long ago indeed.

“It was the bottom of the barrel,” remembers Jeff Bock, a box office analyst with Exhibitor Relations.

To fix the animation unit, Catmull and Lasseter essentially remade it in Pixar’s own image. It took Pixar innovations — namely an emphasis on story and a workshop approach to working through the problems and thorny elements of a film — and exported them to Walt Disney Animation Studios. As part of the Pixar-ization, Catmull and Lasseter instituted an open office plan, recruited new talent and emphasized jettisoning the generic.

“They’ve surrounded storytellers with other storytellers and that’s created an environment where collectively they can focus on delivering something great,” said Hollis. “They’ve empowered storytellers.”

In the process, Walt Disney Animation has become perhaps the most original voice in the animated world. At times it has worked from well known source material. “Frozen” was inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale “The Snow Queen” and “Big Hero 6” was based on a comic-book, but the studio’s artists have embraced myriad genres and approaches while crafting each of their movies in ways that make them feel unique.

“Frozen” embraces the showmanship and emotionalism of the Broadway musical, “Big Hero 6” integrates visual elements of Japanese anime and “Wreck-It Ralph” serves up a heartfelt ode to arcade games. “Zootopia,” which opened to a record-breaking $73.7 million this weekend, is no different.  The story of a rabbit trying to break into the police force plays like a buddy cop comedy with cuter squad car inhabitants. It has also been embraced by critics for bucking convention, with the New York Post’s Lou Lumenick calling it the year’s best film so far
and Variety‘s Peter DeBruge calling it “an adult-friendly whodunit with a chipper ‘you can do it!’ message for the cubs.”

The Disney animation rebound has taken place as the family film business has grown crowded. For a time, the animation sector was carved up between Disney/Pixar and DreamWorks Animation, but over the past decade, many new players have entered the marketplace. Fox’s Blue Sky and Universal’s Illumination have all fielded breakout hits such as “Ice Age” and “Despicable Me,” while Warner Bros., Paramount and Sony are investing heavily in their animation divisions. The margin for error has never been slimmer.

“It is a far, far more competitive landscape now than it was three, four, five, six years ago,” DreamWorks Animation chief Jeffrey Katzenberg said this week at the Morgan Stanley Technology, Media & Telecom Conference.

He noted that in the old days, a company’s name above the title was enough to guarantee a certain level of financial performance. That’s no longer the case, he added.

“It was the brand that did the work for us,” said Katzenberg. “We can’t rely on that anymore.”

Ironically, Disney Animation’s revival has occurred at a time when Pixar has seemed less sure-footed. Though “Inside Out,” an imaginative look at the emotional landscape of a pre-teen girl, was one of the studio’s most beloved and acclaimed productions, it has been the exception and not the rule, of late. Pixar stumbled badly with “The Good Dinosaur,” its first financial flop, and has been increasingly focused on churning out sequels to past successes such as “Monsters University” and “Cars 2.” They have been financially successful, but lack the shock of fresh that characterized earlier Pixar efforts. This summer brings “Finding Dory,” a follow-up to “Finding Nemo,” and new installments in “The Incredibles,” “Cars” and “Toy Story” franchises are also on the horizon.

“Pixar used to be all about originality,” said Bock. “But they fell into sequel mode as most studios do and now it’s Disney Animation that is the one trying new things.”

At some point, Bock says, the studio will get sucked into making sequels to “Tangled” and “Frozen,” but until that time, it’s Walt Disney Animation Studios and not Pixar, that is extending the boundaries of what is possible in animation.

Filed Under:

Want to read more articles like this one? SUBSCRIBE TO VARIETY TODAY.
Post A Comment 20

Leave a Reply

20 Comments

Comments are moderated. They may be edited for clarity and reprinting in whole or in part in Variety publications.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

  1. Zephrine says:

    I loooveeed Home on the Range, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, and Treasure Planet…

  2. Munchack says:

    There is a shocking article in Disneyleaks about Disney officials wiretapping all resort phones to get confidential and personal information on guests without their knowledge or consent. What a bunch of creeps.

  3. Lexi says:

    “At some point, Bock says, the studio will get sucked into making sequels to “Tangled” and “Frozen,” but until that time, it’s Walt Disney Animation Studios and not Pixar, that is extending the boundaries of what is possible in animation.” WDS is actually EXTENDING the boundaries of what is possible in animation?? That’s nothing more than utter tripe. They USED to…back when WDS USED to care about what went into a GOOD animated film.

    Didn’t Walt Disney himself once say that the animators were CREATING ART, and needed to focus on that more than just the money? Disney animators used to actually care about creating great works of art like Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, and Beauty and The Beast. Oh, but you millennials are just so used to the rubbish that passes for animation that as long as it’s CG, you’ll think it’s great. Now, I won’t hold that against you, considering CG is probably all that you grew up with and you really weren’t exposed to any REAL art. The only reason this film is making any money at all is because PEOPLE DON’T KNOW ANY BETTER ANYMORE!

    They don’t know how much better animation could be. CG is NOT animation. It is merely the wet dreams of computer geeks whom wanted to make lots of money. True art takes PASSION, AND LOVE for the art form, and those things usually come BEFORE the acquisition of money. Why do you think hand-drawn animation not only has a more human feel and look to it, but connects BETTER with the audience (when it is well done)? Because LOVE and PASSION went into it. Before ANY thoughts of monetary gain, the animators whom create great hand-drawn animations know what it is to create great art, and THAT’S what they put into each film that they work on.

    I’ll bet you dollars to donuts that the people whom create CG films only have ONE thing on their minds when creating those films. It has to do with those CG people taking a trip to their respective banks and making a deposit. After all , great art doesn’t necessarily pay the bills, now does it? I guess Walt Disney should have remembered that when he got Snow White into the theaters. Poor deluded Walt…he didn’t become world-famous (and rich) for creating great works of art, oh wait a minute…

  4. Vellerie says:

    I don’t see why making sequels is automatically seen as being unoriginal and the company going downhill. They can be just as well-plotted and innovative as standalone movies, and sometimes can be better than them. As much as I love the new Disney animation movies, most of them are based on preexisting source material, so they’re technically not “original” either. Sure they deviate from that material, but sequels also are completely new stories set in an established world. The Toy Story sequels are proof that sequels can be just as amazing as the first movies, which is nice seeing how there are a lot of companies who do churn out sequels for cash–which, according to Andrew Stanton in an interview on Finding Dory, Pixar doesn’t do, which is evidenced by the fact that they waited so long to do the sequels. And, contrary to popular belief, he also said that Disney did not pressure them into that sequel.

    Sure, I love fresh, new movies as much as everyone else, but Pixar released 2 originals last year and, according to interviews, are working on at least 3 others.

    That said, I was more hyped for Zootopia than any other upcoming movie, and it did not disappoint! Hopefully Moana will be as good. I’ll check out Gigantic when it comes out, but I’ve grown kinda tired of fairytale twists….which I know Disney is known for, but it was nice getting a totally original movie with Zootopia.

  5. DanZee says:

    Well, you could say that taking Ed Catmull and John Lasseter away from Pixar and spreading them thin over Disney’s three animation departments might have hurt Pixar. Also I’m sure it was Disney’s decision to make some easy money by having Pixar make sequels and cranking up the merchandizing arm.

  6. Wow that’s awesome of zootopia cool👍👍👍👍👍👍👍👍👍

  7. ionotter says:

    It’s a furry movie, made by furries, secretly *for* furries. Disney has been sly as a fox about it, but they’re no dumb bunnies. They’ve been playing the sweetheart, but they’ve got the hustle down pat. The haters might howl in the night, but don’t kid yourselves: they’re just having a baad day.

    And just you wait? There’s gonna be a Zootopia 2! Fast as The Flash in a hundred-yard dash, we’ll be seeing Officers Hopps and Wilde ears-deep in their next big case.

    What a great year to try everything!

  8. I hope they do a sequel to Zootopia. What a fun film!

  9. Nancy says:

    Isn’t catmull caught up in a massive wage fixing scandal?

  10. Shawn Jacobs says:

    The renaissance already happened in the early nineties.

  11. Chizz says:

    How many stupid Variety reporters does it take to screw in a lightbulb?

    There is nothing “original” about this animated swill. These movies are built purely on formula. All they have to change is the names of the characters and the basic premise; then just plug in the same old platitudes about being yourself
    and emotionally open-minded and tolerant.

    It’s the same bullshit propaganda with different faces. But because it makes money, Variety is too cowardly to take a realistic and honest position.

    This magazine is built on lies.

    • Michi says:

      Zootopia has 98 in Rotten Tomatoes. Its a brillant masterpiece. Hater.

    • Jacques Strappe says:

      Apparently, a few hundred film critics are full of lies and BS as well since they consistently award Disney animation (including Pixar) the best reviews. And global audiences love them to fill Disney’s pockets with boat loads of cash. So everyone is wrong in praising these films but yet you are right.

    • ionotter says:

      Eeuuu-wee, *somebody* is hot under the collar? Whoo! *hands you a nice, frosty glass of iced tea* Y’all just sip this, and sit right here in the shade, young feller. Got yerself a tetch’ a heat prostration. Nice glass a sweet tea and rest’ll do ya a world a good!

    • Cass says:

      Wow, someone has no life if they’re so emo over this.

    • SayHi2YourMom4Me says:

      Lol calm down

  12. Lou says:

    Everything Pixar knows about storytelling and characterization, it learned from Uncle Walt It just used a newer technology to present those stories and characters to audiences. All the same, Lasseter is to be commended for supporting the Walt Disney Animation Studio until it found its feet again.

  13. Daniel says:

    Pixar is making original films. Just under the name of Walt Disney Studios. Now Pixar can go full ahead with the sequels that it had been depriving itself of for years. It is now a double-identity.

    • rbrtck says:

      What a ridiculous notion. Walt Disney Animation Studios (WDAS) and Pixar are the same studios they were before, and WDAS had been successful on their own before Pixar even started making animated features. Things began to unravel at WDAS and Disney as a whole during the early 2000s, but the new management has gotten things back on track. Lasseter was a big part of accomplishing this at WDAS at the management level, but WDAS and Pixar are still separate–as Lasseter and both studios demand–and only work on their own movies. The only creative employee they share is Lasseter, who actually started his career at WDAS as an animator anyway. If WDAS is now somehow supposedly Pixar 2, then I would contend that Pixar was WDAS 2 first. But really, let’s drop the crazy-talk–they’re each still their own independent (from one another) studio, despite now sharing the same parent corporation and management. They each have their own senior creative team, as well–Pixar has the “Braintrust” while WDAS has the “Story Trust” (none of whom have worked at Pixar) and these are staffed by entirely different people working and living in different parts of California.

  14. Bill says:

    “Sucked into?” Frozen 2 has already been announced, or do you not read Variety? :-)

    http://variety.com/2015/film/news/disney-announces-frozen-2-1201451480/

More Film News from Variety

Loading