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End nigh for cartoons?

August 23, 2003

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Pixar animators, the creators of Nemo, strike a seemingly soggy pose.

Does the success of Finding Nemo and its computer-designed predecessors spell the end for traditional animation? Matthew Watson reports.

Before it even arrives in Melbourne, Finding Nemo has topped the sales of The Lion King, the most successful animation film of all time, clocking up $US324.9 million (more than $A493 million) in sales in the US last weekend.

Despite digitally created films nudging the supremacy of the two-dimensional Lion King at the box office, none have touched it until now.

And with traditionally animated Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas a box office disaster, some are now predicting the death of the hand-drawn animation feature.

Unlike traditional animation, Finding Nemo creators Pixar Animation use computer-generated images, instead of the traditional pen and paints on individual cels. Sinbad was made using the using hand-drawn cel.

Released at about the same time as Nemo in the US - and despite the voice-power of Brad Pitt and Catherine Zeta-Jones - Sinbad has been a big box office disappointment. With a production budget of more than $US60 million, it had garnered only $US25.8 million in the US by last weekend.

Computer-generated films are hot in the US right now. Shrek grossed $US267.7 million in the US and Ice Age earned $US176.4 million. By comparison, traditionally animated fare has performed poorly - $US38.1 million for Disney's Treasure Planet (2002) and $US73.3 million for Dreamworks' Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron (2002).

But can a film's success really just boil down to the animation it features?

There is no doubt that since the release of Pixar's Toy Story in 1995, computer animations have set the trend.

With Toy Story it was the first time that Disney outsourced its production. Taking the contract, Pixar veered away from traditional animation techniques.

Toy Story was a massive success, taking $US191.8 million in the US alone and a handful of Oscar nominations, including best film screenplay.

The collective wisdom in Hollywood is that computer animation is the perfect remedy for animation's revenue problems. Disney's new animation director David Stainton recently said that Disney plans to move further away from hand-drawn features to concentrate on computer-generated films. It is not hard to see why. With an average price tag of $US100 million, animated films - both traditional and computer-generated - cost much more than motion pictures to make. They also have a much longer gestation period.

Studio officials at Disney have not said what percentage of their animation operation will become digital, but say they plan to retrain animators to work on computers.

DreamWorks studio chief Jeffrey Katzenberg has said that his studio will concentrate solely on computer-generated films but does not rule out blending digital with traditional animation.

With box-office disappointments such as The Road to El Dorado (2000) and The Prince of Egypt (1998), DreamWorks has not had a traditional animation that could last one round against Disney. However, 1998's Antz (DreamWorks first computer animation) performed well, although it was beaten that year at the box office by Disney's similarly themed A Bug's Life.

Then in 2001, DreamWorks showed Disney it could compete, with Shrek's release.

Now Fox Studios also wants a piece of the digital action, last year releasing Ice Age, which performed well internationally.

But some computer-generated features have flopped, such as Columbia's Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001), which grossed a paltry $US36.1 million in the US, proving that computer animation does not always equal success.

Adults may be drawn by the state-of-the-art visuals, but since when have children been interested in cutting-edge animation?

The animation, more than anything, is simply the vehicle by which to deliver the story. The Lion King, Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast were all hand drawn, yet together they pulled in more than $US1.5 billion worldwide.

It is only since the advent of computer animation that traditional animation has really suffered.

Studios are also learning it is wrong to underestimate the importance of the story, with Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron and Treasure Planet, neither of which had mass appeal. Adults need a fun factor to pay for an animated feature - with or without their kids. The most successful animations have scripts delivered with a delicious spoonful of adult humour.

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