This past week, news broke that The Walt Disney Company intended to immediately close down down DisneyToon Studios. According to IndieWire, the move will lead to the layoffs of 75 animators and staff. It's yet uncertain whether the company will hire them back through Walt Disney Animation or Pixar Animation. With the studio folding, why don't we take a look back at its eclectic history?
DisneyToon Studios was founded in 1990 as Disney MovieToons, a division of Walt Disney Television Animation. It would enable the company as a whole to diversify its output more. The first production came out later that year as a collaboration with Disney Animation France: DuckTales the Movie: Treasure of the Lost Lamp. Over the years the studio worked on other projects such as A Goofy Movie (1995), the holiday anthology Mickey's Once Upon a Christmas (1999), and The Tigger Movie (2000). By working on projects separate from Walt Disney Animation Studios, Disney MovieToons provided an additional source of income for The Walt Disney Company (gosh that's a lot of Disney). They also produced movies that have become beloved, such as Goofy Movie which has seen a resurgence in nostalgic popularity.
Another key aspect of the studio's filmography was the Disney sequel phase. In 1994 they released The Return of Jafar direct-to-video, a sequel to the 1992 Disney Animation film Aladdin. They went on to produce the sequels of Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Lady and the Tramp, Cinderella, and more. It was during this rush that the company reorganized. Disney MovieToons was transitioned from television to feature animation, and renamed DisneyToon Studios in 2003. Now the sequels primarily faced a direct-to-video release, and as a result didn't have high budgets. They must have made money though, because a lot were produced. In the first half of the aughts, the studio released an average of four movies a year. In fact, in 2005, they released a whopping FIVE MOVIES within the calendar year.
Things began to change though after Disney purchases Pixar Animation. Leadership was shuffled around, and several pending sequel projects were canceled at DisneyToons. Instead, the studio entered a new phase: the Disney Fairies franchise. In 2008, the studio released Tinker Bell straight to video. Overall they've released six movies in the franchise, the last coming out in 2015, which was also their last release. They briefly returned to sequels with 2013's Planes, based off of Pixar's Cars franchise, and 2014's Planes: Fire and Rescue.
The studio has had a long filmography, and while they've only been around less than three decades, they've certainly proved industrious in that time. So why did it shut down? Disney's been shuffling their studios around a bit following the departure of John Lasseter from the company, with new leadership taking over at Pixar and Walt Disney Animation. When it came to look at DisneyToons though, it has faced a tough market recently.
It's well-known for its straight-to-video productions. Video, however, has been facing a tough time lately. Digital streaming is more pervasive than ever. What's telling is that their last five movies have all been theatrical releases, even if only limited releases. Their last direct-to-video release was in 2010. Their primary market has vanished, and in a theatrical landscape dominated by "event" movies, there is only a small niche market for Tinker Bell: The Pirate Fairy. It's death by economics. There's a lot of talent there though, and it's worth seeing where they will end up and what they're going to do next.
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Earlier this week, news broke that Disney plans to remake the 1955 classic Lady and the Tramp into a live-action movie. This doesn't come as much of a surprise. Live-action remakes have made a lot of money for the Walt Disney Company; last year, Beauty and the Beast was the second highest grossing movie worldwide with over a billion dollar gross. The interesting part of this announcement is how Disney plans to distribute the film. Instead of a theatrical release, the studio intends to release the new Lady and the Tramp on their yet-unnamed digital streaming service.
Disney's streaming service, due for release in 2019, stands to be a strong competitor with established companies like Netflix. On top of holding Disney's existing library of films and television programming, it will also reportedly feature "four to six" original works every year. The selection will come from across Walt Disney's holdings: Marvel, Lucasfilm, Pixar, Disney Animation, and so on. With a big name title like a Lady and the Tramp remake heading straight for streaming, it indicates how seriously Disney is taking this venture.
As an interesting note, it's worth pointing out that Disney currently stands to acquire streaming service Hulu. Walt Disney already owned 30% of the service, while 21st Century Fox owned another 30% — and with the acquisition of Fox pending, Disney will soon get a controlling stake. How Hulu will run alongside Disney's service remains to be seen.
So what does this mean for animation? It indicates another shift towards streaming as a distribution channel, to complement or even supplant theatrical and broadcast releases. We've seen steps in this direction with films like The Little Prince, which played theatrically around the world but in the United States released on Netflix. Major studios like DreamWorks have also released exclusive series for Netflix, featuring spinoffs of Puss in Boots and their Dragons franchise, as well as original series like Voltron and Trollhunters.
Disney's steps will probably point even more big-budget productions towards streaming first. For comparison, let's look at the recent Netflix original Bright, which turned heads with its $90 million budget. Now let's estimate the budget for Lady and the Tramp. The film will have the same producer as 2016's The Jungle Book, which cost $175 million. Even if that number shrinks a bit for Lady and the Tramp, it still looks to be one of the biggest productions to directly hit streaming services.
Streaming has already impacted the entertainment industry in different ways. It's already upset existing distribution channels, but it seems that the effects are not fully realized yet. A very big step looms in the future, and all eyes will watch to see if the step is solid or shaky.
"Propaganda" leaves a bad taste in the modern audience's mouth, and it's a slur often hurled about at whatever media we find distasteful. It's hard to imagine a time when propaganda was openly discussed, advocated for, and produced under that very name. Sure enough though, it played a major part in world history, even in our own country's history — and even in the animation industry. That's right, some of the most famous propaganda films are animations. Let's take a look at some of them.
One of the greatest producers of propaganda was none other than Walt Disney himself. Just before the United States entered World War II, the studio was facing financial troubles. Pinocchio and Fantasia had resulted in financial losses, since the overseas markets were decimated by the war in Europe, and Dumbo was released as a low-budget money maker in October 1941. A couple months later, the attack on Pearl Harbor brought the war to the United States, and the government needed to suddenly build public morale for the fight. That's when they looked to Hollywood's studios to deliver that message, but most of all to Walt Disney. They needed his popular crowd-pleasing animations; he needed a reliable source of revenue. Production started almost right away.
By August 1942, Fortune magazine published a column about Disney's efforts, saying that his films were "revolutionizing the technique of education." His films included The Spirit of '43, where Donald Duck argued in favor of paying income taxes; Der Fuehrer's Face, where Donald has a nightmare about the terrible life that Nazis would bring; Commando Duck, where Donald takes out a Japanese base... as one may tell, Donald Duck played a major role in the propaganda efforts. Other shorts included Education for Death, a surprisingly somber film that portrays the life of German youth, indoctrinated from birth to die violently on the battlefield. Victory through Air Power has a more strategic tone, demonstrating the way that strategic bombers had helped the Axis powers and could be used to help the Allies. There are many more films, but simply listing them all here would serve little use beyond what we've established. Disney covered a huge variety of topics, upping his production to tell people about the war, how it would impact them, and how they could impact it.
Of course, Disney wasn't the only animation studio producing propaganda. Warner Bros. also threw their hat into the ring. They may not have had the same volume or educational goals, but they still sought to foster public support for the war. They sent their own duck, Daffy, as a commando behind German lines in the appropriately named Daffy — The Commando in 1943. They also produced The Ducktators, where fowl caricatures of the Axis leaders take over a barnyard and push the pacifist dove to his breaking point. It's definitely a fascinating short, but it also shows the racial attitudes of the time... stereotypes and caricatures abound! It's worth looking at to see the culture of the time, but potential viewers should be warned!
Propaganda was not just confined to the United States. The Soviet Union produced its own animations to rally their people. The 1941 short "Fascist Boots Shall Not Trample Our Motherland" is incredibly brief, not even reaching three minutes, but delivers its message easily. The visuals aren't necessarily the best though, and a trained eye can find several strange cuts and errors. More remarkable though, is the 1963 short American Imperialist: The Millionaire. It details a scenario where a rich American woman dies, leaving her money to her pet dog, who then becomes a part of the wealthy ruling class. The animation has definitely improved, it has a pleasing subdued palette, and it actually has some fun visual gags. On a technical level, it meets the standards for its time.
Even today, animation continues to be used in propaganda films. I'm not talking about comic jabs at this or that political figure, I mean as sincere take-this-seriously propaganda. All the way in the hermit kingdom of North Korea, they have a show titled Squirrel and Hedgehog. Given the reclusive nature of any North Korean information, we know little about the show's production. From the episodes we have though, it's relatively easy to see what their goal is. It's a very thinly veiled metaphor. The initial episodes began during the Cold War, where a happy village of squirrels and hedgehogs are protected by a bear from the nefarious weasels. The bear is often drunk and unreliable though, so the village takes it upon themselves to defend against the weasels. If you start thinking "Hey, it's like North Korea is saying they didn't need the Soviet Union to protect them from their enemies," you'd be right.
Production was choppy, so later episodes didn't come out for years. When they did though, the animation drastically improved - the show actually looks really good on a technical level. They began adding villainous wolves dressed up in American army uniforms, again an easy metaphor to connect. Most of all though, they started to string together a story that, separated from the propaganda side of things, many people find genuinely compelling even outside of North Korea. The popularity inside the country seems no less. From what little coverage inside the country we have, Squirrel and Hedgehog stickers line nursery walls, and children's ensembles sing musical numbers inspired by the show. However, it's a cause for concern. Beyond everything else mentioned already, the show has a reputation for violence. Protagonists torture enemies for information, bloody executions take place, and they sing about giving up their lives for their home. It's fascinating from an artistic point of view, but also incredibly dangerous.
Luckily, propaganda has fallen out of favor throughout most of the world. Some may argue it's present when a film presents one viewpoint or another, but the idea of government-sanctioned mass media is no longer popular. But it's always fascinating to look back, see a time capsule from the past, that might feel like another culture entirely even if it's from your own country.