Meet the Robinsons (2007)

Lewis the inventor.

Lewis the inventor.

With Meet the Robinsons, Disney finally began its upswing, regaining its footing once again. And it was all because of one move: John Lasseter had joined the company.

There have been three people in the history of the Walt Disney Company whose passion for animation has done not only great things for the company, but for the medium as a whole. Walt Disney himself was, of course, the pioneer; Howard Ashman brought his artistic vision to the renaissance; and, now, John Lasseter is making his mark.

Way back in 1986, Lasseter was one of the executives at a small computer company that spun off from LucasFilm. They decided to call it Pixar. When Steve Jobs bought the spinoff from George Lucas for $10-million, he was warned that this renegade group of eggheads were more interested in animation than building a computer company. That, as it turns out, was just fine.

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Chicken Little (2005)

Chicken Little sounds the sky-is-falling alarm.

Chicken Little sounds the sky-is-falling alarm.

Chicken Little is a familiar story: An old moral tale about the true meaning of courage and community. Walt had originally produced the story as an animated short in the 1940s, but this modern rendition is a computer-animated romp that touches on the original lessons while losing much of the magic.

The original story that became Chicken Little was actually born in Buddhist scripture. In a story called Duddubha Jataka: The Sound the Hare Heard, a hare is startled by the sound of fruit falling nearby and immediately comes to the conclusion that the world is coming to an end. Terrified, he gathers up all the animals of the forest and together they stampede for safety. A lion quickly stops them, though, and investigates the cause of the noise. Upon realizing it was just a falling fruit, and not the end of the world, the lion restores calm and order. The story is about the power and importance of deductive reasoning and evidence-based actions. It is a classic morality tale.

That story was written approximately 2,500 years ago and it has since morphed into dozens of forms. In the 20th century, it is more commonly called Henny Penny, The Sky is Falling or Chicken Little. It is a story for children. The Disney version of the story is not so far off the original tale. While it takes the traditional liberties the studio has always taken with its source material, it is still about a careless panic squelched by deductive reasoning and calm examination — sort of. This story also has aliens.

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Home on the Range (2004)

Roseanne Barr's and Judi Dench's bovine alter egos.

Roseanne Barr’s and Judi Dench’s bovine alter egos.

Disney’s downward spiral of an identity crisis continues with Home on the Range, the story of two dairy cows and a show cow who set out on a western adventure in a bid to save their ranch, Patch of Heaven, from foreclosure.

Rather than focus on the expert storytelling for which Disney had become known during the renaissance, this film was more about playing catch-up to the other animation studios that had burst on the scene in the 1990s — notably Dreamworks and Pixar. There was a lot going on in this film that was clearly about imitating the primary competition, and it proved to be very distracting. Lucky Jack, the rabbit, drew similarities from Ice Age’s Scrat; the slapstick comedy of the farm took a page out of Warner Brothers’ famous Saturday morning cartoons; and the antics of the pigs and goat bore an amazing resemblance to Chuck Jones’ Looney Tunes. In this case, though, the story was weak and the opening setup was just plain dull, even confusing. The film never came close to rivalling the films coming out of both Dreamworks and especially Pixar at this time. Disney was being left behind in a bad way.

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Brother Bear (2003)

Kenai and Koda — unlikely brothers.

Brother Bear is an odd film. It attempts simultaneously to be a buddy movie, a deep drama about coming of age, a lesson on dealing with loss and responsibility, and a morality tale on respecting nature. But it never actually found its footing. It’s the next, but sadly not the last, example of Disney’s lack of direction in the early 2000s.

Brother Bear opens with brothers teasing each other as brothers do. Kenai, voiced by Joaquin Phoenix, is a young Inuit man who is awkward, absentminded and often out-muscled by his older brothers. In his desperate need to prove himself a brave warrior, he chases a bear that had raided his stockpile of fish and, in the ensuing hunt, his brother Sitka is killed. Kenai, in his resentment, hunts the bear and, in turn, kills it. Kenai is then promptly transformed into a bear himself to learn a lesson in empathy and love.

The remainder of the film centres around Kenai and his new friend Koda, a younger bear he meets as they migrate to the salmon spawning grounds. Along the way, they meet their fair share of amusing secondary characters, including a pair of Canadian moose voiced (in accent) by Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas. Meanwhile, Kenai’s remaining brother, Denahi, is hunting them in vengeance for the perceived death-by-bear of his two brothers.

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Treasure Planet (2002)

Jim Hawkins turned out to be a bit unlikeable among audiences.

During the 2000s, Disney not only abandoned the formula that had granted them unparalleled success in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but the company was also churning out animated features at lightning speed. Quality was bound to suffer, and 2002’s Treasure Planet probably got more flak because of that downturn than it really deserved.

The idea sounds a bit hokey: an adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novel set in space. But it actually worked. Personally, I could have done with a more traditional retelling of the story, but the space-age setting didn’t detract from the story of young Jim Hawkins (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Jim longs for adventure, longs to prove himself and feel that his existence has meaning. In a sea of galaxies, his inner struggle shouldn’t come as a surprise. He’s also coming to terms with an absentee father and a few of his own run-ins with the law. He’s a quintessential troubled teen who embarks on a grand journey that ends up drastically changing his life.

What is distracting, though, is the film’s steampunk style. The look and feel of the character design is drawn from Victorian England with inspiration from the Industrial Revolution, but the settings are futuristic. I mostly just wished the animators had picked one era and stuck with it. And while recognize the style’s place in the world of art, even though Treasure Planet wasn’t the first Disney film to make use of it, as pointed out by Steampunk Scholar, the style wasn’t fitting of the story Disney was trying to tell in this film. Critics also bemoaned the “mainstreaming” of steampunk — because, of course, there’s no way it could ever be cool again now that Disney had jumped on the bandwagon.

The story was a fair adaption, the animation was fluid and the action tense, but the characters had trouble making a real connection with the audience. Even as self-sacrifice and personal connections drive the movie forward, it’s hard for audiences to feel much for them. It all amounts to a less-than-satisfying, if adventurous, finish.

The lack of an animated hit was starting to put financial strain on the studio. It was particularly painful that their most successful film during this time was the low-budget Winnie the Pooh sequel The Tigger Movie. The big-budget, high-concept “official” releases just weren’t performing. And the rising success of rival studios Pixar and Dreamworks (who released Shrek in 2001) certainly wasn’t helping. According to the LA Times, the $140-million Treasure Planet was a dream directors John Musker and Ron Clements had been trying to get off the ground for almost two decades. The film’s dismal $12-million opening weekend gross was one of the weakest ever for Disney and lead the company to revise its already-reported fourth-quarter earnings, providing further fuel for the skepticism beginning to develop around the studio that it wasn’t up to producing the big blockbusters of the past. The studio blamed a lacklustre marketing effort, but it was clear more was amiss. The ordeal ended up leading to a shrinking of the animation department, several layoffs across the division and a slowdown in the number, and size, of the animated features that would come.

In the context of what else the studio was releasing in the 2000s, Treasure Planet is certainly not even close to being at the bottom of the barrel (and even ended up with an Academy Award nomination for best animated film). But it remains further proof that Disney had lost its Midas touch.

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