The Second Golden Age

By 1987, the face of animation was changing again. The conventional wisdom spun by the same mentality that believed that science fiction was a dead genre until "Star Wars" came along, believed that no one but the Walt Disney Company could be successful at producing feature length animated feature films. It never occurred to these enlightened gurus that an animated feature was subject to the same karmic laws as any other motion picture. A good story and high production standards will attract an audience. The opposite will not.

When Steven Spielberg entered the animation arena with "An American Tail", the conventional wisdom that dominated animated entertainment for a generation was shattered. The movie became the highest grossing animated feature in first release in history, causing the Walt Disney Company to seriously assess their position as the world's leader in animated entertainment. They traditionally produced an animated feature every three years or so. Now they made plans to shift into high gear and release a new feature on a yearly basis. For this, they needed lots of artists. They had to significantly increase their staff.

At the same time, toy based cartoons were coming to an abrupt halt. The airwaves were inundated with 65 half hour first run syndicated shows, or "strips" as they were now termed. Saturday morning cartoons were for the most part, commercials. The networks had stooped to such a creative abyss that they actually were broadcasting shows the likes of "Pac Man" and "Rubics Cube". Network executives, aware of the value of an animated property, were using their positions to produce shows based on their own ideas in hopes of striking it big in licensing.

The toy manufacturers started to suffer significant loses in animation. The public had figured out what was going on. Space on the shelves of toy retailers had filled up. There was no longer room available to accommodate the same action adventure fodder and there was even less space on the air waves. Tonka Toys funded the production of 65 episodes of "The Spiral Zone" and took a massive financial beating. The production was so corrupt that the toy company actively edited scripts, making changes in action and dialogue to purposely feature an aspect of a certain toy they wanted to sell.

Legislation had also been introduced in Congress to consider the re-regulation of advertising time on children's television.

The pseudo-producers, anxious for a direction to go in and to keep this system going, hopped on the coat tails of "Roger Rabbit". The genius of animator Richard Williams helped to herald a new age in the industry. The film not only signaled the return of "classic" animation, it was the highest grossing motion picture of the year and Hollywood sat up and took notice.

The classic animation format was finding its way back into mainstream entertainment, but the "pre-sold concept" still held strong. In other words, an idea for an animated production had to be proven in the marketplace first. There was little room for original ideas. Products such as toys were a good indication of a concept's popularity. There were numbers to look at. If a million dolls were sold, a million kids knew the character. No need to build an audience. It's already there. Anything deemed as an original concept was forced to find its start in animation via an ancillary market.

The gurus, not realizing that all pre-sold concepts started as original ideas, saw anything original as a risk they didn't want to take. As such, it was a safe bet to rework an old classic into something new. Thus, all the "baby" cartoons of the late 1980s. Shows featuring the Flintstones as children, "Popeye and Son", Tom and Jerry as infants, etc.

It was a temporary fix. The original idea was returning. There was too much going on with American animation artists. They were good and getting better. At Filmation, the only remaining studio producing all of their animation domestically, an animated feature was produced called "Pinochio and the Emperor of the Night". It was a box office disaster. Not willing to commit any more capital on animation production, Westinghouse Broadcasting, the parent company of Filmation, suddenly and without notice sold the studio in early 1989. Overnight, hundreds of experienced animation artists were laid off and Disney picked up the cream of the crop. Filmation closed its doors forever.

The much anticipated Second Golden Age of Animation was under way. The greatest expansion the industry had ever seen. "The Little Mermaid", "Rescuers Down Under", "Beauty and the Beast", "Aladdin", "The Lion King", "Pocahontas", "Hunchback of Notre Dame", "Toy Story", "Hercules", "Mulan", magnificent films that were unimaginable only a few years before to all but American animation talent.

Feature films from studios other than Disney were being produced and were succeeding. "Land Before Time", "All Dogs Go To Heaven", "Fern Gully", "The Swan Princess" and more. A new market had been created in the form of video sales. Projects intended to be marketed as direct to video productions were initiated. Feature films, fresh from theatrical distribution were going into video and animated subjects were consistently at the top of the sales charts.

In television, animation in prime time returned. Steven Spielberg's landmark animated special "Family Dog" blazed a new trail as did the introduction of a new series, "The Simpsons". They were followed by a boom in animation programming, most of it in the form of offbeat, highly creative original concepts airing on network and cable television.

Advances in computer technology were making animated films easier to produce with a marked improvement in quality. Other studios joined in the feeding frenzy. Warner Brothers, who in 1987 revived their animation unit with their own baby cartoon called "Tiny Toons" and whose brilliant rendition of "Batman" helped to position them as the premier producer of animation for television, started a feature animation unit. So did Fox. Amblin, Universal, MGM, Ted Turner and others joined in the expansion.

And so did Dreamworks.

Charles Zembillas © 1999
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