The Personal Touch
The proof reads like a best-of listing: Ridley Scott's Blade Runner; Steven Soderbergh's Out of Sight; Chuck Jones's work with Michael Maltese; Brad Bird's The Iron Giant; Hayao Miyazaki's entire body of work; Disney's output until Sleeping Beauty; even My Big Fat Greek Wedding, for that matter. Whether you like them or not, it's hard to argue that they aren't memorable films that stand out from their contemporaries. In all of these cases the directors managed crews ranging from a handful to several hundred, but at every step they ensured that their visions made it to the screen, even if they were filtered through someone else's talents and sensibilities.
Pixar's Toy Story came at a time when Disney features were faltering, and ever since its success the mainstream press has been trumpeting the demise of the traditionally animated feature at the hands of CGI. I beg to differ; Pixar's output has been consistently of high quality because its directors consistently transfer what they want from their imaginations to the big and small screens. John Lasseter's A Bug's Life and Toy Story films feel like John Lasseter movies even though he has co-writers and co-directors. Pete Docter has worked within the Pixar fold for years, but while his Monsters, Inc. shares certain traits with its predecessors, it ultimately feels like it comes from a different person.
Disney used to follow that principle of a unifying vision. It's no coincidence that their films started to waver when Walt became increasingly distracted by Disney World and that their output was uneven after his death in 1966. It's also no coincidence that Disney's fortunes turned around when The Little Mermaid was released and kept improving until The Lion King, bookending the films completed during Jeffery Katzenberg's stint at the Mouse House.
People have varying opinions of Katzenberg, but it's hard to deny that he figured out a winning formula for animated features by combining first-rate animation talent, the constant pursuit of new high-tech tools and the Broadway musical format. Though many—and I count myself among them—have decried the stock character types and story elements in the Disney films of the 1990s, it's also hard to deny that under Katzenberg they were generally used well, and to enormous success.
I find it interesting that like Walt, Katzenberg didn't actually direct the best films created under his watch. But the more important parallel is that after Katzenberg's departure, Disney's animated output faltered, sometimes badly—and in an effort to shore up their bottom line, the company has resorted to releasing cheaper movies that were conceived by committees: Return to Never Land and Jungle Book 2 are just two, designed to cash in on name recognition more than anything else. Their saving grace may be that they provide training grounds for less experienced directors and animators, but they're completely wrongheaded when it comes to simply making good movies.
Disney's best move at this point seems clear, at least to me. Their two most successful periods in terms of enduring popularity were when two figures, Walt and Jeffery, ensured that their visions remained intact throughout. That may not work anymore, as Disney has had trouble finding someone to adequately fill the void left by Katzenberg's departure. Therefore the next best thing is to allow directors to tell their stories the way they want to tell them.
Will there be missteps along the way? Most certainly. Steven Spielberg, Spike Lee, and Alfred Hitchcock all had misfires early in their careers, but they learned from them and built from that, becoming assured, respected directors and household names. The only parallel in animation is Hayao Miyazaki, who has been allowed to make his own films his way for twenty years—and while the studio he co-founded had a rocky start, he went on to make personal yet wildly successful films whose influence could be felt the world over. Now imagine if Disney, with all its resources and name recognition, allowed its directors to do the same. What kind of impact could that have on animation as a whole?