The question at the center of all this hubbub and foofaraw I’m about to lay on you – a March Madness-style tournament, a bracket, a podcast, a commitment to watch over 100 animated movies – is, at its heart, a simple one: “Which animation studio has had the greatest five-film run in cinema history.”
That’s five consecutive feature-length animated films released in an order that makes you say, simply, “Wow.”
That question came to me one day – planted in me, I think, by my first experience watching a Miyazaki film (Spirited Away, at the age of 22, a crime, I know!) – and I ran with it. I turned it into a Facebook poll, got some interesting responses, and the idea just flowered.
Essentially, when that question struck me, I was trying to process some cognitive dissonance: that this is the man people call the Japanese Disney, a title that’s either horrifically reductive or startlingly true. Probably both.
From that dissonant chord came a simple little kernel of a question – “What’s Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli really got on Disney? Or vice versa? And does it even matter with the geniuses at Pixar out there?” And among my close friends that little question grew into something a bit bigger.
With watering and sunshine the seed has grown into a tree, and that tree looks suspiciously like a March Madness tournament bracket. That tournament bracket is festooned with curious amalgamations of movies such as: “Disney 1967-1977: The Jungle Book, The Aristocats, Robin Hood, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, The Rescuers.” And from this, we hope to draw out a month’s worth of quality discussion which we hope to bring to you in our Culture Conquistadors podcast; and which we hope will thrill you and anger you in equal measure. (Because let’s face it, somewhere along the line, we’re going to slight some of your favorite animated films, and you’ll hate our guts. We’re actually cool with this.)
And so, we hope, in turn, that you’ll play along and join us.
Which may lead you to ask a few questions of your own:
1) Why on earth does the studio matter? And why five films from that studio? Why not just pick the greatest animated movie of all time and be done with it?
2) Why just animation? If you’re really married to this “five films from a studio” thing, why limit yourself to a tiny fraction of movie studios?
3) Why create a bracket? Everyone’s doing brackets! Just talk about this like grown-ups without the seeding and the “matchups” and the Final Four and the stupid fanfa…
Hey! That last bit wasn’t a question! Settle down. I’ll answer these each in turn.
What would we think of Hayao Miyazaki today if he’d stopped making films after My Neighbor Totoro, which you many argue is his greatest film, but probably would not be considered his peak by any means? That means no Kiki’s Delivery Service, no Princess Mononoke, no Spirited Away.
It is a pretty good hypothetical as far as hypotheticals go. This is a man who’s announced his retirement after like every film he’s released for over a decade! The threat that another Miyazaki film won’t be coming down the pipeline is constantly looming for fans of his work. And Miyazaki is, like so many other animation legends, so closely tied to the identity of the studio he co-founded – Studio Ghibli – that his early retirement would likely have spelled the end for his studio.
What does that threat do to a studio’s work, ultimately? What is truly being threatened? Not the piece of art itself, surely. If there are no great masterpieces surrounding a masterpiece, well, that doesn’t diminish the piece itself any, I don’t think. If Miyazaki had retired after Totoro, just put down his pencil and paintbrush and walked off into a beautifully animated sunset, Totoro would still be untouchable, considered a masterpiece by many, the masterpiece by some.
But Akira is regarded just as highly. And Waltz with Bashir. And I would venture that, while you may know those films and speak in hushed tones of their individual legacies on the artform, you would still be hard-pressed to name the studios or directors that gave them life and gifted them to the world. Put it this way: Miyazaki’s name is not on your lips because he made a great masterpiece – it’s there because he replicated that success enough times to burrow into your consciousness and stay there forever.
So Totoro, like it or not, is part of the Miyazaki legacy machine, forvermore. Unless you’re a really big animation buff, Akira and Bashir, on the other hand, stand alone and unclaimed, foisted into the canon of great films without much context, added like spice to “Greatest of” animation lists where the real meat is the hard-won legacies of long-standing studios who have built their reputations on long runs of quality. Every young turk film studio like Illumination Entertainment (the makers of Despicable Me and The Lorax) wants ultimately not to make just one great film that makes kids smile and parents laugh; they want a brand.
They want this: “Pixar has a perfect track record, 10 for 10, because they care so much about their characters.” “The pioneering genius of Walt Disney has been reborn at Studio Ghibli in Japan.” “In five years, Walt released Snow White, Pinocchio, Dumbo, Fantasia and Bambi! You’ll never see something like that again.” These are the truisms that build a studios reputation. And analyzing them – building them up, breaking them down – can be just as enlightening, if not more so, than looking at the films on their own, sans context.
So, no, you don’t just get to be called the Japanese Disney for recapturing Walt’s magic in one or two masterpieces, as enviable as that is. To earn that name you have to delight the masses over and over again. You have be consistent and build trust. You have to build a recognizable brand! That brand is your studio, and the way studios function in animation fascinates me to no end. I hope to explain why in further detail as the year progresses.
One more thing: Why five films? Because Walt’s first five films before World War II are the gold standard for perfect animation hitting streaks. And because it was five films from The Little Mermaid to The Lion King, which everyone recognizes as an animation epoch in its own right. And because, if this were a ten-film competition A) James and I would die of exhaustion and B) Pixar would win easy. I had to give them a challenge.
If you told me you don’t go see Universal Studios films because they don’t hold a candle to Paramount films… hell, I’d have no idea what you were talking about. What films does Paramount release again?
If you told me the same thing about DreamWorks films though, I’d totally get it. When How to Train Your Dragon came out, people who loved it said it was the most “Pixar” DreamWorks had ever looked. Considering it was released amidst a sea of sequels to Shrek and Madagascar movies, Pixar lovers were rightfully skeptical. It would have taken a lot for them to go see it, more for them to believe it.
Once upon a time, when the Hollywood studio system was enforced and an actor crossing the line from MGM to 20th Century Fox was treated as national news, studios had their own profile, their own personality, their own brand. Maybe you could do this type of exercise, a big ol’ tournament bracket, for those studios of old. (United Artists of 1947 vs. MGM of 1951, a real barnburner!) Today, though, I couldn’t even tell you which studio has the rights to which Marvel superhero, because they all distribute those darn superhero movies, and they all look pretty much the same regardless of studio imprint. (Disney has most of them now, but I think Sony and Fox still have dibs on important characters like Spider-Man and Wolverine.)
Animation is simply different. It plays by different rules. It takes longer (it used to take a lot longer) and so quality control is built-in. So is brand loyalty: get ‘em when they’re young, keep ‘em for life.
And so it is feasible that – while you are not a die-hard fan of 20th Century Fox (which has released films such as Star Wars, Home Alone and X-Men) – you are a fan of 20th Century Fox’s animation studio, Blue Sky Studios, which means you really love the Ice Age films. More likely, you are among the thousands waving a banner for Pixar, or Studio Ghibli, or the Disney classics you grew up with that you think every kid should be forced to watch. (They don’t have to watch it on video cassette like you did, even though secretly you know that’s more special, special features be damned.)
Animation studios cultivate this fandom like no regular studio can. How? They focus the time-intensive process of animating a film frame-by-frame on a singular pursuit: making damn sure we’ll see the one or two movies they release a year (if that even) in theaters; and by making sure that when they come out on home video, we buy them and add them to “the shelf.”
What’s the shelf? This is the shelf in your entertainment room that is usually occupied by the whole work of one studio. You don’t have to be an animation fan to have one of these shelves. You pretty much just to have been a kid once. Or had a kid once. If you fit this broad criteria, then there’s likely a shelf that looks something like this near you right now:
Shrek, Shrek 2, Madagascar, Kung Fu Panda and How to Train Your Dragon.
Wall-E, Toy Story, The Incredibles and Up.
Cinderella, The Aristocats, Sword in the Stone and Winnie the Pooh.
Or, let’s be honest here, the entire Disney canon carefully ordered to reflect either release date or personal preference.
Maybe, with live-action films, you do this by genre. Or, if you’re methodical, director. You definitely don’t arrange by studio. (“If I don’t put all my Miramax films on one shelf, it’ll drive me crazy!) But for animation… It’s okay to admit it, this is a safe zone: Everyone has an animation shelf.
When I was a kid, my favorite show to watch – and I watched this over and over and over – was Scooby-Doo’s Laff-A-Lympics.
Not because it was good. It wasn’t. The animation was dreadful, the bane of every great studio animator we’re going to honor here over the next few weeks. The stories were laughably simple. All the Hanna-Barbara characters were arranged in teams and they competed in Olympic events. When they’d go to Ireland they’d have to catch a leprechaun or something. Comic mishaps ensued. Snagglepuss was the announcer.
What fascinated me so much about this show? Well it wasn’t anything going on on the screen. At the age of eight, it wasn’t like I was trying meta-textual analysis or intertextual readings on for size or anything… at least I didn’t mean to… but I’d just sit there with a paper and I’d make more teams. Roster after roster of animated characters. As a kid I was a list-maker. My parents thought it was really weird and, truly, it was. When I collected basketball cards, I would arrange them into “Greatest of” collections by teams (My Bulls cards facing off against my Celtics cards) and make them play each other; there was reason for concern.
Laff-A-Lympics fed this fire; the characters on the show were divided into three teams. The team of villains was pretty much made up just for the show, so it didn’t matter. But, oh, the other two teams: one was made up of the Yogi Bear gang, and the other was comprised of more Scooby/Flintstones-like characters.
And all I could think was: damn this show would be so much cooler if a Disney team made up of Mickey and the gang could take on the Yogi team. Or a Warner Brothers team (pretty much lifted straight from Space Jam, they did the work for me on that one). I made a Nickelodeon team (led by Tommy Pickles and Doug Funnie, I think). Even a Cartoon Network team with Dexter from Dexter’s Lab and Johnny Bravo.
Even at that young age, I could tell the difference between “Hanna Barbara” and “Cartoon Network.” Though they aired on the same network, one right after the other, I knew that Huckleberry Hound was not to be considered in quite the same way that Daffy Duck, whose antics took up the late night Tex Avery block, was. They were on different “teams” and I wondered: “Which is best?”
Granted, because I was eight and I watched cartoons for a living, I wondered which would be best at, like, leprechaun catching or weightlifting, not which had the highest quality and would stand the test of time. But the spark was there.
That should pretty much explain how this all turned into a tournament bracket even though everyone does tournament brackets.
And so that describes, in three parts, how we arrived at Studio Animation Madness. Or Ani-Madness for short.
That leaves one thing unexplained: why am I here? Why not play this all out in my own crazy fantasies like I did when I was eight and I was pitting Nickelodeon and Warner Brothers against each other in Laff-A-Lympic events?
Because I believe you might care about this; might even want to vote on this; heck, might even want to write about this and discuss this with me! And I sure as hell believe I can write about it – about animation history, about what it means to me and what it might mean to you.
One more anecdote: Around the time I was building cartoon teams to wage cartoon war against each other (the first time; I consider this my second foray into the field), my mom came home with an Animation Encyclopedia. The magazine she worked at was cleaning out its library, and she came home with boxes and boxes of books, but that’s the one I latched onto. That one ended up in my room, on my bookcase. It became my animation shelf.
It opened up a whole new world to me. The book had been published about a year before I was born – it didn’t care about my Hey Arnold and my Mulan. No, in there stood old giants like Felix the Cat and Watership Down. The only problem: like basketball cards for old players I’d never seen play (like Tree Rollins and Bernard King), these names and directors, they were just a statistic to me. Something else to add to a silly cartoon team in a child’s cartoon war. I never asked my parents to get the VHS, and there were no clips on YouTube to look up. I was a stathead, but I never did the most valuable thing. I never watched the movie!
But now that I’m older and I’m pretty sure what I want to be – a film critic – I want to amend that. I go around constantly fighting myself on this. I know I can write about movies, but I feel an immense amount of shame and building pressure that I am getting older each day and I have not watched as many movies as an aspiring film critic should.
“How could I?” I ask myself. “Every film critic was a normal person who didn’t watch films for a living before they were a film critic! They each had to start somewhere.” But, as the film canon grows bigger each week, the overwhelming pressure builds, and the admission that I just don’t know where to start has given me a daunting case of writers’ block.
“How can I even think about recapping last night’s episode of Smash when I’ve never even seen The Godfather!” I yell at myself, knowing full well that watching The Godfather, while an enviable pursuit, will not make it any easier for me to become the film critic I want so badly to be. Why? Because, after The Godfather, there will be another film lined up to take its place. Haunting me.
And so the point here for me isn’t to watch all the films I’ve never seen. There are many. I’ll never do that, and it would kill me to try. The point is to write about movies the way I know only I can. And to do that, they need to be movies I love. Movies I know. And, for good measure, some I’ll be discovering for the very first time but can discuss in a context in which I feel at home.
Ultimately, if the question one faces at the age of twenty-three is “Where to begin?” the answer may well be, “At the beginning!” Start with the films you saw first. The films that taught you cinematic language, the movie business… life. And so, before I move on and conquer the film world, I seek shelter for one more month in the films I grew up on – and I aim to watch some important films for the very first time, films that would have made growing up a whole lot more enlightening.
And, hey, if that question “Where to begin?” seems a little too broad, then accept this other question I came up with in its stead: “Which animation studio has had the greatest five-film run in cinema history?”
What do you think?