The end of an era for Disney

LAUSANNE – The age of animation, at least the one familiar to the Walt Disney generation, is over. Advances in computer technology and the success of computer-animated pictures, such as the recent «Finding Nemo,» mean that Disney is having to abandon traditional hand-drawn animation. The studio’s new film, «Brother Bear,» currently being screened at mainstream theaters, is one of the last such hand-drawn pictures audiences are likely to see by Disney, as the studio has closed down its Florida studio where this film, and many like it, were made. At a meeting with the film’s creators, it was obvious how sentimental they felt at this end of an era. «Brother Bear,» directed by Aaron Blaise and Robert Walker – two longtime Disney animators – focuses on the story of Kenai, a young Native American who loses his brother to a bear. He decides to hunt down the bear in revenge and when he kills it, his spirit is magically transported into the bear and he must become a father to the bear’s cub, Koda. In the meantime, the third brother, thinking the bear has not been killed, sets off after him as well. No more Shakespeare Originally, the film was supposed to follow another storyline, one inspired by «King Lear,» much like «The Lion King» was inspired by «Hamlet.» The plan was abandoned though, according to producer Chuck Williams, who said: «It is not our intention to make the entire Shakespeare repertory with animals! After the success of ‘The Lion King,’ Michael Eisner (the head of the company) wanted us to do the king of the jungle next and the king of the forest, which we had to combine with ‘King Lear.’ But, it was totally wrong. Can you imagine a blind bear with three daughters wandering around the forest? Awful. So, we abandoned the project six years ago and started again from scratch.» According to Williams, the studio opted to make a film showcasing its long history. «We tried to make something timeless. We didn’t want a movie just about animal rights – the bears are a metaphor for humans. Kenai hates humans because he is disappointed by them and he hates bears because he holds them responsible for his brother’s death. We wanted to show Kenai looking at things from a different perspective, showing some understanding for the other side of the argument.» On the Florida studio’s closing and the changes this will provoke, Williams said: «It is sad the studio is closing down, but we will have more creative control and better programming. You will notice that in the past few years, Disney has tried its hand at quite a few animated films. ‘Atlantis: The Lost Empire’ or ‘Treasure Planet,’ for example, were efforts at making action films. With ‘Brother Bear,’ however, it was trying to make a modern-day musical. The characters don’t suddenly break out in song and you will also notice that we don’t have the usual one-dimensional ‘baddie.’» However, there is little Williams can say about the future of animation. «The main thing is always the story and not the medium. Once upon a time, Mickey Mouse was black and white and none of his designers ever imagined he could be in color. Now he’s three-dimensional. Who can know what will happen in the future?» Time-consuming art Making a cartoon, as simple as it appears to the viewer, is a very time-consuming process that requires a lot of research and hard work. Directors Aaron Blaise and Robert Walker spent a long time studying the animals and legends depicted in «Brother Bear» so they could create a satisfactory result. «At first, all we knew was that we had to make a picture about bears in North America. With this as our starting point, we had to do a lot of research to find our story. We were especially interested in the Native Americans because of their relationship with animals, but then discovered that many cultures have similar legends, from Scandinavia and Russia to the Aborigines. We went to Alaska, Montana and Wyoming, to national parks where we observed bear behavior in their natural habitats and brought bears and wolves to the studio, where we could study their behavioral patterns.» The head designer of the character of Koda, Alex Kupershmidt, followed similar tactics. «I watched a lot of documentaries to understand the way they move, as well as observing two bear cubs that were brought to the studio, so I could study their anatomy. When you are drawing animals, you have to find what is weird and unusual in each one. Bears walk on their whole heel, like humans. They are very big and you have to understand where all the power of their movement comes from. For example, because they are so big, bears first thrust their heads forward and then stand up. The animal though, like the bear in this case, is really just the wrapping around the character,» he explains. Kupershmidt has worked on more «traditional» films, such as «Aladdin,» «Beauty and the Beast,» «The Lion King» and «Mulan,» among others, and sees a future in the more traditional form of narrative even in the age of computer animation. «The reason that Pixar, for example, makes blockbusters is because it makes traditional pictures. They are traditional, at least as far as the content, storyline and characters are concerned. The only thing that’s different is the technique. If someone were to make a successful picture with dolls, I suppose the media would wonder whether it was the end of computer animation. For me, non-traditional means an experimental form of narration. Technical aspects aside, all the films we have referred to are traditional.»