Disney shut down the last of its traditional animation studios in 2004, and it was a big deal. Disney ceasing the production of hand-drawn cartoons was like Keebler ceasing the production of cookies. But computer animation was the wave of the future, the Disney bosses figured, and the old-fashioned hand-drawn stuff wasn't bringing in audiences anymore. Home on the Range, Disney's 44th hand-drawn feature, was to be its last.
I thought at the time that this was an ill-reasoned decision. People weren't flocking to Shrek and Monsters Inc. instead of Treasure Planet and Atlantis: The Lost Empire because the former were computer-animated while the latter were hand-drawn. Those movies were more popular because people thought they were better movies. Or at least that's how it seemed to me. Computer animation definitely has a different look to it, but do kids really care? Do kids think a movie is liable to be "better" because of it? Or is it that the digital movies had funnier stories, more interesting characters, and better TV commercials, and the fact that they were digital was beside the point?
John Lasseter, the head of Pixar, seemed to think the way a movie was animated had nothing to do with it. Sure, his own company uses computers, but that doesn't make them better films. He and his colleagues were raised on Disney animation and were trained in the old style before they learned the new way. When Disney officially bought Pixar and put Lasseter in charge of all of its animation projects, one of Lasseter's first acts of business was to bring back hand-drawn animation. The fruit of that decision, The Princess and the Frog, went into wide release Dec. 11 and is doing solid, if not spectacular, business.