Throughout the landscape of family cinema, no other studio has done more for the genre than Disney Studios. The entire concept behind the original Disney machine was to focus on family entertainment. Through amusement parks, TV shows, TV networks, films, merchandise and more – the Disney name has become synonymous with family. This international company has also found ways to grow and expand beyond the original Disney base to include Marvel Entertainment (purchased in 2009), and the Star Wars empire (2012). In 2019, Disney (or Disney-owned companies) had released seven of the top 10 moneymakers for the year at the box-office (more than any other studio in that field).
Although Disney is more than just family filmmaking today, the desire to appeal to those audiences still remains strong. The box-office take on those films exceeds billions of dollars worldwide annually. So, yes, by those numbers, it is obvious, that there is still an audience for family entertainment.
So when we hear the terms family films or children’s films; we may ask “don’t they mean the same things?” Not really, when you get to the core of the films’ purpose. While they do share crossover audiences (and styles at time), there are also differences from a filmmaker’s perspective as well.
- Children’s films – Pure children’s films are rated G by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPA) and targeted at children 3-10 years old. These films cross genres (comedy, action, adventure, fantasy, etc.) and styles (live action or animation) but attempt to focus on concepts and/or ideas that appeal mostly to that younger audiences. Things to look for in these films: child actors, animals, children-book adaptations, or themes of – good defeating evil, acceptance, self-esteem, friendship, family togetherness, teamwork, and courage. Children’s films will also feature no (or very, very little) foul language. You will also find little or no violence, nor images that could scare children.
- Family Films – These G or PG rated films cover some of the same elements as children’s films but they tend to focus on appealing to adults as well (either by storyline, theme, key cast members, or genre). Storylines or themes in these films may have topics that are actually a little too advanced for young children to comprehend, although other items (style, animals, humor, adaptations, etc.) provide balance for both children and adults. These films may have a few curse words and limited scenes of violence or images that would be frightening to younger viewers.
- Animation – Creating series upon series of hand drawn images to manipulate the illusion of “moving pictures” for film is a technique that has been around since 1900. But the concept of animated sequences representing “human movement” is actually over 5,200 years old; a pottery bowl originated in that time period was discovered in Iran, and featured visual sequences of a leaping goat. Ancient Egyptian murals, the works of Leonardo da Vinci, and even the pre-cinema devices (The Magic Lantern, Thaumatrope, Phenakistoscope, Zoetrope, Flip book, Praxinoscope, and others) all founds ways to capture the idea of movement through a series of drawings (or images) simulating motion.
The king of animation throughout film history has been Walt Disney Studios. Walt and Roy Disney were pioneers in animation techniques in the 1920s, and found unique ways to combine live action and animation (even in the early years of cinema). They created Disney Brothers studios and took animation to a new level by adding synchronized sound to movie cartoons. With the premiere of Steamboat Willie in 1928 (starring Mortimer Mouse) film animation history was made as moving images, music and voice came together for the first time. Mortimer had a name change to Mickey Mouse (thanks to the nudging of Walt’s wife), and today, that character is one of the most recognizable and iconic in all of animation. In 1937, Disney produced the first full-length animated feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (a musical), and nearly every year since – Disney has released feature-length animation.
Changes in animation – With the introduction of computers within the film industry, animation explored the possibilities of what that would mean for the business. Pixar studios was originally part of a graphics design team in LucasFilm’s computer division (1979) before Steve Jobs of Apple Computer purchased the company in 1986 (with $50 million of his own money). When that happened, it transformed everything the world had ever conceived in relation to animation and feature films. Toy Story, a collaboration between Walt Disney Productions and Pixar Animation Studios, became the first full-length feature film animated entirely on computers when it was released in 1995. With the success of that film, the industry reimagined the future of film animation, and $4 billion dollars in revenue later, Jobs chose to make a deal with the original animation king studio, Disney. In 2006 Disney acquired Pixar from Jobs and company for $7.4 billion, and in the process Jobs became one of the largest shareholders of the Disney Company. And now, anyone with the proper software, a decent computer, and a hunger for this creative art, can develop their own animation.
The other major studio player in the animated film feature industry is Dreamworks. Founded in 1994 by three entertainment legends, this studio sought to take on the Disney machine (and the up and coming Pixar). Film director and producer Steven Spielberg, music executive David Geffen, and former Disney executive Jeffery Katzenberg established DreamWorks and recruited some of Disney’s top animation staff and former animators from Amblin entertainment to lead the efforts of this upstart digital animation company. In 1998 two animated films were released under the DreamWorks banner, Antz and The Prince of Egypt. Between October 1998 and June 2017, the company released 35 feature length animated films.
In 2001, DreamWorks made history by picking up the first ever Oscar for Best Animated Feature Film with the release of the groundbreaking Shrek.
DreamWorks has worked out distribution deals with multiple studies through the years including – Paramount, Universal, 20th Century Fox, HBO, and YouTube. In the summer of 2016, NBCUniversal acquired DreamWorks Animation for $3.4 billion.
Dreamworks has also produced television shows, video games, print materials, music, and other revenue producing merchandise .
Animation … Not Just for Kids
Classic animation audience – Aimed at Children and families.
The adult animation audience – More mature themes and subject matter and focused strictly for adults. “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” (1988) was targeted at families, but the themes were more appropriate for adult audiences. In 1992, Paramount tried to reach adult audiences with animation in “Cool World.” (Modern TV examples: BoJack Horseman, Our Cartoon President, The Simpsons, South Park, King of the Hill, The Family Guy, Robot Chicken, American Dad, Bob’s Burgers, Cleveland Show).
Here, Jay Baruchel & Dean deBlois (How to Train Your Dragon franchise) chat about this animated trilogy that speaks to kids and adults like:
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