Walt Disney Animation Almost Shut Down

Walt Disney Animation is still enjoying a resurgence in popularity that began after Ed Catmull and John Lasseter were respectively named president and chief creative officer of the company. After starting off in a promising new direction with the movie Tangled, Disney Animation has churned out hits like Frozen, Wreck-It Ralph, Big Hero 6, Zootopia, and Moana. And it’s all thanks to one of Disney’s riskiest endeavors of the 2000s.

The hiring of John Lassester and Ed Catmull came as part of Disney’s deal to acquire Pixar Animation in 2006, which made Steve Jobs the largest shareholder in the company and a member of Disney’s board. However, if Jobs had gotten his way, the resurgence of Walt Disney Animation might have never happened, because he proposed the idea of shutting it down entirely.

During the time of the Pixar Animation acquisition in 2006, Walt Disney Animation was floundering. Bob Iger says in his new book, “I didn’t yet have a complete sense of just how broken Disney Animation was.” That’s largely thanks to a series of “expensive failures” like the 2D animated Hercules and the computer animated Chicken Little. And while movies like Mulan and Lilo & Stitch were considered to be better, their success with critics and at the box office was nothing compared to Disney’s success in their animated renaissance of the 1990s.

The acquisition of Pixar Animation was not only great for Disney because it brought Hollywood’s most successful and acclaimed animation studio into The House of Mouse for good, but because it gave John Lasseter and Ed Catmull control over feature animation at Disney as well as Pixar. However, there was a time when Walt Disney Animation almost shut down.

Speaking with USA Today back in the fall of 2012, then-chief creative officer John Lasseter admitted that there was some discussion about shutting down Disney Animation. But he added:

“We weren’t going to let that happen on our watch. We were determined to save the legacy of Walt Disney’s amazing studio and bring it back up to the creative level it had to be. Saving this heritage was squarely on our shoulders.”

That discussion appears to have come mostly from Steve Jobs. During a segment in Bob Iger’s book, The Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons Learned from 15 Years as CEO of the Walt Disney Company, Iger recalled that after Disney’s acquisition of Pixar, Steve Jobs become an influential part of the company. After all, he was the single largest shareholder in the company after the deal went through, and he was now on Disney’s board. But Iger had a more friendly relationship beyond that with Jobs. Iger recalled:

“Whenever I wanted to do something big, I talked it over with him, to get his advice before taking it to the full board. Steve’s voice mattered in our boardroom; they had such respect for him.”

Therefore, it should come as no surprise that after Pixar came into the Disney fold, Jobs floated the idea of shutting down Disney Animation. As an aside in the segment talking about the deliberation of how buying Pixar Animation would be good or bad for The House of Mouse, Iger put in this little parenthetical aside:

“(A few years later, Steve would propose shutting down Disney Animation completely and just making animated films at Pixar. Even John Lasseter and Ed Catmull hated the idea, and I rejected it.)”

Could you imagine what the landscape of animation would be like today if Pixar Animation was Disney’s only animated feature film production company? We’d have missed out on all those aforementioned hits that started hitting in 2009. Disney also may not be quite as successful today if they had merely thrown in the towel and let Pixar take over animation entirely. Sure, Pixar would have kept making hit films, but look at the massive wave in pop culture that movies like Moana and Frozen have made? So it’s good that John Lasseter and Ed Catmull weren’t willing to let Disney Animation die simply because Pixar was the new hotness. Though admittedly, that success has been tainted somewhat by Lasseter’s transgressions since then.

On a more creative level, people need to remember that Pixar Animation isn’t the only way to make successful animated movies that are loved by children and adults alike. Dreamworks Animation has had a fair amount of success, and their movies don’t feel anything like Pixar. And while Illumination Entertainment isn’t exactly making movies that I personally connect with and enjoy, they’ve found a huge audience of kids and parents to entertain with pratfalls and farts. Plus, let’s not forget Studio Ghibli for churning out pure animated beauty all the time.

Pixar may be the most successful animation studio in Hollywood, but that doesn’t mean all animation has to adhere to their style. And if Disney had shut down their long-running animation division, it would have truly been the end of an era for the medium. We’re just glad that President Clark Spencer and Chief Creative Officer Jennifer Lee have taken over the ship and kept it going in the right direction. Hopefully they can keep this momentum up for years to come.

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