Is the end finally nigh? I keep wondering when the CGI feature film bubble will burst, but they keep on coming. The number of projects in production right now is amazing, but since nobody ever lost money making a CG feature (well, except for that film), there seems little reason to stop. Sooner or later, of course, the gravy train has to hit a bump in the track. The demand for this kind of movie is not infinite. Besides, they're going to get made faster and will be poorer in quality, and that will rub an audience up the wrong way.
The question, of course, is: "Are we there yet?" I don't know, but on the grounds that someone who's always wrong is just as useful as someone who's always right, we might learn something from Disney Feature Animation. In the late '80s and early '90s, Disney could do no wrong in animation. Culminating with Aladdin and The Lion King, it was all gold all the time. And while Disney was creating these 2D classics, it was building up expertise in 3D. Little bits appeared in its 2D films, and eventually it found itself in a position to make a 3D feature - Dinosaur, (3D World, issue one) an interesting film that didn't do spectacularly well.
Around that point, Disney decided that 3D CGI was a fad, and covered its bets in that area in the famous deal with Pixar. Disney proceeded to more or less hand control of the feature animation business to Pixar. It taught Pixar how to make an animated feature (instead of a clever short film), allowed Pixar to brand itself above the title, and declared that, within Disney proper, there would be no CG films made.
The debt that Pixar owes Disney is extreme. I remember Ralph Guggenheim, producer of Toy Story, speaking at a CG conference in London around the time the film was released. I'm paraphrasing badly, but he basically said that Disney taught Pixar how to develop and tell a story and, while it was painful to go through, it was an important experience.
Pixar obviously paid attention to Disney; it has relentlessly applied Disney's own storytelling skills to its films, and this single-mindedness has paid off - not just in blockbuster films, but in a reputation for creative integrity. The Los Angeles Times interviewed Brad Bird, Director of The Incredibles, just before the film's release. He said that when some of his friends (who worked in traditional animation) learned he was going to Pixar to make a film, they scoffed at him for 'getting trendy'. He told them: "I'm not going to Pixar because it does CGI; I'm going there because the company protects its stories."
Now it's 2005, and after spending over a decade building up CG expertise, Disney has almost no in-house capability (to be fair, it's ramping up what it does have again, but there are more features being made by outside companies than Disney is making itself). So, of course, the men in suits have rediscovered CG features, and now it seems that's all Disney will make. This is classic management-by-shiny-object, and it's exactly the sort of thing which, with Disney's recent record, could be the bellwether for a 'market correction' in the audience for CG films. Could be. But let's hope not.