Reading Newsweek's hymn to the creative glories of Pixar, the thing that struck me wasn't the effusive praise of early Walt features ... or Pixar's present product ... but this quote from the New Republic, circa 1929:
"When it comes to 'pure cinema,' 'visual flow,' 'graphic representation,' 'the freedom of the cinematic medium,' and all the other things foreign cinema enthusiasts talk about, nothing has more than a roll of celluloid's chance in Hell beside Felix the Cat and the other animated cartoons."
Embedded in TNR's observations about animation in the days of silent, back-and-white shorts are the reasons animation has survived and thrived as a story-telling genre: Animation offers a filmmaker total control in ways that (until recently) live-action films could not.
If you wanted flying elephants or pirate ships or talking toys or large blue genies, animation could create those things and make audiences believe they existed. Live-action filmmakers, on the other hand, were shackled with actors in actual places in front of real cameras. For animation artists, the boundaries of time and space were non-existent, the horizons limitless. And audiences, when the story-telling underpinning cartoons' wider worlds was as compelling as the unconstrained visuals, bought into it in a big way.
Snow White, after all, made more money than any feature film* before it. Seventy years further on, Pixar, DreamWorks Animation, and Blue Sky Studios have all created animated product that have earned billions, which is why there are more cartoon features being made today than ever before in animation's hundred-plus year history. Everyone wants to elbow onto the gravy train.
It's also why so many live-action features today resemble their animated cousins. Superman might have been born in the pages of a comic book and nurtured in Fleischer cartoon shorts, but today the Man of Steel and all his super-hero cousins, from Wolverine to Ironman to Spidey, defy the laws of physics in live-action universes morphed into imitation cartoons courtesy of computer generated images.
Because, after a century of film-making, the gravitational pull of animation grows ever stronger. And every film-maker aspires to the 'pure cinema,' 'visual flow,' and 'graphic representation,' that Felix the Cat enjoyed in 1929, and cartoon features own today.
I don't think this cinematic reality will be changing anytime soon.
* "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" earned eight million dollars in 1938, more than any tracked feature film to that time. "Birth of a Nation" probably earned more, but there are no records that document its total gross.