06/17/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

It's Hard Out Here For a Princess

Few things can move me to read the New York Times business section. But a picture of a robot cradling Steve Jobs' head in its rust-stained claw is one of those things.

The robot in question is Wall-E, who will star this summer in the newest film from Pixar, the animation studio Jobs used to do the chief executive thing for and whose purchase by Disney two years ago turned Black Turtleneck into the largest shareholder in Fantasyland. Hence the June 1 business story, which focused on Pixar boss-turned-Disney animation chief John Lasseter's efforts to get everyone at the two companies to hold hands and sing "It's a Small World." In that story -- buried in the fourth graph of the fifth column after the jump -- was this:

"Disney's plans for hand-drawn animation are unclear, with only one project currently announced: The Princess and the Frog, a musical set in New Orleans that is scheduled to have its premiere in December 2009."

A musical set in New Orleans. Right. Because New Orleans needs an animated princess movie a lot more than it needs, say, affordable home insurance.

Anyway, three days after reading that, I saw a screening of Kung Fu Panda, a surprisingly good film from DreamWorks Animation, which is to Pixar what Hilary Clinton was to The Chosen One. Though most of the movie is computer-rendered, it opens with a gorgeous hand-drawn sequence that made me think, "Hey, I haven't seen traditional animation on a big screen since Persepolis -- and that was made by foreigners."

Also made by foreigners were four of the seven hand-drawn cartoons that have been nominated for Oscars since the Academy began handing out best animated-feature awards in 2002. In that same time, 14 computer-animated movies were nominated.

Of course, it was the proliferation of new computer-animation studios spawned by Pixar's Toy Story success in the '90s that made said Oscar possible. According to Academy rules, a feature-animation award is only given in years in which a special committee identifies "eight or more eligible animated feature films." (Worth noting but not relevant: All three Star Wars prequels would qualify as eligible animated features under the Academy's definition.) When the first statuette was doled out, the nominees were all computer-made.

Blame Lasseter for making movies worth imitating, but don't blame him for the industry's abandonment of traditional techniques. "I believe strongly that 2-D animation became the scapegoat for bad storytelling," Lasseter said in 2006. Hand-drawn animation isn't more expensive to produce than computer animation -- and it likely won't be until the rise of the machines, when artistically inclined killer robots begin making cartoons with their electronic brains. Until then, the only things keeping studios from making more hand-drawn features are the studios.

The argument against hand-drawn animation is based not on financial realities, but on the poor performance of a few features made back when Disney was gnawing off its own animation arm and DreamWorks was, well, being DreamWorks (which is to say when DreamWorks was gnawing off its own neck). Since then, the few films made with American pens and ink haven't exactly suffered. The Simpsons Movie earned $183 million at the domestic box office, making it the 17th highest-grossing animated movie in U.S. history. Kid-friendly Curious George earned a respectable $58 million in 2006, a hair less than CGI Oscar nominee Surf's Up would earn a year later.

Meanwhile, foreign audiences continue to throw down their favorable currencies to see old-school cartoons. Japanese import Howl's Moving Castle earned $230 million internationally -- more than Bee Movie, Happy Feet, Ice Age or Cars, the last of which Pixar is planning a sequel to. Americans and foreigners, some may argue, sometimes like the same stuff. This is called the KFC school of economics.

A lot is riding on The Princess and the Frog. Disney has no other hand-drawn films in the works, meaning it's an obvious test case. If it fails, Lasseter will no doubt back away from future such releases, no matter how much he professes his love for old-timey cartoon making. And as Disney goes, so will the industry. Though it sounds like a boilerplate Mouse House fairy tale, Princess represents a long-awaited breakthrough -- the first Disney toon with a black lead. If the film does well, it won't just mean that Angelina Jolie's kids will finally be able to watch cartoons. It will mean more hand-drawn films, more jobs for the people who make them and better, more diverse storytelling practices at the world's most historic and celebrated animation studio. That's a lot of pressure for a princess.