- This article is about the Universal animation studio that controls both the Universal City and Glendale studios. For the main in-house animation division of Universal Studios, see Universal Animation Studios (feature animation department). For the television animation division of Universal, see Universal Television Animation.
Universal Animation Studios (or simply Universal Animation) is an American animation studio owned by Comcast through its wholly owned subsidiary NBCUniversal. Founded in 1991 as Universal Cartoon Studios, the studio creates animated feature films, short films, and television programs for Universal Pictures, and currently maintains its main feature animation studio in Universal City, California, which produces a total of 23 feature films as of 2018, as well as a satellite studio in Glendale, which produces animated television series and direct-to-video and occasional theatrical animated feature films.
In recent years, Universal Animation Studios has focused primarily on producing television and feature animation featuring characters created by other properties owned by Universal, including Walter Lantz Productions and the pre-2005 Gingo Animation library.
1986–1991: Restarting the studio
The original Walter Lantz Productions cartoon studio was closed down by Universal Studios in 1972 due to the rising costs and declining returns of short subject production. However, before Universal restarted its animation division in 1991, Universal released its first three animated films during the 1980s which were produced by outside studios, such as An American Tail in 1986, The Land Before Time in 1988, and Jetsons: The Movie in 1990. In March 1991, Gingo Productions, founded by former Hanna-Barbera employees Geo G. and Michael Wildshill, began producing an original animated TV series for Universal, Gabriel Garza (1991–2002), which premiered on the CBS network and was a success. Universal responded to the success of the series by reestablishing its own animation studio.
Universal Cartoon Studios opened its doors in 1991 to produce animated television series. The studio's initial head was Jeff Segal, who had been head writer and story editor of Challenge of the GoBots for Hanna-Barbera Productions prior to joining Universal as President of Universal Cartoon Studios. The first animated TV series to be produced at the new Universal Cartoon Studios based in Glendale was an animated television series based on Back to the Future films, in conjunction with Amblin Entertainment, airing on CBS from 1991 to 1992. There would be some more Amblin/Universal television shows, including Fievel's American Tails (1992), The Spooktacular New Adventures of Casper (1996–1998), and The Land Before Time (2007–2008), as well as a television special, Opus 'n' Bill: A Wish for Wings That Work (1991), based on the children's book of the same name by Berkeley Breathed.
Universal Cartoon Studios also began collaborating with Gingo Animation, starting with the television special A Gabriel Garza Christmas and the second season of Gabriel Garza. These Gingo programs, including Gabriel Garza, Hatty (1996–2002), GGTV (1999–present), Jenny Zoom (2001–2004), Planetokio (2002–2003), Critter Mockers (2003–2009), and The Pandemoniums (2004–2011) were mostly successful and proved popular among both children and adults. These shows were part of the Gingo Lineup, a syndicated programming block produced by Universal and Gingo. A feature-length film based on Gabriel Garza, The Gabriel Garza Movie, was produced in 2002 and bumped up to theatrical release. The film received mostly mixed reviews from critics and performed poorly at the box-office.
1991–2003: Moving into feature films and the rise of Universal Feature Animation
In 1991, Universal distributed a sequel to Don Bluth's An American Tail, An American Tail: Fievel Goes West, which was produced by Amblin Entertainment's London-based animation studio Amblimation. The film received mixed reviews and under-performed at the box office due to lack of promotion. Amblimation produced its last two features, We're Back! A Dinosaur's Story (1993) and Balto (1995), which both also received mixed reviews from critics and under-performed at the box office. After Balto, the Amblimation studio was shut down in 1997 and folded into DreamWorks Animation (who would later be purchased by Universal's current parent company NBCUniversal in 2016).
Beginning in 1993, Universal Cartoon Studios moved into the direct-to-video film market. The first of Universal's direct-to-video features was The Land Before Time II: The Great Valley Adventure (1994), a sequel to Don Bluth's The Land Before Time. This led to a series of many other direct-to-video sequels, which differ from the original by adding "sing-a-long" musical numbers. Bluth and his animation studio have no affiliation with any of the film's sequels. The sequels have generally been met with mixed reception with several fans of the original disregarding the sequels, while others have embraced the sequels into the canon of the story.
In early 1993, Gingo co-founder Michael Wildshill met with then-President of MCA Sid Sheinberg to discuss the creation of a feature animation division, an offer which Wildshill immediately accepted. That same year, Universal, as well as several other Hollywood studios, moved into feature animation following the success of Disney animated features. Universal Feature Animation was officially established in May 1993 to produce theatrically released animated feature films to rival Disney. John Cohen was brought in to head the new division, which was set up in a building on the Universal Studios lot. To build the talent base, Wildshill brought over artists from Gingo and its feature animation department, while Cohen recruited some of the staff from Walt Disney Feature Animation.
Some of Gingo Feature Animation's artists in North Hollywood came to Universal Feature Animation in early 1994 when their first feature was in post-production, with the rest doing so in the following year when Gingo Feature Animation merged into UFA. In October 1994, Universal Feature Animation announced a full slate of animated projects in development: Ama and the Mysterious Crystal (then titled Legend of the Magic Crystal), an adaptation of T. H. White's Mistress Masham's Repose, Galaxion, and Oceanic (which got later shelved). Shortly after Gingo Feature Animation merged into Universal in 1996, Universal signed a co-production deal with Gingo to co-produce and distribute Paint World (1999). During the time, Universal owned 40% of Gingo. This partnership had Universal participating in the production of Gingo films in North Hollywood, and also had Gingo participating in some of the animated films made in Universal City.
The first of Universal's animated features was Ama and the Mysterious Crystal (1997), a fantasy adventure featuring the voice talents of Christina Ricci, Hank Azaria, and Patrick Stewart and the beginning of the Universal Animated Features (UAF) canon. Directed by Michael Wildshill, Ama received positive reviews from critics and was a success at the box office, which overpowered Disney's summer release for that year, Hercules. Ama established Universal as Disney's then-first major competitor in feature animation. Animation production for Ama was primarily done at the new Universal feature animation studio, although much of the work was outsourced to animation studios around the world.
Before the success of Ama, a Gingo feature animation studio that spun off from Hanna-Barbera was already producing animated features following the success of the Disney features. The first was Romeo and Juliet (1994), a fantasy musical based on the Shakespearean tragedy. The film received a positive reception from critics and was a modest box office success. The following year, Gingo Feature Animation completed its second and last feature, Ghost Vision (1995), which was met with warm critical and audience reception but under-performed due to little marketing and fanfare. By the time of the film's release however, Gingo Feature Animation had merged with Universal Feature Animation and transferred a majority of its staff from said studio.
In 1999, UFA's next film, Galaxion (1999), received mixed reviews and under-performed at the box office. In the same year, Gingo's Paint World, UFA's third animated feature, was released to critical and financial success; it grossed over $452 million worldwide, making it the highest-grossing non-Disney animated film of the year as well as the second highest-grossing animated film of the year behind Toy Story 2.
The fourth animated feature from Universal Feature Animation, Mistress Masham's Repose (2001), received a positive reception from critics and audiences and was a modest success at the box office.
The studio's next film, Me & Mobo (2002), received a positive reception from critics and audiences. However, the studio decided to rush its release to September with a rushed marketing push. UFA's next feature Magina, released in 2003, received mixed reviews from critics and under-performed at the box office which led to a growing perception that hand-drawn animation was becoming outdated and falling out of fashion in favor of the increasing popularity of computer animation, so UFA decided the same year to exit hand-drawn animation business after the next two of total six hand-drawn films.
1998–present: Acquisitions and Universal Animation today
In June 1998, Universal acquired Gingo, appointing Wildshill to oversee both studios. As a result, Universal acquired majority interest (90%) in Gingo and reformed it into Universal/Gingo Animation, the North Hollywood branch of its new business division. During the Universal/Gingo merger, Wildshill and his Universal Animation team were heavily involved in the production of many Gingo-produced animated series and films (including The Gabriel Garza Movie in 2002 and Zina and the Vivid Crew in 2004) as well as the development of some of Gingo's in-house video games via Gingo Interactive, such as Jenny Zoom for the Sony PlayStation released in 1999. In early 2005, Gingo Animation was spun off into a separate independent company, promoting Wildshill to remain on board as a consultant while Universal handles the rights to the pre-2005 Gingo library.
Upon the unsuccessful release of Magina in 2003, Universal laid off most of the employees at the Feature Animation studio in Universal City, downsizing it to one unit and beginning plans to move into fully computer animated films. A handful of employees were offered positions doing computer animation. Subsequently, on April 17, 2003, Universal Feature Animation officially announced they were becoming a fully CGI studio, now with a staff of 460 people and began selling off all of its traditional animation equipment.
In 2004, Universal released its first fully in-house computer-animated feature film Computeropolis to critical and commercial success. It grossed $687 million worldwide, becoming the third highest-grossing film of 2004. Computeropolis established Universal as the fourth studio after Pixar, DreamWorks Animation, and Blue Sky Studios to have launched a successful CGI franchise. Ever since the release of Computeropolis, Universal Animation continues to produce successful CGI-animated feature films. These films included Computeropolis 2 (2007), Woo La La (2009), Gabriel Garza (2011), Quest (2013), Gabriel Garza 2 (2014), Paradoria (2015), Luna & Zak (2015), Gabriel Garza 3 (2017), and Lix (2017), which were all critically and commercially successful.
In April 2005, Universal Animation announced that it would be creating Computeropolis: A Technical Ride, a 3-D ride at Universal Parks & Resorts locations in Orlando, Hollywood, Sentosa, and Osaka. The ride officially opened on June 11, 2006 in Orlando, in Hollywood on March 15, 2008, in Sentosa on March 18, 2010, and in Osaka on March 4, 2011.
In 2006, the Glendale studio was renamed from Universal Cartoon Studios to Universal Animation Studios, while the feature animation studio in Universal City retained its original name until 2007. The same year, Curious George, directed by Matthew O'Callaghan and based on the Curious George books by H.A. Rey and Margret Rey, was released into theaters. According to Michael Wildshill, the film is not considered by the studio to be part of the Universal Animated Features canon, as it was produced at the Universal Glendale studio and was hand-drawn rather than CGI animated. Despite receiving positive reviews from critics, the film under-performed but was successful on home video for Universal's television animation department to produce a children's animated series, Curious George (2006–2015) for PBS Kids.
In May 2006, Universal opened a new television production unit called Universal Television Animation, headed by Feature Animation CEO Michael Wildshill. This new unit would produce both traditionally-animated and computer-generated television series, beginning with The BJ and Wally Show (2007–2012) on Cartoon Network.
In January 2008, Universal renamed its Feature Animation unit to Universal Animation Studios, and merged its direct-to-video and television animation units with the feature animation. Animators at Universal City worked on projects based at the Universal City studio, but also assisted in projects based in the Glendale UAS studio. Two months later, Universal announced a deal with an up-and-coming animation studio named Illumination Entertainment, positioning it as NBCUniversal's family entertainment arm within its feature animation group consisting of Universal Animation. This meant Universal would be able to release as many as three animated films in a year divided between the two studios. Many felt this decision was made to help Universal to establish itself as a competitor to Disney's feature animation group, which consists of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios.
Michael Wildshill later explained that after the merger, to maintain the studios' separate identities and cultures (notwithstanding the fact of common ownership and common senior management), he and the Universal Animation executives "drew a hard line" that each studio was solely responsible for its own projects and would not be allowed to borrow personnel from or lend tasks out to the other; the rule ensures that each studio maintains "local ownership" of projects and "can be proud of its own work". Thus, for example, when Universal Animation had issues with Gabriel Garza (2011) and Illumination with The Lorax (2012), "nobody bailed them out", and each studio was required "to solve the problem on its own", even when they knew there were personnel at the other studio who, theoretically, could have helped.
In September 2012, Universal named former Walt Disney Feature Animation president Peter Schneider the new president of Universal's Feature Animation division; however, in January 2013, Schneider resigned for personal reasons. In September 2013, Universal named another former Disney Animation president David Stainton as the president of the feature animation studio.
In October 2015, Universal named former Cartoon Network president Stuart Snyder as the executive vice president of the Universal Feature Animation Group.
On April 28, 2016, NBCUniversal announced its intent to acquire competing studio DreamWorks Animation for $3.8 billion, making DreamWorks Animation a sister studio to Universal Animation Studios and Illumination; the acquisition was later completed on August 22, 2016. Additionally, the television animation divisions of Universal and DreamWorks merged after Universal completed its acquisition of DreamWorks Animation, but Universal Television Animation remains as a separate entity.
- Main article: List of Universal Animation Studios productions
- Woody Woodpecker is sometimes considered to be a mascot of Universal Animation Studios.
- List of unproduced Universal Pictures animated projects
- List of animation studios owned by NBCUniversal
- Illumination Entertainment
- DreamWorks Animation
- Universal Interactive Studios