Disney has been a staple in animated films for eighty years since its release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937 and continues to enlighten children and adults with their clever storytelling, memorable characters and of course, timeless tales through the art of animation. Walt Disney, the man himself behind the famous company name once reminded us “that it was all started by a mouse”, which made its debut in 1928 in the short film Steamboat Willie. From the early days of Mickey Mouse in short films to full-length animated features like Snow White, Fantasia (1940), Bambi (1942), Cinderella (1950) and Lady and the Tramp (1955), Walt Disney and his creative team continuously pushed the boundaries of the art form, capturing realism and life for their characters and the world they inhabit by using techniques such as the multi-plane camera, cel animation and (when it would be effective), rotoscoping. Until his death in 1966, Walt Disney had spent his career, adding to his creative and innovative repertoire. With live action films, theme parks and animatronics also a part of his company’s innovative collection, no one can doubt if Walt Disney was alive today he would be welcoming of 3D (CGI) animation as well and thus, be ready and willing to explore is creative potential. In fact upon the debut of Pixar’s first full-length CGI animated feature, Toy Story in 1995, which the Disney company distributed, Walt’s nephew, Roy E. Disney said so himself that his uncle would loved the film.
Given the Walt Disney Animation Studios’ success in the 1990’s during the Renaissance era to its decline in the early 2000’s and downsizing throughout the entire decade to its resurgence in the 2010’s, one might be wondering, will Disney ever create a new film using traditional animation? Perhaps the best way to answer that is to evaluate what happened in the 2000’s and what the company is experimenting with nowadays.
Surely it would seem that with the success of Pixar, today's popular releases like Frozen (2013) and Big Hero 6 (2014) and the decline of Disney in the 2000’s, it does seem that hand drawn animation would be a thing of the past. As Pixar released hit after hit with Toy Story 2 (1999), Monsters, Inc. (2001), Finding Nemo (2003) and The Incredibles (2004), Disney would have a few successes like Lilo and Stitch (2002), but suffered major failures with Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001), Treasure Planet (2002) and Home on the Range (2004). The following year, Disney released its first CGI animated feature, Chicken Little, which was a financial success, but was completely out of favor with critics for its notorious lackluster story and dislikable characters. Throughout the remainder of the decade, Disney released three more animated features, two of which were CGI, Meet the Robinsons (2007) and Bolt (2008) and a 2D feature, The Princess and the Frog (2009). Meet the Robinsons was not as successful as Bolt and while The Princess and the Frog was a box office success, it failed to exceed expectations for two reasons. One of which was as current president of Disney and Pixar, Ed Catmull indicated in his and the late Amy Wallace’s book, Creativity Inc, Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration that the “marketing folks warned us: Having the word princess in the title would lead moviegoers to think that the film was for girls only” (Catmull, Wallace p. 268) and that there was also the issue that it was released five days prior to James Cameron’s Avatar. Another set back, which was highlighted by Pixar and Disney’s current chief creative officer, John Lasseter in an article by Variety, he stated that “[he] was determined to bring back [hand-drawn animation] because [he] felt it was such a heritage of the Disney studio” and that after delving into details via research, the results revealed that the film “was viewed as old-fashioned by the audience”.
In an article by Mitchell Stein on The Mickey Mindset Blog, entitled Will Disney Ever Return to Making Hand-Drawn Animated Films?, there is mention of how The Princess and the Frog and the 2011 Winnie the Pooh both failed to compete with other film releases and financially fell short of expectations. Stein goes on to further explain that after Moana, although Disney has no 2D animated films announced in the years to come, he reminds readers that “traditional 2D animation still continues to live on in different forms at the Walt Disney Animation Studios in unexpected forms. In recent years, Disney has found ways to blend unique styles of animation between CG and hand drawn 2D to create stunning results”. He discusses the Academy Award winning 2012 short, Paperman, which made its debut alongside Disney’s 52nd feature animated film, Wreck-It Ralph and pinpoints that Disney “blended the use of traditional animated over CG-rendered work. The result is both stunning and immersive, showcasing Disney’s ability to push innovation and creativity to unexplored frontiers”. (To learn more about the making of Paperman, the film’s director, John Kahrs discusses his process in an article by fxguide, which you can find here).
In addition to Paperman, other short films such as Feast (2014) and Inner Workings (2016) were also created with this technique. Even so, Moana, which is mostly CGI animated, there are also a few aspects that are animated in 2D, such as the opening and the tattoo character, Mini Maui. According to an article entitled Disney’s Oscar-Winning Software Brought ‘Moana’ to Life, But Could a Full Length Movie Be Coming Soon? by Sam Cooper on Movie Pilot, Disney is creating these new animated techniques via Meander, a program that juxtaposes 3D and 2D and delves a bit into how it works. To put it simply, Cooper highlights in bold letters that the program “takes the first layer—a moving, multidimensional image—and allows it to drag the lines of the second layer along with it, filling in the gaps of the hand drawings and letting the hard lines take the spotlight”.
With Disney continuing to innovate as they have always done over the past 80 years, possibilities are as endless today as they have always been in the past. The company has no doubt, had its ups and downs as, especially after Walt Disney's death. It can be a major challenge for a company to adopt a similar mindset as its founder, an example seen in recent years with Apple, Inc following Steve Job’s death, but once a company understands what made their past projects great, they are able to display that same craftsmanship and spirit as the company’s pioneer. The studio was able to bounce back in the 1990’s with the Renaissance era by adopting new innovative approaches to storytelling while retaining the spirit of the classics that made Disney famous and are doing it again in the 2010’s. Innovation in both animation and narrative are the reason the company continues flourish and therefore, 2D animation is not a thing of the past. It’s simply evolving with the times. Disney appears to be exploring new techniques so that the art form would continue to be fresh and new rather than look like they are trying to recreate the past. This is actually no different than the early days of Pixar, experimenting with CGI short films before Toy Story’s debut or how Walt Disney himself experimented with new techniques by starting small and then building up. What is important to note is that Disney, like every other company built around innovation is constantly evolving and failure occurs in the process, not because of the art style, but because of the timing of their releases, how they go about marketing and of course, lack of innovation in the animation techniques. That being said, Disney can make a successful new 2D animated feature through innovation in their animation techniques and retaining their classic spirit without trying to blatantly repeat what they had already done before.
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