The Stagnation of Disney’s Hand Drawn Animation
Hand drawn, 2-Dimensional Animation has long been a way for stories to be told with style, substance and meaning. While the methods for animating in this manner have changed due to technological advancement and based on the animation preferences of the studio or the individual, Disney is considered one of the pioneers of this medium of storytelling. So then, why have they stopped crafting films using this format? To understand this, we must delve into the history of the studio’s film division and their theatrical releases, as the past always holds the answer to one’s present state. Walt Disney Animation Studios is a division of Walt Disney Studios, and was founded on the 16th of October 1923, by brothers Roy Oliver and Walt Disney. The studio initially got their start producing The Alice Comedies: a series of short, silent animated films, between 1925 and 1927. One year later, Disney would create their first cartoon with synchronized sound, Steamboat Willie, which thrust them into the eyes of the public and marked the start of the studio’s critical acclaim.
1929 saw the animation studio incorporated into Walt Disney Productions, and in the midst of producing various animated films, the studio set out to work on their first feature film: Snow White. An instant success, it allowed Disney to expand their production efforts. While these subsequent films weren’t initially commercially successful, their rendition of Dumbo was an outlier to this fact. This was due to its simplistic animation and utilising a slew static shots, thus costing less than the studio’s other efforts around this period. The Second World War had halted Disney’s film animation efforts due to a plethora of reasons, so during this period of conflict, the studio had focused on creating wartime propaganda to lift the spirits of the American people and mock the Nazi regime. Once the war had ended, the production of various films put on hold had resumed.
Despite layoffs that had occurred due to Sleeping Beauty failing to recuperate production costs, the studio continued to produce a great deal of popular and visually impressive films. However, after Walt Disney’s death in 1966, the studio’s popularity began to decline, regardless of their recent efforts being a mixed bag of major and minor box office successes. This stagnation prompted Disney to try and expand their reach to older audiences with The Black Cauldron; a film which ultimately proved to be a critical and commercial failure and almost lead to the death of Disney as we know it.
It was also around this period that notable animators such as John Lasseter and Tim Burton were fired from Disney, due to their efforts on attempting to innovate the studio’s animation production. While both would work with Disney again in the future, Lasseter would later lend a great helping hand in reforming Disney. 1988 saw Disney’s resurgence with such films as Who Framed Roger Rabbit and The Little Mermaid, but along with the latter, Beauty and the Beast had prompted Disney to try and revisit their strength: producing musical esque animated films. Subsequent efforts proved successful, but The Lion King was the film that truly thrust Disney into their resurgence… before the studio hit another flatline. A glaring correlation in regards to this would be Jeffrey Katzenberg’s departure from Disney. Katzenberg had worked on a number of films that lead to Disney’s renaissance, but tension arose between him and then studio Vice Chairman, Roy Edward Disney, leading to Katzenberg’s departure and subsequent lawsuit against the studio.
Aside from losing the case and yet another creative mind and despite Disney producing quite a slew of great films based on their new formula, it was evident that the general public’s interests were shifting. Enter Shrek: the product of Katzenberg’s studio, DreamWorks. Shrek’s sharp humor and visual style proved to be a hit with audiences, while simultaneously being a feature length insult to what Disney was becoming; a corporate powerhouse more interested in generating a profit than telling unique stories. However, the suits at Disney were disillusioned, thinking that the film’s success was due to its CG animation. This along with Pixar’s successful endeavours gave the illusion that 2D films were no longer what audiences were interested in. Disney had made an attempt at producing a CG film in the form of 2000’s “Dinosaur”, which melded live action scenery with CG elements.
The Film was praised for its impressive visuals, but suffered from hosting a predictable and dull plot. Despite this, it enjoyed commercial success. It was also around this time that Disney had begun experimenting with new ideas and stories to tell, with films like The Emperor’s New Groove and Lilo and Stitch, but the primary examples in regards to this foray would be with Atlantis and the phenomenal Treasure Planet. While both films were visually stunning and were fantastic reimaginings of their respective tales, the sudden break from the “Disney Formula” was apparent to film goers and deterred audiences. While both films are now hailed as cult-classics, the initial box-office performance of Atlantis was mediocre at best while tragically, Treasure Planet was a commercial failure.
Disney’s film division had only produced few more subpar hand drawn films before wholeheartedly converting into CGI based studio, with its first fully Computer Generated film being Chicken Little. While proving to be moderate commercial success, the film was panned across the board due to its mediocre quality and storytelling aspects. After the man who soured Disney’s production efforts and transformed it into a failing corporate slog, Michael Eisner, was ousted from his position of CEO, a second resurgence began to take form as the acquisition of Pixar and Lassiter’s re-involvement with Disney saw employee morale rise and the quality of the stories being told increase at a steady rate. Lassiter believed the time was ripe for the studio to re-tread old ground by producing a new hand drawn film. This came in the form of The Princess and the Frog, which released in 2009 and was Disney’s first hand drawn film in 5 years. The film attempted to capitalise on the studio’s reputation as a leader in 2D animation, while simultaneously aiming to draw intrigue as the film would produce Disney’s first African American princess.
While filed with troupes, pacing issues and hosting side characters that lacked depth, it was still quite a decent film as well as a valiant first effort in trying to usher in a new age of hand drawn animation for the studio. However, a key factor which held back the film’s audience reach was its name. By including the word “princess’ in the film’s title, many moviegoers thought it was a film targeting younger audiences, leading to it’s under performance at the box office, despite the film being revered for its fantastic hand drawn sequences. This was not the studio’s final hand drawn film to date however, as 2011’s Winnie the Pooh currently holds that spot. Disney has since fully embraced CGI, with films like Frozen and Zootopia proving to be highly successful forays into the medium. While some may cite the cost of 2D animation to be one of the reasons why Disney has dropped out of the medium, the cost of creating a CGI film marginally exceeds the former’s production costs. While recouperating production costs has been a fluctuating issue for Disney, their financial situation has improved dramatically over the past 8 years.
One could argue that it saves time, but despite studios having a plethora of people working on varying aspects of a film, conceptualising ideas as part of a studio is granted to take time regardless. One of primary reasons why this switch has been embraced however is because production on scenes can be actively manipulated during the production process, instead of having the animation team on standby while script changes and re-recordings take place. This would be because while such instances could occur, the film is already storyboarded by that point in time and a final render of a film or scene hasn’t taken place. In essence, this method of creating films is far more dynamic than traditional hand drawn animation.
Another reason why Disney has forsaken 2D animation for the time being is due to the analysation efforts of The studio’s marketing team, as they’ve picked up on how successful the studio’s recent cg films have been. While arguments could ensue on what it means for a film to be successful, it is hard to deny the profitability and appeal of CG films compared to their hand drawn counterparts, and this could be due to how the general public perceives animated films. Some might associate any kind of animation as something ‘only kids could enjoy’, but by seeing a film rendered in a different visual style, they may feel more compelled to watch it. In other words, they might think of hand drawn animation as something childish, but will consider watching a CG film due to its heightened sense of detail and visual fidelity.
It’s unfortunate that some would choose to think in this manner, as films and various other media have the capacity to meld mature themes with fascinating tales that anyone can enjoy. Is that not why we consume media? To escape by indulging in something that entertains us in order to relax and escape what afflicts us? Indeed, hand drawn animation is far from a poor medium for storytelling, but it’s the lack of effort gone into telling a good story that holds Disney back in producing a new, successful hand drawn film.
While tactical marketing is required to ensure a film’s commercial success, in the end, what makes a film great isn’t the troupes it follows to a “tee” or making a film to draw in a particular audience, but the effort put into a film to make it something the animators who worked on it would marvel at, with a story that would inspire the team the wrote it and creative vision overruling cooperate interest. One can only hope Disney looks back at their past to craft a future with new stories to explore, using the medium that they have always had a hand…
…in innovating. Hey noble subtitle reader, hope my voice didn’t sound too bad in this video! Be sure to check out the following links (They’re in the description too), and hope you enjoy the rest of your day!.
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The Stagnation of Disney’s Hand Drawn Animation