Is Hand-Drawn Animation Really Dead at Disney?

The answer might pleasantly surprise you.
August 25, 2014

I know what you're thinking. Why is this on Retro Junk? Well, the reason is because when you think of retro, nowadays you think of an animation method rarely used in theatrical features these days.. traditional hand-drawn animation. Walt Disney Animation Studios has been trying to keep it alive, but they weren't completely successful in doing so in terms of feature films.

You may remember back in April 2013 when Walt Disney Animation Studios laid off 9 of their hand-drawn animators as a result of this, among them being a guy named Nik Ranieri, the supervising animator for Lumiere in Beauty and the Beast. Among the hand-drawn animators left include Eric Goldberg and Mark Henn. Because of this unfortunate event, the animation blog Cartoon Brew actually stated that Disney "gutted" their hand-drawn animation division. Leaving one to question. Is hand-drawn animation really dead at Disney?

The answer is an optimistic "No". Just because 9 hand-drawn animators were laid off doesn't mean the technique is dead, especially not at Disney. Cartoon Brew's article about the hand-drawn animation unit at Disney was nothing but pure hyperbole. It's still alive and well at the studio. However, they're only doing 2D animated shorts for theatres. Case in point, Get a Horse!. Speaking of which, let's talk about it real quick.

This 2013 Mickey Mouse short, which I assume was made to celebrate the character's 85th birthday (although I would have preferred a feature film, but I can't complain), was released before Frozen, which is by far my favorite of Disney's CG fare. The short begins as what appears to be a 1920's Mickey cartoon, but then as he tries to rescue his sweetheart Minnie, Pete throws him out of a movie screen, revealing a CG Mickey Mouse, now in color. The rest of the short is just Mickey and his friends trying to rescue Minnie from Pete, and it's executed very well in a hilarious hijinks they get into while turning from hand-drawn to CG and back again.

The short was unbelievably cool. It's a lot better than the Disney Television Animation series of shorts they started that same year, which were good at first, but then ended up being Disney Channel's usual over-the-top tweens' fare. If you ask me, I'd prefer Disney's flagship feature animation division doing Mickey Mouse-related content, because they're a lot better at executing the character (after all, he did start in theatrical shorts), not to mention the DTVA shorts resemble the crass toons you'd see on Nickelodeon or Cartoon Network nowadays more than anything, which is NOT a good thing... especially if you want to bring back a classic cartoon character like Mickey Mouse.
Now with that out of the way, let's talk about a short that came right before it... Paperman.

This short utilizes a technology called Meander, which was actually created by accident. This system uniquely combines the techniques of traditional hand-drawn animation with modern computer animation. When the short was first released, there was no doubt that the way they combined two fields was totally cool. People loved it, and since it was released with Wreck-it Ralph in 2012, that was even better. Shorts like this are proof that people want to see more hand-drawn animation in theatres.

Well, those are just two examples of how hand-drawn animation is still being kept alive at Disney nowadays. There are also more 2D or 2D-style shorts in production or development. One short that's already complete, Feast, is being released this year with the animated Marvel comic adaptation, Big Hero 6. Sadly, I have to warn you not to expect a full-length 2D animated feature from them anytime soon. One reason is the obvious, execs in Hollywood still don't see 2D animation as bankable outside of films based on recent TV shows (i.e. SpongeBob, The Simpsons), and another reason (and this is just a theory I have), is Disney tried to revive 2D animation as a theatrical method by themselves. What they should have done was wait until a new startup company takes a hand at doing a traditionally-animated feature (Laika, the stop-motion studio perhaps known for Coraline, could be that since they want to do a hand-drawn film), wait if it does extremely well at the box-office, and then try to do it themselves just to compete with that startup. It's what happened when Don Bluth came to the picture in the 1980's, and it may as well happen again if Disney really wants hand-drawn to truly return as a theatrical method.

With that said, Disney Animation's CG movies have certainly gotten better since Frozen came out, and I'm not shutting them out just because they don't have any 2D feature films in development at the moment. As for the future of 2D at the studio, like I said, it's still alive and well. Just don't count on them on doing any features as of now. Who knows? Things may change, and Disney could one day take a stab at 2D animation again (but only if a 2D movie from a new startup does well). We shall see.
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