In just under a week, Disney’s next theatrical animated adventure, Moana will sail into theaters nationwide, and we can’t wait to see what new wonders Disney has in store with their latest feature. Although Moana is the seventh film for Disney to be co-directed by John Musker and Ron Clements, of Aladdin and The Little Mermaid fame, Moana is the first film from the duo to be animated completely in CGI. What will likely be the most interesting thing to see in Moana is how Ron and John’s creative storytelling style will translate itself into this new frontier of computer animation, which is a technique foreign to the duo as of yet.
Both Ron and John are pioneers in the animation industry, but all of their works have been fully in hand-drawn animation, save for a few sequences in which CGI was used to blend with hand-drawn art. With their experience and knowledge in the hand-drawn frontier, one would only guess that the duo would want to return to that very animation style for their new film, like they have in 2009 with the release of The Princess and the Frog. When pitching the story of Moana to the studio, did the duo become faced in translating their film into the new animation format, because the very genre they are familiar with is viewed as a dying art form?
When Ron and John’s last film, The Princess and the Frog was released, it was during an era that had Disney moving their animation platform to focus on computer animated films, following films like Meet the Robinsons and Bolt, and to pave the way to films like Tangled, Frozen and Big Hero 6. However, Princess and the Frog‘s returns were less than expected, earning only $200 million worldwide on a $100 million budget, creating the impression to the studio that perhaps hand-drawn animation is a dead art form. That impression would only cement itself even further when the traditional hand-drawn Winnie the Pooh was released in theaters in 2011. Despite sharing an opening weekend with juggernaut Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, Disney shareholders viewed the film as a disappointing return, barely breaking it’s small $30 million dollar budget, cracking only $26 million domestically, and closing out its worldwide run at a bare $33 million. The returns to both these films may have led to a decision by the Walt Disney Company: Hand-drawn animation is dead.
Looking ahead beyond the horizon of Moana, the Walt Disney Animation Studios has not yet announced any films that will be animated in the traditional 2D hand-drawn animation style, making a return to the format for a theatrical film unlikely. However, 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. Some of the most notable uses of such techniques are found in Disney’s Academy Award short Paperman, which 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.
After Paperman, 2D animation continues to find it’s way into Disney projects, including 2013’s Get a Horse (a homage to classic Mickey Mouse shorts) Disney’s Academy Award winning 2014 short, Feast, and with its release next week, Moana will be the next Disney project to join that list. Though the films is primarily CG-rendered, many elements of the film are in fact completely animated by 2D, most notably Maui’s tattoos, all created entirely by hand. Additionally, Moana’s theatrical short film, Inner Workings will follow in the same path that Feast and Paperman began, combining both methods of technology to create an amazing artistry breakthrough. 2D animation continues to be a staple in the innovation that Disney pushes forward through their projects, and although the medium has transformed in ways that no one had ever imagined, we’re glad that Disney still continues to pay tribute to its legacy in some form.
So will 2D animation ever make a comeback? Truthfully, and luckily, it hasn’t actually gone anywhere, but it has transformed different than we’ve ever known it. In many ways similar to the studio under the leadership of Walt Disney, the use of animation at Disney is a forever evolving landscape of ideas and innovations. While it’s unfortunate that Disney has lessened their focus on producing traditional animated feature films, the studio still thrives on using the technique to create immersive stories and ideas. Animation will forever be a changing landscape but it’s comforting to know that even though Disney is always looking towards the future, there’s still one foot in the past.
Disney’s Moana opens in theaters nationwide on November 23rd.