The recent death of Disney Legend artist Tyrus Wong and the release of Disney’s Moana have got me thinking about the state of animated feature films today. Admittedly, this is something I have thought about before. Moana is a beautiful film. Its depiction of island paradises, the ocean and god-like creatures are a joy to watch. And, the leaps that CG animators have made from films like Toy Story in the depiction of people is nothing short of amazing. However, I can’t help feel that Wong’s “re-discovered” work and contribution to Disney’s animated classic, Bambi highlights what I think is an important difference between the animation of Walt’s era and what is generally accepted as today’s the norm for modern animation. Hand drawn animated features, using Disney’s as an example, had and still have (See Hayao Miyazaki films as an example) a distinct artistic look that pulls the viewer in and brings life to the film.
Considerable print, press, lectures and college film courses have discussed what many consider Walt’s most important contribution to animated films – elevation of animation to an art form. As early as 1929, 8 years before the premiere of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Walt would drive some of his animators to a local art class. In 1937 he would formalize a regular training regimen for the animators (eventually it would became CalArts) The classes were not
just for his lead animators, but for all the animators. Walt was interested in breathing life into drawn forms, not just getting laughs. If you have the opportunity to look just at the background art for some of Disney’s early animated films, particularly Pinocchio, but even later work like 101 Dalmatians, they stand on their own as works of art, even without characters or motion. I believe Walt knew that in order to improve animation, it was necessary to improve all of the film, not just the characters who moved and got most of the attention.
He did, however, have one other trick up his sleeve. If you look at the early Disney animated features, either in individual picture form or the final movie, you can’t help but notice that each film has its own distinct artistic sensibility. Snow White, Pinocchio, 101 Dalmatians are all as different as a Monet is from a Rembrandt. The artistic quality of the films draws us in and creates a visual appeal that is as important as the differences between Mo Willems work and other picture book illustrators, making the turn of each page or the change in scene a new experience that keeps our eyes and our minds interested in the material. It’s the differences in artistic viewpoint that enable us to see the merits of both Rembrandt and Van Gogh’s self-portraits. By all standards, they are both great works of art, yet completely different in look and creative approach and tell us a great deal about the artist and any messages they are trying to convey without the use of words.
CG animation does offer us some visual differences in the complexity and style of the images. But, in in my eyes, the differences in artistic approach and style seem to be flattened out by the computer generated approach to creating them. I’m not saying that CG animation is not an art form. Far from that. I believe that CG animators still have to create, what legendary Disney animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston called the “Illusion of life” on the screen. The complex animation skill it took to “see” Moana think and go through her internal struggle like a real actor are not different from the joy or pain we see on the face of Roger in 101 Dalmatians.
It would be hard to argue that there are no artistic differences between Moana and Toy Story 3, and I’m not going to try.
But, I do think that CG animation has removed some of the style differences we can see in earlier hand drawn animated features. I miss the water color style of Bambi, simplistic style of Dumbo and the sweeping grandeur of Sleeping Beauty. A viewing of Fantasia is almost a primer on how different artistic styles and approaches impact the look of an animated work. The sorcerer’s apprentice and night on Bald Mountain couldn’t be any more different, while they still maintain a high degree of artistic achievement.
I look forward to each new Pixar or Disney Animation feature. I think Walt would be proud that Disney directors still strive to be story tellers first and animate as a way of telling that story. And, I’m certain that Walt would have welcomed CG as an exciting opportunity to tell stories through a different form of animation and to animate things that might seem impossible in the hand drawn world. On the other hand, Disney animators, when challenged always seems to find a way to achieve Walt’ vision and the directors who folloeed. But, Walt did not follow the path of other animation studios and use the same artistic style for every movie. I believe that he would have seen CG as just that – another creative style, and looked for other styles to help tell a particular story. And, so, I will continue to enjoy CG animated features. But part of me still hopes that John Lasseter will someday unleash the creative talents that are out there in the world and do some more hand drawn animated movies.