It’s a fair question. Not one that requires an answer, as one does not have to defend interests, but it’s a question that I understand in a Dunning-Kruger sense of things. If you are not a Disney fan yourself, the reasons for liking Disney are not apparent and it may seem odd that a man approaching 40 is still an ardent fan. Still…Still doesn’t sound quite right, because I think it’s more accurate to say that I’m a bigger fan today than I was as a child. But why?
First of all, I am ready to assert that Disney is not children’s entertainment. It’s family entertainment. There’s a distinction there. Children’s entertainment is for children and parents endure it for their benefit. Family entertainment is accessible to all ages to be experienced together. Disney contains tons of little winks that only the adults in the audience will understand, and they certainly make decisions designed specifically for children.
A great example of this is the Cinderella statue at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom. If you’re an adult (or, more specifically, tall), it’s a statue of Cinderella in her tattered clothes with her friends. If you’re a child (or closer to the ground), Cinderella will appear to be wearing a crown placed in the background. Disney has always been conscious of perspective in their presentation.
But my love for Disney goes beyond a simple, “It’s not just for children.”
Despite a lack of musical and graphical talent, those are the artistic media I enjoy most. I love the comprehensive experience one can capture with a single image. Where I think audiences tend to overthink film a bit is that many modern films (the popular ones anyway) strive for a realism that limits the capacity of the medium. I have written in other pieces about how audiences become critical of films for lacking certain authenticity when the fantasy of it is consistent with the internal logic of the story. More broadly: it’s a work of fiction and not a documentary. It requires suspension of disbelief to tell a story.
In an even more technical sense, when we are watching a film we tend to regard it as a simple recording of live events. Actors portray a scene and a camera captures it to play back later, right? But stopping to think about what film is in a technical sense, we’re viewing a series of still images played in rapid succession with a synchronized audio track to create an illusion of movement.
Consider a famous painting. If the artist were to create a near-identical version with slight changes to the subjects and then flip between them, we would start to develop a similar sense of motion. That is the art of animation reduced to its simplest terms.
What I feel gets erased a bit with the passage of time is the evolution of a field. Animated feature films are commonplace today. While still hard work to accomplish, we have come to expect multiple animated features every year, with the Academy even issuing a specific award to the best one. When Walt and Co. set out to make Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937, industry professionals regarded it as “Disney’s folly.” Animation was in its infancy, and applying those techniques to a feature film was unheard of at the time.
Pre-Snow White, Disney had produced his Laugh-O-Grams, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and Silly Symphonies shorts. Each one of those was not simply a new issue with a different story – Walt and his colleagues set out to innovate something technologically in the field of animation. It was those successive innovations that enabled Snow White to exist – things like the multiplane camera that allowed them to create cinematic depth with still images.
It’s that innovative spirit paired with artistry that endeared Disney to me as I grew older. The simple fact is that Disney films, especially the older ones, do not contain complex stories. The stories are fairly straightforward with simple themes that children can enjoy as well as adults. What captivated me was the artistic and technological progression. Part of the progression in Disney history is, “What story should will tell next?” but I think an overlooked aspect is the artistic and technological challenge presented by the chosen story.
Snow White presented an obvious challenge in being an animated feature. A few years later when Disney turned to animating Bambi and Dumbo, a clear challenge was convincingly animating animals. It was not enough to draw a deer, or even to animate a simple sequence. They needed to sustain believability and characterization for a full film.
Like many Disney fans, the affectionately named Disney Renaissance is my favourite period in their history. Things like Howard Ashman and Alan Menken cracking the Broadway musical formula (yes, Disney films always featured music, but the Renaissance was the period when they adopted an actual musical format) defined a generation. What I also learned to appreciate though was why choosing a particular story was important to the studio.
Consider The Little Mermaid. It’s one of the most iconic films in the library, and it seems like a no-brainer for their catalogue. Part of what I observed in their technological progression (and personal experience dabbling in fine art) was the role subject matter must have played in deciding The Little Mermaid should be the next project. The story is about a mermaid, so it will occur largely around water. Water presents a laundry list of unique animation challenges (lighting, movement) that must have factored into their thinking.
Then there was a broader artistic license during the Renaissance. Disney films long had a distinct style that maintained across all of their projects, and historians will note episodic changes (such as a the rougher style of projects in the 1970s (starting with The Jungle Book in the late 1960s). There was a distinct “unfinished” style to the animations that some love and some dislike, but it characterized a period. What I mean are film-specific decisions, like the water-colour influence on Pocahontas, and the culturally artistic influences on films like Hercules and Mulan.
Even in the subsequent 2000s period of less popular Disney projects like Chicken Little and Home on the Range, I think anyone serious about the artistry can still appreciate the risks taken by the studio. Yes, I don’t think the stories were great, but they were often simple. What was odd were the artistic decisions of the story. Looking at each one as just a Disney release ignores the technological progression of those films. What I see in the greater context of the studio’s history is greater experimentation with digital technologies. The films were swings and misses (no doubt pushed forward by Pixar’s innovations in the area), but they set the stage for a new generation of Disney successes like The Princess and the Frog, Tangled, and Frozen.
Little things, like the technological advancement of hair animation, show their dedication to an art form. Consider the challenges of animating Ariel’s underwater hair motions in 1989’s The Little Mermaid. In the years that followed we saw subsequent advancements with Rapunzel’s hair in Tangled, Merida’s hair in Brave, Elsa’s hair in Frozen, and Moana’s hair in Moana. The next film, Ralph Breaks the Internet, introduces nearly 100 years of Disney Princesses in a shared CG-animated environment. Observe how 30 years of development impact the animation of Ariel’s hair:
This is also very observable in Pocahontas, who had a distinct water-colour style in her titular film and an emphasis on wind movement. In Ralph Breaks the Internet, Disney re-introduces Pocahontas as a CG character and gives her the charming additional of “personal wind.” During the scene one will notice that Pocahontas appears to be standing in a strong breeze, similar to her original appearance, even though they are indoors and no other characters have the same effect. It’s just part of her personal magic.
One of the more prominent modern examples is Frozen 2. A Kate McKinnon Saturday Night Live sketch poked fun at the film, including a take on the non-sensical plot:
I’m not here to push back on the criticisms (and I think the sketch is fantastic). What I do think it highlights is the deliberate decisions made for artistic reasons. A lot of what the sketch criticizes is the writing. My point over the years is that the writing is good, but not nearly the point of these projects. That serves to move the story along while as a team of artists they focus on innovation.
“Guys, we need to keep moving. I’m supposed to ride a water horse to an ice island to free a fire spirit or something. I think the plot of this movie might be really bad.”Kate McKinnon as Elsa on Saturday Night Live
The studio had the premise for the story about what they wanted to do with Anna and Elsa, but then they also invoke visual artistic decisions. When I heard the plot of the story, it impressed me. Not as a writer; as a writer I thought it felt a little basic. As a visual artist I thought, “They need to deal with the original matter of the ice again, but will need to focus heavily on animating water and fire as well.” Especially in the context of these things occurring together, it raises a lot of challenges about textures and lighting, and motion that the studio must not only capture but animate. The final result was a visual masterpiece.
Artistic appreciation is what keeps me coming back. From the Monstro sequence in Pinocchio to individually animated bubbles of The Little Mermaid to water that looked so realistic it barely seemed possible it was just art in Moana, watching a team of visual artists advance their field has been inspiring.