At a Disney shareholder’s meeting on Wednesday, CEO Bob Iger said that none of Disney’s companies are planning to develop a hand-drawn feature animated film for the big screen in the foreseeable future. This story was picked up by /Film and Collider as effectively ringing the bell of traditional animation at the Walt Disney Company. To poorly paraphrase Mark Twain, though, the death of traditional animation at Disney has been greatly exaggerated.
This announcement does, however, shed some light onto some projects, like Disney’s next big princess movie following this winter’s “Frozen,” which at this point is being called “The Name Game” and is a bold reimagining of the Rumpelstiltskin fairy tale. Ron Clements and John Musker, who last directed the sorely underrated (and traditionally animated) “The Princess and the Frog,” are developing the project. (Disney freaks will remember that Michael Eisner briefly ousted Clements and Musker, one of the most talented and successful directorial teams at the studio, during his strained emphasis on computer animation; when Iger assumed power he brought Clements and Musker back to the studio.) At least at first, “The Name Game” was supposed to be a traditionally animated feature, but then again, so was “Frozen.” With Iger’s proclamation yesterday, it’s safe to say that “The Name Game” will also be a 3D CGI affair.
The other thing to keep in mind is the wording of this supposed “announcement” — Iger is referring to movies that are completely traditionally animated. What no one is talking about is that the next great traditionally animated Disney feature is actually going to be some kind of hybrid, most likely utilizing the same technology that was featured in last year’s “Paperman” short. The same effort, of course, that just won the Oscar for Best Animated Short (another good omen that this really is the future of hand-drawn animation at the studio).
Since “Paperman” started screening last year, there have been discussions internally about how to apply the technology (which was designed and animated by a team of less than a dozen animators at Disney, working on the fringe) to a larger animated project. The problem, however, is that the “Paperman” aesthetic, which layers hand-drawn animation on top of a 3D object, is a very specific look. There’s a reason that “Paperman” is in black and white – it helped to dull the occasionally comic book-y look of the technology. So right now everyone at Disney Feature Animation is trying to find a project that will benefit from this process and aesthetic.
Another thing to remember is that Pixar principles Ed Catmull and John Lasseter are still running the creative side of Disney. These are the guys who grew up with Walt Disney Feature Animation; they’re the ones who greenlit “The Princess and the Frog” and (despite its financial shortcomings) made sure the brilliant “Winnie the Pooh” (released in 2011) was also traditionally animated. (That movie tanked, but mostly because Disney, in one of the rare cases of marketplace mismanagement, opened it against one of the “Harry Potter” features. Ouch.) They brought Walt Disney Feature Animation back to a level of excellence that’s beginning to rival the famed “Second Renaissance” in the late eighties and early nineties. They will never, as long as they’re at the company, completely turn their back on hand-drawn animation. Iger was talking about a four-year period. Lasseter and Catmull are in it for life.