Martin Izzard on Disney’s Princess of the Frog and the shift from hand drawn animation…
The closing out of 2019 not only marks the end of a decade but ten years since the release of The Princess and the Frog, an animated movie that was supposed to reignite the studio’s use of hand drawn animation. But instead, it served as something of a full stop at the end of a very long 70 year tradition of cinema.
After its release, the studio forged ahead with 3D computer-generated (CG) animation having dabbled in the medium with the likes of Chicken Little and Meet the Robinsons. But as the medium advanced and Disney Animation Studios was presumably able to make use of the technology and expertise made available to it via the purchase of Pixar in 2006, Disney successfully shifted its focus and is now leading the market in another kind of animation after being the dominant voice in 2D for so long.
So as we reach ten years since the release of The Princess and the Frog, you have to wonder; does Disney miss hand drawn animation?
There is a fairly short answer to that question and it comes after several weekends where Frozen II – a film animated using 3D animation – has absolutely dominated the box office, putting it on track to become the highest grossing animated movie of all time. With that in mind, you have to assume the $750 million answer to the question ‘does Disney miss hand drawn animation?’ is a pretty solid no.
But even taking the mega hit that is Frozen, an IP that’s made Disney billions of dollars, out of the equation – I imagine the answer would still be the same.
And this is for a number of reasons; the first being the imagery that can now be created using 3D animation. The medium has advanced far beyond what was possible with hand drawn techniques. You only have to look at the visuals of the recent Ralph Breaks The Internet to see the incredible amount of detail that can be achieved and the beautiful imagery in the likes of Moana and the aforementioned Frozen II to prove that point.
One of the things that can always be said of Disney’s hand drawn 2D animation is how well it’s aged. You can watch animated classics from the 1960s or even the 1950s and they still have the same beauty and charm they did 70 years ago. They certainly don’t look dated in the way that 1995’s Toy Story does now, 25 years later. But 3D animation has broken that barrier and the beautiful images created by Disney in 2020 will most probably still look just as beautiful in several years time.
Another big mark in 3D’s favour are the characters that look better when they’re taken off the screen and used elsewhere. Being 2D by their very nature means hand drawn characters don’t translate as well into 3D plush toys or even character costumes at Disney’s theme parks as some of their 3D counterparts.
Advances also continue to be made in the technical departments of Disney and animation studios around the world, whether it’s better simulations for weather and effects or simply faster rendering and quicker delivery of scenes. Constant innovation is making the production process more efficient and therefore more cost-effective. The speed of 2D animation on the other hand was always limited to the speed of an animator. So as far as a return on investment goes, I’m sure the penny-watchers at Disney are far bigger fans of 3D animation.
Aside from the quality of 3D animation, the more efficient production process and the characters’ ability to make money off-screen, I think what’s perhaps most interesting about why Disney moved away from 2D is what The Princess and the Frog didn’t end up representing. Ahead of its release, it was hailed as Disney’s return to the medium after a short string of flops which were scapegoated as the reason why the studio stopped using 2D animation techniques for five years before 2009.
Press surrounding the film’s release talked about how Disney had said it would produce at least one hand drawn film every two years, something that wouldn’t have been a surprise after The Princess and the Frog was a box office success. What this did luckily prove was that it wasn’t in fact the medium that was to blame for previous box office failures but that – in the words of John Lassiter – ‘bad films are bad films’, no matter their medium.
But that unfortunately didn’t come to fruition. In the ten years since, audiences have only seen Winnie the Pooh in 2011 use hand drawn techniques and that’s got to be much more down to the IP itself than Disney’s desire to stick with 2D animation. Could you imagine a 3D Pooh? No thanks.
Despite its success, The Princess and the Frog didn’t represent the return to form that was predicated in 2009. It’s without a doubt a beautifully-crafted film bursting with the style and grace that you’d expect from a hand drawn Disney feature but it was quickly followed up by huge successes from Disney’s animation studio in the form of Wreck It Ralph and Frozen – both 3D animated films, cementing the idea that CG images made money.
In the same way that the studio is currently riding the crest of a very successful wave of recent projects, Disney’s hand drawn animations have always been categorised by several eras. The popularity of films in these eras varies with the studio having made some timeless classics, while also coming out with some less than memorable features.
The so-called ‘dark era’ for example produced some now fairly unknown features like The Black Cauldron and Oliver and Company while the renaissance in the 1990s is regarded as the highest point in the studio’s history. But The Princess and the Frog sits at the end of the line, somewhat on its own, neither part of a renaissance or a down period.
It’s not an animated film that sits in the pantheon of Disney animated films even though it’s an accomplished and well-loved movie that means a lot to many people. It’s still celebrated by Disney in its parks and in the Disney Princess merchandise available to consumers and as far as the animated movies go, it can be seen as something of a beacon on which the latest generation of Disney movies has been built.
So while it’s safe to say that Disney probably doesn’t miss hand drawn animation, movies created with those techniques will always be at the forefront of what the company built its success on.
And even if The Princess and the Frog was ten years ago, who knows what’ll happen in the future. Maybe one day, studio executives will break out a pencil and some paper and let the animators have another go.