Will Disney Ever Return to Making Hand-Drawn Animated Films?

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.



6 Comments Add yours

  1. Wayne Le Brocq says:

    This is a good article. One I enjoyed reading, but there is something that also has to be considered. Is it just because of the animation technique that films fail?
    The reference to Princess and the Frog in this article brought a question to my mind. Was it really the animation technique that caused the film to under perform. The Princess and the frog is a great Disney film. I don’t think anyone can deny that. The reasons for its ‘so called’ lack of financial robustness was more to do with where the company was. Disney had seen the success of Pixar and tried to match it. Bolt was a mediocre film. Meet the Robinsons had promise but lacked the Disney magic, and Chicken Little was dreadful.
    With Pixar bought and under the Disney flag, the company then realized that it would be best to learn from Pixar and let them lead. That gave them a chance to do what Disney does best. Hand drawn animated films. The Princess and the Frog is a classic fairy tale. Then Disney went and did the most ingenious thing and twisted the tale on its head. This was a great move and one that should be commended. But that isn’t the reason the film didn’t perform well. The reason, which is my personal view, is that it came at the wrong time.
    Disney wasn’t doing great, and fans ( including myself), where disappointed in the recent releases that had been shown.
    The Princess and the Frog bought fans back. It was the stepping stone that made Frozen a huge hit.

    My point in this is that, hand drawn animation will never die. It’s not the reason that some of the films don’t perform well at the box office. Films fail due to a number of issues. Story, character,music/song. All these elements have to gel to make a classic animated film. If I quickly take Frozen as an example. The story is simple. The characters attracted our attention. The music was catchy. These simple 3 things made it a huge film. It had nothing to do with it being computer animated.
    This is what has to be remembered. I would presume if Walt was still alive today, he would crave computer animation. It’s the next process within the animated industry. But it doesn’t mean that it will perform better at the box office compared to hand drawn animation.

    (All the above is a personal view. I have no insider knowledge of the animation industry or the Disney company. These are the views of a Disney fan who at the age of 41 still enjoys watching any Disney film).


    1. Mitchell Stein says:

      Hi Wayne! Thank you for this excellent comment and the kind words.

      You bring up a lot of great points, especially in regards to “The Princess and the Frog”. While yes, I agree that maybe 2D animation most probably was not the reason why it underperformed, it would make sense to believe that Disney felt that with the failure of their two traditional films of the decade bombing, that hand-drawn animation is a thing of the past.

      However, Disney truly was at their weakest point coming off of the lackluster period under the Eisner era that saw bad releases like “Home on the Range”, “Chicken Little”, Atlantis” and others, and slowly began to rebound with “Bolt” and “Princess”. I think that Disney is currently at such a strong point that if they were to release a hand-drawn film, it would still thrive.

      It’s hard to tell, but I honestly think that after two failed experiments, even though their animation style has nothing to do with their failure, Disney shareholders have come to the conclusion that maybe the studio should focus their animation efforts elsewhere.


  2. Nic Kramer says:

    But “Bolt” was the first film completed under Lassenter and I thought that was a good film. And I think the reason “The Princess and the Frog” didn’t do well in the box-office was because they released it in December instead of November and Disney giving the November slot to the motion captured film, “A Christmas Carol” having too high hopes for that.


    1. Mitchell Stein says:

      I think the same for Bolt and Princess and the Frog slightly underperformed was that they both came off the lackluster era of mediocre Disney releases. As far as quality is concerned, I think Bolt is phenomemal and it doesn’t nearly get as much attention as it deserves. I was only referring to it’s financial earning in the article, but I agree with you that Bolt was a great film and the first step in a promising new era for WDAS.


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