Jessikaroo and I were recently talking about the animation in the Disney movies and realized that this is one aspect which hasn’t really been discussed in the spot so far. And isn’t that what Disney makes different from most of the other studios, the quality of the animation? Yes, animation is not everything. One of the best movies Disney ever made is “Robin Hood” and it is also the one with the worst animation by far. Well, that’s unfair. It is the cheapest animation, but it is not really bad for the budget they had. Even though the animators reused a lot of animation, not just from older movies but also in the movie itself, even though the backgrounds are as sparingly drawn as possible, they made sure that the animation of the characters itself was top notch. Point is: despite the low budget they managed to create something worthwhile by playing to their strength.
You could say the same about “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” (minus the low budget). I guess, of all the Disney Princess movies, the animation of this one is the most difficult to judge. I don’t think that seeing it today, we can really understand the impact it had back then. It was one of the first animated movies, the first one which used cell-animation, and it is basically the stepping stone for everything which came after. But looking at it today, you don’t even have to look far to see the problems the animators had to deal with, mainly their inability to animate human movement realistically. There is for one the prince, who looks very feminine, and who is barely present in the movie mainly because the animators had trouble to animate him. There is the evil queen, who mostly stands or sit somewhere (at least until she is transformed into a hag). There is Snow White, whose movement is mostly rotoscoped, if she moves at all. In most of her scenes she just sits or stands at one place while the dwarves and the animals animate the scene. And speaking of the animals: They also don’t really hold up that well any longer. The fact aside that this is a very American wildlife which somewhat clashes with the European Fairy Tale Design of the movies , the movement of the horse and the deers don’t look very natural. For Bambi, the animators would spend a lot of time studying the movement of those animals, but for Snow White and the Seven Dwarves they mostly hid the legs as much as possible.
But despite all the problems the movie has, one has to give it a lot of credit for being the first of its kind, for doing a lot of stuff nobody had ever done before and for doing the best with what was possible at this time. And, despite the movie being 75 years old by now, it has aged really, really well. Yes, the problems are there, but overall, it works, it is not an eyesore. There are a lot of scenes which still work perfectly well, even though they are not that impressive from an animation point of view. For example, the scene in which Snow White is lost in the woods – it’s memorable, but it’s basically just a bunch of unanimated pictures of creepy trees shown in a fast sequence. But it works, better than some of the more complicated arrangement of modern day animation.
The only thing which really dates the movie is the overall style, both in design and music choice. And there are a lot of details which are very impressive to this day and most of them are related to the evil queen. The way she keeps talking in the camera is genius. But the pinnacle of this movie is the transformation scene, the animation in it is perfect. It’s a true milestone of animation.
“Cinderella” on the other hand is not. I love this movie, but when it was made, Disney was on the verge of bankruptcy, and they mostly played it safe. Most of the stuff we can see in this movie is stuff Disney did before in earlier movies and shorts. The problems with the animation of the prince were still not solved, so Charming shares the fate of the Prince in having his role reduced as much as possible. Rotoscoping was a thing of the past though, so one has to give Disney credit for the perfect animation of Cinderella herself. Also, the use of the wide space in this movie is something to pay attention to. Especially the palace looks gigantic when you see Cinderella nearly vanishing between the stairs and columns. And, again, the transformation scenes are very impressive, especially the change into a ball gown.
Cinderella is a movie, which was very important for the survival of Disney, but not exactly an important milestone of animation. Nevertheless, it still holds up very well. If not for the music, the used format and the more realistic style, it could fit into newer Disney movies with no trouble at all.
For Sleeping Beauty, there is no question if the movie aged well or not. It didn’t age at all. Due to the use of classical music combined with a unique animation style, it is and will always be timeless. This movie is like a moving painting, with very detailed backgrounds and characters, which are part of this painting instead of figures in front of a backdrop.
There is always this misunderstanding about Sleeping Beauty that this movie wasn’t successful, which is based on the fact that it didn’t manage to play in the production costs. To get the record straight: Success is relative. This movie as also one of the most successful movie of the year and, to its time, the second most successful animated movie ever, after Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. It made a lot of money, but it was so expensive in production (according to my Special Anniversary edition of the movie, the animators blew the whole original budget just for animating the dancing scene in the woods), no movie at this time would have brought that much money upon release. Though, thanks to numerous rereleases and video and DVD-sells, the movie eventually paid off financially, too.
It certainly paid off regarding the quality of the work. Disney finally managed to animate a prince properly (even though Prince Phillip’s movements are sometimes a little bit stiff in the final fighting scene, but that’s nitpicking), Aurora is still the princess whose graceful movements are praised to this day and Maleficent is the Disney villain which set the standard for all the Disney Villains after her. The most memorable and impressive scene is certainly her turning into a dragon, but it doesn’t really matter which part of the movie you look at, every single scene is a piece of art. The backgrounds are unbelievable detailed, especially in the little cottage; every single piece of furniture has wood carvings, which is even more impressive when you remember that Sleeping Beauty was the last Disney movie which used hand-inked cells.
Fast forward to “The Little Mermaid”, the movie which presumably started the Disney Renaissance…why presumably? Well, the Disney Renaissance wasn’t just about a certain kind of movie which was very successful for a while before the popularity slowly dwindled towards the end of the 90th. It was mostly about the use of computer in animation, which allowed the studio to make movies to a reasonable price in a fairly short time. One movie a year, without pause, that’s an output the studio wouldn’t have been able to handle beforehand. And when it comes to the use of computer in animation – “The Little Mermaid” was not the first movie which did it. Technically “The Black Cauldron” was the first, but the movie which really showed the possibilities and was enough of a success to green light projects like “The Little Mermaid”, “The Rescuers Down under” (yeah, there was a movie which hit the theaters in-between Disney’s four great successes) and “Beauty and the Beast” was actually “The Great Mouse Detective”. So, yeah, “The Little Mermaid” was the first of a series of successful movies, and it was the one which put Disney back on the map, but the animation used in it is actually based on the work for “The Great Mouse Detective”.
“The Little Mermaid” perfected the method, though. And used it to create something really gigantic. Water is among the most difficult things to animate (that’s especially true for CGI, but also an issue for more traditional animation methods), and they animated a storm – twice (“Pinocchio” was already impressive in this regard, as was “Fantasia”, but “The Little Mermaid” topped this)! The other thing which is difficult to animate is hair – which is the reason, most human characters in older Disney movies have either short hair or a hairdo which prevents a lot of movement. Well, Ariel’s hair is underwater in constant movement and the work which went into it and the result of said work is very impressive.
The downside of this movie at the scenes at land. They are considerably less impressive, especially the backgrounds are not very detailed, (they didn’t take full advantage of the underwater world either, but the details which went into the movement of the fishes and merpeople certainly makes up for it). I guess the lack of details in the background of this movie is something which carried over from the more sketchy style of animation Disney used for a very long time to keep the movie economical. After Sleeping Beauty, it was less about the art and more about making movies for acceptable costs. But the computer opened up new perspectives and Disney became inventive again.
“Beauty and the Beast” is the movie, which showed the inventiveness. I’m naturally talking about the ballroom scene. The dancing itself, though, is to a large part, very much based on the dancing scene in Sleeping Beauty. But what’s impressive is the camera angle. Yeah, it’s weird to talk about camera angles when we talk about animated movies, but before “Beauty and the Beast” the animators had, more or less the choice between moving the camera to the left, to the right, or cutting to another perspective. Now they could spin the cameras if they wanted to; a giant step forward in animation. CAPS (Computer Animated Production System) was already used for “Rescuers Down under”, but “Beauty and the Beast” took full advantage of the possibilities (and the success of the ballroom scene convinced Disney to invest further into the developing of new software)).
The animation of “Beauty and the Beast” isn’t perfect, though. Oh, there is more to love than just the ballroom scene, there is the transformation, the stained glass windows, Belle’s movement though the town, the “Be Our Guest” scene. But the animators were hard pressed to finish the movie, and there are a lot of instances where you can see the rushed job they did. There are a lot of continuity mistakes in this movie, and I don’t mean stuff which can be seen as a result of changing light. For example, the door to Maurice house opens in different scenes in different directions (and magically closes itself after Gaston enters), Belle’s book keeps changing colors, she herself looks slightly off in some moments (once she even magically loses her apron), the meal on the breakfast table vanishes and suddenly appears again in the next cut, and apparently Gaston is able to shot arrows out of his gun barrel, just to mention a few of the more obvious mistakes. It’s too bad that they didn’t take the time to iron out the details.
“Aladdin” topped the success of “Beauty and the Beast”, but whatever the reason was, it was certainly not the animation. Okay, that’s a little bit unfair. The style is more cartoony than it is usual for Disney (I’m all for them not getting too attached to their house style, but when they go for something different, I want something more polished), and while the movie prides itself of having the first completely computer animated character (carpet), the animation overall isn’t that impressive. Yes, lot’s of magic in this movie, but it’s mostly just a change of something in something else or something appearing in a lot of sparkles. It’s not like Disney didn’t do that before. Yes, Jafar turns into snake later on, but it’s basically a copy of Maleficent turning into a dragon (and the way he holds his staff and a lot of his movement is copied from her, too, by the way). If this had been an older movie, I wouldn’t mind so much, because I understand the reasons for the reuse of animation (and it’s not stealing when you reuse your own work). But when Aladdin was made, they didn’t have the excuse of needing to cut costs somewhere any longer.
And frankly, the animated carpet is more a gimmick than anything else. I’m all for exploring new methods, but the result has to look good, too. Walt Disney rather relayed on rotoscoping, despite not liking it, than risking Snow White looking awkward. “Aladdin” would have been served much better if they had concentrated on the end result and not on using still less than perfect software – or if they had left it to the carpet ride scene in “A whole new world” which still looks impressive. If you watch “Aladdin” today, it looks incredible dated, not just because of the jokes and references to modern time in this movie, but also because of sequences, in which the use of the computer becomes obvious (especially when carpet flies through the palace).
“Pocahontas” on the other hand was a step into an entirely different direction. I have a lot of issues with the movie as a whole, but the one thing in which it didn’t disappoint at all, is the animation. I mentioned beforehand that water and hair is among the most difficult things to animate. Pocahontas’ hair moves in the wind beautifully…and even when it doesn’t move with the wind, it’s never completely stiff. Perhaps it sometimes moves a little bit too much to be still realistic, but it’s easily the most memorable part of the movie…that and the “Colors of the Wind” sequence. The way this movie uses colors in general is something to pay attention to.
With Mulan, it’s the other way around for me. I love this movie, but I really wish the animation was more. Oh, they do a good job of referencing the Chinese watercolor style, some of the backdrops of the mountains are gorgeous, but those are just glimpses and moments in this movie. The most impressive scenes are the hair cut scene, and frankly, that’s mostly thanks to the score used there. You can play this one on nearly everything and it looks impressive. The other is the attack of the huns, which naturally looks very much like the stampede in “The Lion King”. It is a step forward, certainly, since this time around there are people sitting on the animals and they had to add the avalanche, but it’s not as new and impressive as what one can see in other Disney movies. There is also the fact that the numbers of soldiers conveniently dwindles in some scenes.
The most impressive thing is, in my opinion, the character design. It’s certainly not an easy task to draw Mulan in a way that she can look like a man while still looking like herself. But that doesn’t change the fact that the animation sometimes leaves the impression that the animation department was pressed to keep the costs reasonable - perhaps a correct guess, considering that Mulan was made at the start of Disney’s less successful phase in the early 2000th.
“The Princess and the Frog” was the movie, which was supposed to be the comeback of classic animation. And the animation in it is, like nearly everything in this movie, nice, but doesn't stand out that much. It certainly has its moments: The design of the swamp, the mix of green and orange, the Art Deco style in the “Almost there” sequence. It is overall a very well animated movie with a distinctive style, even though it never moves away far from the Disney House style.
“Tangled” has more of an impact. Remember what I wrote about hair being among the most difficult things to animate? People keep complaining about CGI, and yes, I understand, I’m not happy that CGI has become so dominant, either. But for this story, there really wasn’t a choice. You can’t animate this hair in classic animation. Hell, to be able to do it in CGI, Disney had to develop new software, and the result is amazing. Not just the hair, also the way the water moves, the details and movement of the clothes (if you watch the movie in HD you can even see that different clothes are made of different fabric. Rapunzel’s dress is much more flimsy than Mother Gothel’s). The lantern scene might be the most impressive, especially when you watch it in 3D, but what’s really impressive in the movie is that things which are incredible difficult to achieve look almost effortless. At the same time, the movie manages to convey a lot just by expressions. Maximus and Pascal naturally never talk, but neither do the king and the queen. Not one single word, but it isn’t needed. Their faces are so perfectly animated; you can feel their pain just by looking at this very settled and perfectly done animation.
So, that’s my two cents about the animation in the Disney movies…you might have noticed that I didn’t do a ranking for once. Frankly, it’s hard to rank them, I know what I consider the best and the worst, but the in-between it’s more difficult to decide. One thing for sure, when it comes to classic cell animation, Disney is and will always be the king.