Hand-drawn animated features might be a thing of the past at Disney but the legacy is alive and well as the studio becomes more comfortable blending 2D and CG. This was the big takeaway Friday at the "Art and Imagination" presentation that kicked off the third D23 Expo (they even paid tribute to hand-drawn great Burny Mattinson, the last animator who knew Walt and celebrates his 60th year at the studio).
It's taken John Lasseter seven years to help Disney rediscover its roots and forge a new identity while keeping Pixar at the top of the industry. He proudly showed off some of the upcoming slate with a few of its directors and voice talent, which are being mined from the best of TV dramas and comedies to broaden the demographic: Frozen (Nov. 27), which gives more of a modern, musical twist to the fairy tale than Tangled; Big Hero 6 (Nov. 7, 2014), a clever mash-up of anime-style Marvel superheroes and the Disney ethos, and Zootopia (2016), a throwback to anthropomorphic animals dressed as humans.
However, there's also a hand-drawn impact at Pixar with The Good Dinosaur (May 30, 2014), the studio's first prehistoric foray, and Inside Out (June 19, 2015), which takes us inside the mind of a teenage girl and ambitiously caricatures her emotional states.
But the most dramatic instance of 2D and CG dramatically coming together at Disney was the North American premiere of the joyous Mickey Mouse short, Get A Horse!, directed by Lauren MacMullan, which will screen in front of Frozen. It's a metaphor about the 85-year evolution of Mickey (voiced by Walt) and the Disney legacy itself. It begins innocently enough with a hand-drawn, black-and-white hayride circa 1928 with all of the Ub Iwerks craft intact, as Mickey, Minnie, Horace Horsecollar, and Clarabelle Cow have fun until Peg-Leg Pete runs them off the road. The horseplay leads to Mickey being hurled through the screen and into the 21st century in color, in CG, and in 3-D for more immersive shenanigans. It's a profound dialogue between the past and the present, with Mickey leading the way to an aesthetic coalescence, which is the best way to describe the current state of Disney animation.
Eric Goldberg supervised the 2D and Adam Green oversaw the CG (cheating whenever possible to keep the '28 model consistent, including Mickey's Mohawk-looking side view of the ears). "It was like having a different language," recalled Goldberg, who wanted to get the era right. "We had to unlearn a lot of the smooth animation but still do the rubbery stuff."
Get A Horse! wonderfully demonstrates that no matter the technique, the animation survives because of the universality of the storytelling and timeless physical humor.
Similarly, Frozen achieves its own coalescence, thanks to directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee. The more I see of the striking Hans Christian Andersen adaptation of The Snow Queen (a tale that Walt wanted to make), the more I think it's the one to beat for the Oscar. It boasts the best CG animation yet at Disney along with a sense of humor and compassion and adventure that's unrivaled this year, as well as the most snappy and sophisticated original songs since Ashman & Menken (courtesy of Book of Mormon's Robert Lopez & Kristen Anderson-Lopez).
"Girls can be funny!" exclaimed Lee, which we witnessed in the awkward meet cute moment between Anna (Kristen Bell) and Prince Hans (Santino Fontana) that's as witty and poignant as any rom-com today. Meanwhile, the introduction of the talking snowman, Olaf (Josh Gad), who sings about how cool it would be in the sun, reveals yet another comical dimension. However, Wicked's Idina Menzel brought the house down with a live performance of the showstopper, "Let It Go." She voices Anna's older sister, Elsa, who's been hiding her secret talent for making snow and ice and finally lets it out in a powerful epiphany.
Don Hall (Winnie the Pooh) unveiled concept art and a sizzle reel from Big Hero 6, another new foray for Disney, featuring robotics prodigy Hiro Hamada, who mourns the death of his older brother but finds himself in the grips of a criminal plot that threatens to destroy the high-tech city of San Fransokyo. With the help of his closest companion -- a huggable, puffy robot named Baymax -- Hiro joins forces with a reluctant team of first-time crime fighters on a mission to save their city. It's like a variation of The Avengers with such social misfits as biker Gog, sushi chef Wasabi, glam chemist Honey Lemon, and comic-loving Fred.
Byron Howard (Tangled) and writer Jared Bush shared a glimpse of their upcoming comedy adventure, Zootopia, a modern city (desert and tundra divided by a Great Wall) designed and inhabited by animals, both predator and prey. There's a fast-talking fox on the run for a crime he didn't commit, pursued by a self-righteous rabbit cop, who also becomes a target of a conspiracy, forcing them to team up. Its look and vibe recall the underrated Robin Hood (on Blu-ray this month), which is one of Howard's faves.
The Good Dinosaur from director Bob Peterson reaches all the way back to the roots of Gertie and the Disneyland creations in asking the age-old question: What if the asteroid actually missed Earth and giant dinosaurs never became extinct and evolved as farmers? Arlo, a 70-foot-tall teenage Apatosaurus with a cartoony face and warm smile befriends a 3-foot human boy named Spot, who joins him on an adventure outside the comforts of home.
Co-director Pete Sohn and producer Denise Ream were on hand to explain the dinos and the painterly rural and forest environments (it's all about scale), and announced members of the voice cast, which includes Lucas Neff as Arlo, Bill Hader as older brother Forrest, Judy Greer as sister Ivy, Neil Patrick Harris as Cliff, John Lithgow as Poppa, and Frances McDormand as Momma.
With Inside Out, Pete Docter riffs on the famed World War II short, Reason and Emotion, combining his love of Ward Kimball with Gerald McBoing-Boing. We uniquely explore the inner world of 11-year-old girl, Riley, who's having a difficult time relocating from Minnesota to San Francisco. She's ruled by her five emotions: Joy (Amy Poehler), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Anger (Lewis Black), Fear (Hader), and Sadness (Phyllis Smith).
Docter revealed how they work and fight and role play in mission control. He also explained that Riley's head includes such departments as Long and Short Term Memory, Imagination Land (inspired by Fantasyland), and Dream Production (patterned after Paramount).
Not only are Riley's emotions reminiscent of the Seven Dwarfs and probably the craftiest caricatured creations in Pixar history, but they're also driven by new advancements in particle effects. So, as you can see, the hand-drawn influence is infectious and has found its way up north again in a fresh co-mingling with CG.