Recently, the newest trailer for Disney’s 100th anniversary film, Wish, was released. With it, came a lot of conversation about its animation. It seems that the studio has taken a page from Spiderverse and other recent stylized animated films and has finally taken a swing at the new trend. Rather than the realistic textures and look that Disney has defaulted on with their movies, Wish uses a paint-like shaded aesthetic and lower frame rates for the character movement. While it represents an interesting step for the studio in terms of the art style for their animation, the conversation hasn’t been all positive. From my perspective, however, I can see why and mostly agree with the discourse not just here, but regarding how Disney has produced their animated features in general as of late.
Firstly, there’s the issue of how the animation style is being applied. While the element of applying a storybook illustration look to the film is inspired, it feels less organic than other films that have implemented a stylized look as of late. The main issue is the character designs. I am not exaggerating when I say that they really don’t fit and are basically the exact same as almost every other animated film out of Disney in the past decade. Slightly cartoonish, but still applying human proportions. While this mostly worked in their other movies, it feels off here because it comes across less like the designs were made to work with the stylized look of the film and more like regular Disney designs with a filter over them.
While I personally have frustrations over how so many Disney films look similar, they still feel artistically coherent. The issue here is that it wants to dip its toes into the new trends, but not enough to change too much presumably so it doesn’t move too far from the brand style and it feels distracting. Compare this to a film like Puss in Boots: The Last Wish, which took the semi-realistic designs of Shrek and changed them in necessary ways to better fit with the paintbrush aesthetic the film presented. Wish just doesn’t seem to be taking full advantage of the style and instead tries to have its cake and eat it too. The design philosophy for the characters stands out compared to the completely different one with the backgrounds and effects.
It doesn’t help that people weren’t able to see the footage in the trailer in a good format on YouTube and social media, resulting in more discourse over the presentation as it seemed to make the animation look cheap. While I feel that the approach is one that has its merits, it also feels like it was done out of obligation since it feels less ambitious or experimental compared to films made by relatively smaller studios for less money. Disney is capable of making animation that is comparable to their competition and likely was the first to try it out with their Oscar-winning shorts like Paperman and Feast which were both produced years before other studios made similar-looking features. However, they never seem to apply those styles here due to the studio saying they would cost too much, with Paperman, in particular, being highlighted in this regard. Let’s put a pin in that statement.
Alongside the conversation about the present visuals, there is also the discussion around the fact that, in spite of this being the centennial celebration of Disney, the film isn’t done in the hand-drawn style that made Disney a household name. Some would argue that this would be the perfect time to bring back the style after over a decade since the last time it was used in 2011’s Winnie the Pooh. However, comments by the current head of Disney Animation, Jennifer Lee, shed some unsavory light here. She stated that while there were conversations about making the film hand-drawn, it was ultimately decided that stylized CGI would be the approach and that a major reason was that they felt that the latter would be less limited compared to the former. In particular, highlighting that, from their perspective, CGI allows for more freedom with camera movements and characterization.
This statement feels less like a genuine excuse though and more like PR. While yes hand-drawn is limited in areas, Disney’s past projects thrived on overcoming limitations and evolving animation further. The reason that most of the classic Disney films are as iconic as they are is how they applied hand-drawn animation through their expressiveness and innovation. Almost everyone focused on pushing past the boundaries of the format and developed new techniques both in technology and in expressing character. Disney himself was a proponent of that in general not just through his animated films, but also his company in general. By stating that they are limited, it feels more like an admission of what Disney Animation is willing or able to do in its current state since animation is really only limited by time, budget, and skill. Plus, it doesn’t help that other studios across the world such as Ireland’s Cartoon Saloon and the dozens of Japan Anime studios consistently produce high-quality hand-drawn projects on a lower budget than almost every Disney animated film released in the past decade on average. It really feels like the artists at the studio do want to stretch their legs and experiment such as the aforementioned short films from the studio that use far different styles of design and animations. However, since Disney is the only animation studio that has its brand image as a major factor, the higher-ups seem to want to keep their output consistent in many factors and aren’t too comfortable with changing up the look of their movies.
Finally, a more recent wrinkle regarding the decision to make the film in CGI has to do with the production pipeline. Since 3D animation is all on computers, it is much easier to control and ask for quick, last-minute changes compared with hand-drawn projects. It has become noticeable as of late that many computer-animated films had large turnarounds and many changes deep into production. Across the Spiderverse got into hot water earlier this year when it was revealed that the producers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller consistently changed so much throughout production on a whim. The production pipeline was malleable based on their decisions much to the detriment of the animators to the point that major story changes were made months before the completion of the film. Back when Pixar was only under contract with Disney, they scrapped the original version of Toy Story 2 and made a new version in the span of a year. Disney themselves have also shown a tendency to either rush out projects or not allow proper time to figure things out due to the rapid process of production. Incredibles 2 lost a year of development due to Pixar having to push Toy Story 4 back a year and needing to put another animated film in that place which resulted in the film not being as good as it could have been.
While it wasn’t uncommon for hand-drawn films to not have massive changes happen or large time crunches (Beauty & the Beast, in particular, was completed in about half the time most of the other Disney movies around the same time were), the accessibility through software and the fact that the production system across the studio has been computer-centric for a while indicates why Disney is unwilling to make a 2D film. This makes me feel that the decision regarding Wish isn’t one of artist limitation, but studio control and imposed limitations due to financial obligations.
One could make the argument that, like with the varied animation styles of their shorts like Paperman, making a hand-drawn film would be costly due to Disney needing to set up a new production process since they currently don’t have one as well as having to train a new crop of young animators. While this is true, Disney is a company that can afford to spend this kind of money. They spend hundreds of millions of dollars on their franchises and live-action remakes of their animated films, so it wouldn’t be unreasonable to say that they could afford to restart the hand-drawn sector. It’s apparent though that since the last few hand-drawn films they made were financial failures, the studio doesn’t want to make more since the current output is much safer. Even then though, with recent films like Strange World and Lightyear as well as the underperformance of recent Marvel films and Live-Action remakes, even the safe route of franchises and CGI animation aren’t a safe bet anymore. People seem to really want something different and other films outside of Disney’s seems to provide that. Hand-drawn films would be something that only Disney really has the capacity to do and would make them stand out, but I feel that the company would probably disagree since they are still going ahead with safer projects in spite of the recent meager returns.
In the end, I am not saying all of this to take down Disney or to say that I want Wish to be bad or fail, I am approaching the movie this way because I want Disney films to be better. It really feels like rushed productions and executive oversight have limited the artistic expression of the studio. Disney’s output from the live-action remakes, Star Wars projects, recent Marvel shows and movies, and some of their animated films have all felt less polished and more rushed out to meet a shareholder deadline. Even Pixar, a studio that once prided itself on its distinctive and acclaimed output, feels like they are under this crunch and have become less special. Compare the studio in the 2000s where they made distinct films compared to their contemporaries, to the last decade where they’ve mostly made lesser sequels to their older films. That is not to say that there aren’t amazing artists at both Pixar and Disney’s main animation studio who want to do the best they can with their work, but it doesn’t seem like they are given the full capacity to create. The Incredibles 2 fiasco and Frozen 2 not having a lot of its story figured out mere months before its release show me that a lot of these movies aren’t given enough time in the oven to be as great as they could be. The sad part is that it won’t change because both of these films made over a billion so Disney won’t be incentivized to fix the production issues because it didn’t matter to the financial results.
So regarding Wish, I can’t help but feel that both the animation style and lack of commitment to making it hand-drawn come from a similar issue of how the studio is currently run. If a studio like Sony can make The Emoji Movie one year and then revolutionize the industry the next with Spiderverse, then why can’t Disney, arguably the biggest and most powerful studio in the world, do something more ambitious and experimental because, at this point, they feel like they are lagging behind most others. It just feels that for the studio that once balanced financial goals with artistic ambition, the art feels undercut as of late.