A Disrespected Old Friend: The Decline Of Hand Drawn Animation

Serenity Now is a place where we complain about whatever is bothering us in the world of pop culture. 

It would seem odd if someone told an artist that they should stop creating something because it  was no longer “in style.” Unfortunately, this seems to be the message when it comes to traditional hand-drawn animation. While it still exists substantially enough on television, its presence on film screens (especially in North America) has dwindled almost completely. This signals that the major film animation studios have dolefully turned their backs on not only an important art form but an art form that gave them success in the first place.

The last full-length, traditionally animated film Disney released was Princess and the Frog in 2009 — and that in turn was the first hand-drawn film to be released by the studio in more than five years. 2003 was the last time  DreamWorks had their last outing in hand-drawn territory with  Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas.  But what explains this reality of studios abandoning cartoon animation (with the exception of Studio Ghibli in Japan and numerous other European studios)?

One reason could be the increasing costs of producing traditionally animated works. But for these multibillion-dollar companies (especially Disney, which has revenue from their parks and other streams, especially its new Star Wars acquisition) is this really a legitimate reason? If anything, the argument of being too expensive could have been made in the years when hand-drawn animation was still up-and-coming, but we have all seen the immense appeal animated cartoons have from children to the elderly. Disney and other major studios have the money but believe that reducing costs outweighs keeping afloat an important form of art. It is truly shameful.

Animation is undoubtedly healthy and extremely profitable with recent hits such as Frozen,  How to Train Your Dragon or any of Pixar’s output.  But Disney and DreamWorks seem to have forgotten that their great triumph in animation was built upon the simple use of paper and pencil. (For a fascinating look at the Disney Renaissance check out the documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty) In Disney’s case, it’s particularly saddening to know that a company established on hand-drawn animation and that produced so many classics in that style would cast aside this important artistic process. Walt Disney was a visionary who always looked for the next great advancement. He would be proud of the newfound wonders of computer animation, but not at the expense of 2-D animation.

Embracing the future does not mean neglecting and ignoring the past….

Influential figures like Don Bluth, John Musker, and Ron Clements, the men behind The Land Before Time and Aladdin respectively, are basically being told that their talents are no longer needed. While Clements and Musker have managed to keep working through such recent projects as Moana, they were forced away from their traditional medium in order to stay ‘relevant’. (Some hand-drawn work was done on the character of Maui and his tattoos, however) Should these people be relegated to the dustbins of film history because we don’t “need” their contributions anymore? This is like telling an artist not to use pastels anymore because watercolors are the only acceptable form.

Likewise, these animation studios are saying that because these animators do not work with computers they are no longer fit to work and produce films. Either you join the new technology train or your ‘old school talents’ will be immediately dismissed. Some 150 employees were laid off from Disney after the decision to permanently focus on computer animation was made. But while it’s easy to point all the blame on the studios, we must look at ourselves — our failure to defend the hand-drawn medium and its animators has led studios in North America to believe that drawing films belongs in the past.

Computer animation is a wonderful advancement and an open window into techniques never before imagined. Companies like Pixar should be proud of their contributions, but perhaps they should be more ashamed of their role in the eradication of the joy that is hand-drawn animation. We still enjoy and praise classics like Beauty and the Beast today even though we know it comes from a different era, so why eliminate future films in that style?

Hand-drawn animation is indeed a symbol of a particular time and deserves to be respected and maintained. Nobody questions the impact of computer animation, but why do we think it’s OK to let a vibrant form of expression like 2-D animation wither? Ultimately, hand-drawn animation will never die as long as there are creative and imaginative filmmakers, but the low it has reached in the Western film market is a sad indication of the respect we have for our past.

As the saying goes, “you don’t know what you have until it’s gone.” We may regretfully be closer than ever to a cinema where hand-drawn animation will exist only in the past tense, but will anyone still care?