Walt Disney Pictures recently released the first official promotional image for its upcoming CG-animated film Bolt. The film, set to be released on November 26th, 2008, emerges from a troubled development process and it appears that new director Chris Williams and team have completely reworked the design of the film since the departure of former director Chris Sanders. This shift has caused something of a ruckus in the animation community, with some Sanders fans incensed at the alteration of his very personal project and others insisting that fans keep the faith with John Lasseter and the Disney “Story Trust”.
I have mixed feelings on the issue, many of which are caused by a general lack of knowledge as to what happened to cause Sanders’ departure. Lasseter has intimated in interviews that Sanders was either unable or unwilling to work within the framework of the Story Trust to resolve story problems with the film. Without knowing specifics of these problems, it’s hard to tell how severe they were or how much stemmed from disagreements in tone. Rumors trickle out that it was thought that the film was “too quirky for its own good” and that Lasseter was not a fan of Sanders’ trademark wackiness.
While I certainly have faith in Lasseter’s story sensibilities, and the notoriously individualistic Brad Bird has shown that it’s possible for vocal directors to work within Pixar’s collaborative style, I am a fan of Sanders’ quirkiness and find his voice and style to be both interesting and valuable. Lilo and Stich was a breath of fresh air for animation fans, and a rare bright spot in a very dark time for Disney watchers. Bolt, formerly titled American Dog, was Sanders’ pet project and brainchild, and it’s upsetting to see a project taken from its creator given Pixar’s aspirations to a “director-driven” system.
For me, the question is not whether the film will be good or not – I too have faith in the new Story Trust and am sure this will be no Chicken Little – or whether Sanders’ departure dooms the film. After all, Lasseter took Jan Pinkava off of Ratatouille and that became a masterpiece; directors were also pulled off of Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, and Kingdom of the Sun (which became the highly enjoyable though lightweight The Emperor’s New Groove). My question, as I look at the very homogenized design in the publicity still, is whether there’s room for distinctive or unique artistic visions in the framework of Disney Feature Animation.
I’ll admit that I’m not a fan of the character design as shown, although admittedly a posed publicity still isn’t the best indication of how things will play on the movie screen. I remember nearly choking at the first images I saw from The Incredibles, and that not only wound up a brilliant film but flowed beautifully on screen. Still, the new design for the title character seems straight out of a marketing department focus group and lacks the uniqueness of Sanders’ original concepts. The cat fares better, with an almost Miyazaki quality, while insane hamsters in plastic balls are always money.
While the bland dog design might eventually look fine in motion, the sly character of the original illustrations has been lost and that’s a shame. I’ll forever mourn the loss of the giant eyepatched mutant cat – what are the odds that he’ll ever show up in another project? I’ll admit that I had previously harbored concerns that Sanders’ designs might not transfer effectively to actual animation, but there’s no denying that they have personality.
Pixar’s story cred is without question, but it remains to be seen how their distinct visual style will carry over into Disney Feature Animation. While Bolt will probably wind up as a historical curiosity if the rumors of WDFA’s exclusively traditional animation future are true, it’s clear that Bolt‘s designs don’t break any ground and remain firmly in the traditional Pixar mold. While there’s nothing really wrong with that, it raises my previous question of how much room remains for visual experimentation or singular artistic styles in Disney animation.
Disney’s animation tradition is rooted in a surprisingly experimental past, despite the fact that those early features and shorts stay pretty much within traditional narrative conventions. While Disney didn’t exactly delve into hardcore Dadaism, they definitely experimented with Surrealism. Disney’s relationship with Dali is well known, although their collaboration Destino was not completed until 2003. And while Jack Hannah wasn’t exactly Hans Richter (joke excerpted from my “Animation Nerd” comedy set at the ToonTown Ha-Ha Club), there was some crazy stuff in those films. Parts of Bambi are surprisingly expressionist, and Dumbo has its amazingly surreal “Pink Elephants” sequence. The cream of the Disney experimental crop, though, is contained in the postwar package features. Released from the constraints of conventional narrative, animators were freed to experiment with style and technique and the results are sometimes surprising for those unfamiliar with the period.
Much better known are the postwar films, which have a far more conventional and fixed style. I would suspect that this is because many artists such as Mary Blair, John Hench and Claude Coates were pulled by Walt to work on his theme park projects around this time and the animation department was handed over to the Thomas/Johnston school of character animation. From Cinderella in 1950 until the modern day, Disney animation focused on the perfection of character animation in a narrative setting instead of experimenting with style. The focus was on acting instead of look, and the result was a masterful if static visual tradition. Glen Keane, the ‘star’ animator of Disney’s modern age, and his contemporaries were apprenticed in this tradition and this resulted in a nearly seamless visual transition between the two eras.
Within this period, there were few attempts at distinctive visual styles in Disney features. In the classic era, experimentation was limited almost exclusively to Eyvind Earle’s angular backgrounds in Sleeping Beauty. In the modern era, 1997’s Hercules featured character designs based on the caricatures of artist Al Hirschfeld and 2001’s Atlantis was in part designed by Hellboy creator Mike Mignola. Then there was Lilo and Stitch, which mixed traditional Disney design with Chris Sanders’ unique style – his trademark female designs are nearly as distinctive as Freddy Moore’s.
So what’s the point of this trip down memory lane? Just that I hope that there’s room in the Disney canon for experimentation. While I would never want them to give up on their traditional style any more than I would want them to abandon their trademark musicals, I’d love to see something as crazy as Blame It On the Samba, The Three Caballeros or Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom emerge from Disney animation. Despite any problems he may have had working within the system, I worry that that will be much harder without people like Chris Sanders to push the boundaries.