This debate continues to be a fascinating one. Many side with the traditional hand drawn animation, but there are also those who prefer computer generated imagery. In this blog, I will try to argue both sides of the story.
Lets start with hand drawn animation. Many people love hand drawn animation because they feel that the animators are more talented, and therefore gives it a feeling that more care and effort has gone into the animation. Furthermore, hand drawn animation was used for all of the older films, leading people to believe that it represents "classic Disney". Additionally, hand drawn animation carries nostalgia. So, how many of these statements are true? Are the hand drawn animators more talented? I'd say so, but lets not pretend that CGI animation is easy. Does hand drawn animation represent "classic Disney"? You could make a case for that, but I'd disagree. Walt Disney was always willing to use the latest technology for his films. Does hand drawn animation carry nostalgia? Yes, absolutely it does.
So why did Disney stop using hand drawn animation? Here's a simple equation that you can use for a lot of situations: If you're wondering why a company does something, the answer is probably money. Disney's hand drawn animation was at its most successful during the renaissance era from 1989-1999 (I know it's disputed when the renaissance era ends, but for now I'm gonna say it ends at Tarzan). But when Disney hit the early 2000s, things started to go wrong. Disney suffered through a string of underwhelming performances between 2000-2004. The most successful hand drawn film in this time was Lilo and Stitch, grossing $273.1million worldwide. Whilst this isn't particularly bad, it doesn't come close to the renaissance era, where only Hercules, The Little Mermaid and The Rescuers Down Under made less. Other films in the early 2000s, such as Atlantis and The Emperor's New Groove, failed to make over $200million, whilst Treasure Planet and Home on the Range both lost money. Whilst these aren't necessarily bad films, they certainly underperformed at the box office.
There was another problem for hand drawn animation. Rival companies like Pixar were on the Up (pun intended), and they were using the new CGI animation. Films like Toy Story, Finding Nemo, Incredibles and others meant that Disney were falling behind, whilst Pixar were rising. Therefore, Disney made the switch to CGI. Some would say that Disney should've stuck to hand drawn as it was what they were known for. I understand that, but they had to change something or risk losing out completely to Pixar.
The return of John Lasseter to Disney in 2006 gave hope to hand drawn animation. In 2009, Disney released their first hand drawn film in five years: Princess and the Frog. This was thought to be the opportunity for hand drawn animation to return. Unfortunately, the film underperformed, grossing $267million worldwide, less than other recent CGI films such as Chicken Little and Bolt. This was seemingly the end of hand drawn animation. Of course, there was more than just one factor to the underwhelming performance (no, racism is not one of them). The film had to compete with Avatar, and was poorly marketed. Whilst PatF isn't my favourite film, I certainly think it's much better than Chicken Little. The last hand drawn film to be released was Winnie the Pooh in 2011.
Moving on to CGI animation. There is no denying that CGI animation can reach a level of detail that hand drawn animation simply cannot. Some people absolutely love that about CGI animation. The animation in Moana has been widely praised for the exceptional detail in the ocean and the sand.
So what do people dislike about CGI animation? One big complaint is that the characters have unrealistic features, such as small waists, large eyes, small noses and rounded cheeks. Firstly, a lot of the hand drawn characters shared these features too. Ariel, Belle and Jasmine in particular all had big eyes and small waists. These features don't exclusively belong to CGI animation. Why do they use these features? For CGI films, they need to avoid the uncanny valley (see "Mars Needs Moms" for a good example of a CGI film which fell straight into the uncanny valley). Also, the large eyes, small noses and rounded cheeks are there to give the characters a more baby-like appearance. Biologically, humans with sympathise more with a baby. Therefore, giving a character a baby-like appearance makes it easier for the audience to make emotional connections to the characters. Furthermore, the eyes are very good for showing emotions, meaning it makes sense to exaggerate them.
Why do other people dislike CGI? Some people just think it's ugly or lifeless. I guess this comes down to a matter of opinion (I personally think that the CGI in Chicken Little was hideous, but in recent films it's been beautiful).
Personally, I don't actually think that the animation medium makes too much of a difference. I don't think that the underperformances from hand drawn films was down to the animation medium, but more down to poor storytelling or poor marketing. How much I relate to a character isn't down to the animation medium, but down to the storytelling. I love the detail in films like Moana and Frozen, but I also love the animation in Lion King and Aladdin.
I believe that both forms of animation should coexist. When it comes to deciding which films should be hand drawn and which films should be CGI, I'd ask whether the additional detail is really necessary. I think that certain films are suited to CGI. For example, Moana was suited to CGI with the effects that they put on the water and sand, and Frozen was suited to CGI for the detail on the ice and snow. Big Hero 6 had a few things which looked cool in CGI, like the microbots and explosions, but IMO could've been either animation medium. I felt like Zootopia was just CGI for the sake of it, and that the CGI didn't really add much to the film. Tangled is another that I felt should've been hand drawn (although the lantern scene is absolutely beautiful).
Anyway, will hand drawn return? I hope so, but it seems unlikely. If you would like to contribute to this debate, then feel free to leave a comment. Thanks for reading :)